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Salazar Brings Centrist Views to Obama's Cabinet

Ken Salazar, President Obama’s choice to head the Department of the Interior, acknowledges that Hispanics have not always had a place at the table.

As President Barack Obama begins his term of office, AARP Segunda Juventud examines how the changes heralded by the new White House leadership will impact older Hispanics. Part VI: Interview with Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

When President Barack Obama chose Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado to head the Interior Department, he selected a Democrat widely respected on Capitol Hill for his moderate views. He also picked a loyal supporter whose campaigning helped candidate Obama win the key swing state of Colorado and played a central role in Obama’s efforts to break the Republican lock on other areas of the West.

In reaching out to Salazar, Obama also sent a message to the Hispanic community that he’s willing to place Latinos in high-profile Cabinet jobs. Salazar is the second Hispanic to head the Interior Department: the first was New Mexican Manuel Lujan, Jr. in President George Herbert Walker Bush’s administration.

With his signature cowboy hats and boots, Salazar, 53, revels in his background as a Westerner. His roots go back hundreds of years, to the first Spanish settlers in the American Southwest. Salazar is also proud of his family’s ranching tradition. At his confirmation hearing, he claimed that he learned to shoot a gun when he was just 3 years old.

A former Colorado attorney general who was elected to the Senate in 2004—the same year his brother John was elected to the House of Representatives—Salazar has at times split with his party. He cast one of the few Democratic votes to confirm Alberto Gonzales as U.S. Attorney General. (Salazar ultimately joined other senators calling for Gonzales’s resignation.) He also supported a partial lifting of the ban on offshore drilling.

In the few weeks after his confirmation, he has hit the ground running and promises to meet the challenges at the Interior Department—which has suffered a series of scandals—“with the high energy I bring to the job.”

Salazar moved quickly to implement agency reforms and reverse Bush administration decisions in favor of wide-scale offshore drilling. Salazar also canceled oil and gas leases on dozens of parcels of land near Utah’s famed canyons.

He spoke to AARP Segunda Juventud about his roots, his love of the land, and his agenda for Interior.

Q.

Why do you think President Obama chose you to head the Interior Department? What special attributes do you bring to this position?

A.

I think he chose me because of a combination of my personal life story and my background as a farmer and rancher. In my time in the U.S. Senate, I tried to craft an energy policy.…I will be part of President Obama’s efforts to achieve energy independence and enhance the landscape. I am also part of his reform agenda.

Q.

What is your relationship with the President?

A.

I have a good relationship, a personal relationship. I have tremendous confidence in him. He truly is a uniter, not a divider.

Q.

How does your background affect the way you’ll handle the issues you will be dealing with as Interior secretary?

A.

My family has spent 400 years farming on the banks of the Rio Grande. We know the value of hard work, love of the community, love for water and land. One of the missions of the department is to work with many kinds of people. Native Americans and Hispanics have not always had a place at the table. We will make sure that we acknowledge the contribution of all people.

Q.

How would you describe your management style?

A.

I work hard and I have a standard of excellence—and I expect everyone at the Interior Department to meet that same standard. I delegate a lot. I might appear to be doing a lot of different things, but there’s a strong team helping me. I believe we’re going to have the strongest team of any agency in the Obama administration. 

Q.

The Clinton administration imposed fees on national parks to help balance the budget, but those fees sometimes pose a barrier to low-income families and low-income retirees. Do you propose to reduce or eliminate the fees?

A.

We will take a close look at the issue. As a general matter, I think we can and should do more to make our parks more accessible to all Americans. In my view, that starts with helping kids get outdoors, enjoy our public lands, and learn about the value of service.

Q.

The issue of offshore drilling will put you in the hot seat this year as you implement a new energy policy. What offshore areas that were banned from production by Congressional and Presidential moratoriums would you support opening to production?

A.

Since the 1970s, our country has suffered from an on-again, off-again energy policy that has failed to get us to energy independence. As President Obama has said, we need a comprehensive energy plan for the country that includes conventional resources like oil and gas, but that also takes advantage of wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and other renewable resources. Our plan for offshore development needs to fit with that comprehensive energy strategy, and the decisions we make about where to drill should be based on sound information about what resources are there and what impacts it will have.

Q.

Some environmental groups opposed your nomination, questioning your record on issues relating to the Endangered Species Act. Will you address their concerns, and if so how?

A.

I will stay focused on doing the right thing for the country, which will probably mean that one side or the other will not be entirely happy all the time. The fact is, I’m not here to please the environmental groups or the oil and gas industry. I think people I have worked with will say that I am an honest broker and have helped find consensus on some difficult issues. I built the most significant state land conservation program in the United States through the Great Outdoors Colorado program. I have helped craft programs and agreements to recover the whooping crane in Nebraska and endangered fish in the Colorado River system. I have worked to protect river corridors and habitat. I am proud of my record and look forward to the work ahead.

Q.

You moved quickly to use your authority to nullify oil and natural gas production leases in Utah that would be near national parks. That move pleased environmentalists, who have been concerned that you aren’t sensitive enough to the environment. Do you plan to reverse other Bush policies? And what would you say to those who doubt you?

A.

We need to have the right balance in the development of our oil and gas resources. There are some places where it is appropriate to drill, while there are other areas, like at the doorstep of a national park, that should raise flags. The previous administration was solely focused on drilling, so it will take a little time to review some of their actions to determine which were sound, which need modification, and which should be overturned. I am confident we’ll find the right balance between development and protection.

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