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Pete Coors versus Ken Salazar

click to enlarge Pete Coors taking questions. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Pete Coors taking questions.

Editor's note:

Welcome to Election 2004. The big show this year is the presidential showdown between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry, but Colorado voters are also being asked to weigh in on a number of other crucial races and issues as well. This page begins an in-depth look at the high-profile U.S. Senate race between Pete Coors and Ken Salazar, and the following pages include a comprehensive package of stories about other key battles -- including legislative, county commissioner, local health and transportation referendums and statewide amendments -- to provide you with a better understanding of what's on the Nov. 2 ballot.

In a small room overlooking the strip malls and stubby glass towers south of Denver, Ken Salazar and Pete Coors smiled engagingly, nodded reflectively and backslapped voters.

The two candidates for U.S. Senate barely acknowledged each other, but when the time came to begin one of their 13 scheduled debates, they locked eyes and shook hands. Within minutes they were slinging labels.

Salazar is a "lawyer," Coors said.

Coors is a "millionaire," countered Salazar.

The descriptions were accurate, but that wasn't why their words stung. It was because of what the labels implied.

Will Coors, the Republican chairman of Adolph Coors Co., carry out the agenda of elite corporate interests if voters send him to Washington, D.C.?

Will Salazar, the Democratic state attorney general, be in the back pocket of trial lawyers?

With the candidates filling war chests expected to top $10 million from labor unions, lawyers, big business, environmental groups and even wealthy family members, voters are being bombarded with commercials and brochures from the candidates seeking to replace former Democrat and current Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

"When you look at contributions, you have to ask, 'Who will a candidate be beholden to when they come to office?'" said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

The Salazar-Coors showdown isn't only important to Colorado. It has attracted powerful national political forces because it is among a handful that will determine whether Republicans will retain their narrow grip on the Senate -- or if Democrats retake the majority.

"It looks to be a barnburner of a race," said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College. "The polls seem to be all over the place, which says to me nobody knows which candidate will win."

Roots firmly planted

In the small, eastern plains farming community of Flagler, past towering grain silos, Coors, shadowed by his policy adviser and a bodyguard, strolled down Main Street on a recent Saturday. He was greeted like a celebrity in the town of 612 that had just seen a homecoming day parade that left the street strewn with candy and horse manure.

Coors showed children his oval-shaped, silver belt buckle. A group of girls sang "Happy Birthday": Coors had just turned 58.

In his emerging political style, Coors the candidate avoided a long speech.

"I am not a politician," he told farmers and ranchers. "I'm a businessman of 35 years."

On the road, he sticks to that message. He wants to reduce taxes, lower the cost of health care, improve the economy, build a stronger national defense and battle abortion and gay marriage.

"Funny thing is that Salazar says that too," said Ross Conrad, a Flagler farmer and rancher. Conrad said he tends to vote Democrat, but is still mulling things over.

Six days earlier in Colorado Springs, Salazar chatted with about two dozen mostly older residents who sipped coffee from foam cups at the Dwelling Place, a small meeting room that is part of the First Congregational Church downtown. Standing among their posters -- one stating "Peace is Patriotic" -- Salazar promised to work to make the nation safe from terrorism, to cut taxes, to improve the economy and to ensure every child receives health coverage.

Both men are Catholics. Both come from Colorado families that trace their roots back more than a century.

The clear dividing line

Under scrutiny, their similar rhetoric quickly evaporates.

click to enlarge Ken Salazar on the campaign trail. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Ken Salazar on the campaign trail.

Whereas Salazar is personally opposed to abortion, he supports a woman's right to choose, unlike Coors. Whereas Salazar says the government should only recognize marriage between a man and a woman, he doesn't support an amendment to the United States Constitution stating so, unlike Coors.

While Salazar supports making President Bush's tax cuts for the middle class permanent, Coors would go much further, even beyond Bush. Coors said he'd work for the elimination of the capital gains tax.

"Anything they can do to stimulate investment in America is good for America," Coors said in an interview along the campaign trail.

The two candidates also differ on how to handle the nation's exploding $422-billion deficit. While Salazar advocates a spend-as-you-go approach, Coors says social programs, such as federal health insurance for the poor, bear enough blame to be tweaked.

"More than half the deficit is mandates that we spent years and years and years ago -- Social Security, Medicaid -- those are problems we've got to solve," Coors said.

The Iraq war is another clear dividing line.

Coors was outraged when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq as illegal.

"The fact of the matter is that we are there now and we need to support our troops," Coors told supporters during a recent campaign stop at a Limon restaurant.

Salazar, meanwhile, has questioned Bush for his administration's claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction -- a major rationale for starting the war in Iraq -- which were never found. He also said the nation has risked a lot by not building a strong international coalition.

Salazar, 49, the father of two teenage daughters, is married to Hope Salazar. She runs a Dairy Queen the couple owns in Westminster.

The son of farmer-ranchers, Salazar grew up in the San Luis Valley in southwestern Colorado. With the help of federal grants and scholarships, he attended Colorado College in 1977 and received his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1981.

Coors, father of six grown children, is the great-grandson of Adolph Coors, who started the Coors brewery in Golden. His wife, Marilyn, teaches medical ethics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Coors received an engineering degree from Cornell University and a master's degree in business administration from Denver University in 1970.

Cleaning up the back yard

Tens of millions of dollars have been pumped into the tight race. The result has been a barrage of slogans, accusations and counter-accusations in television commercials, newspaper ads, campaign mailers and signs.

New and powerful, tax-exempt "527" political committees that exist because of a loophole in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law have proven a factor.

Virginia-based Republican 527, Americans for Job Security, recently entered Colorado politics, pounding on Salazar's environmental record. The ads claim that Salazar, as director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, ignored environmental damages at Summitville Mine in Rio Grande County. Dubbing him "Cyanide Salazar," the hit pieces allege he left taxpayers to foot most of the cleanup costs when he became attorney general.

But the ad is misleading, carrying errors, such as the basic fact that Salazar was not in office when the pollution occurred in the 1980s. In an interview along the campaign trail, Salazar was philosophical about the attacks.

"My environmental record speaks for itself," Salazar said. "If you want to go to the Bible and read the Book of Matthew, it says, 'Ye shall know them by their fruits.'"

He points to his role in creating Great Outdoors Colorado, which helps fund open-space and recreation. He also takes credit for starting an environmental crimes unit at the attorney general's office.

But Salazar doesn't always fall in line with Democrats on environmental issues. He isn't among politicians crying foul at the Bush administration's proposal to let governors decide whether their states should relax the roadless areas rule that protects 58.5-million acres of forestland from oil, gas and timber development.

"It was pushed through," Salazar said. "President Clinton didn't do enough to get input from local stakeholders. It must be addressed."

Still, environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, are supporting Salazar's campaign. They cite the same accomplishments as Salazar does and note he opposes oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which Coors supports.

Environmental groups are also wary of Coors Brewing Co., which four years ago sent 77,000 gallons of beer rumbling down Clear Creek instead of into beer tanks, killing tens of thousands of fish. It was the second such problem in a decade, leaving the company facing $1.7 million in fines for violating water laws. Regulators have also scrutinized other problems connected to the company's pollution.

"Coors has repeatedly been one of the worst-ranked companies by the Environmental Protection Agency," said Mark Longabaugh, political director for the League in Washington.

Yet Coors is positively upbeat about his company's history.

"Our company has a terrific record of environmental progress," Coors said. "You just can't have a company that produces a product that doesn't have an effect on the environment."

click to enlarge Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland.

'It's the money, honey'

Politics are one thing. Money is another.

These days, though some say it is exactly what's hurting democracy while others celebrate it as freedom of speech, to be viable, a candidate must accept contributions from sources that appear to have vested interests in how senators vote, said Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lacking leadership experience in politics, Coors, says professor Loevy at Colorado College, is akin to Sen. Jon Corzine, the wealthy Democrat from New Jersey who was elected in 2000.

"Pete Coors fits the model of the new U.S. senator who doesn't need political experience to get elected," Loevy said.

Instead, Coors' own wealth and the political influence of his family and friends, including Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who convinced him to run, have been critical to his success.

Members of his family -- including those with ties to family businesses -- have given Coors more than $40,000. His mother, Holland "Holly" Coors, is an evangelical Christian linked to religious groups with a political bent. She, along with Coors' brother Jeff, is on the executive committee of the Council for National Policy, a secretive organization of influential conservatives that meets to hash out public policy issues.

Recently, The New Yorker quoted Holly Coors while at the Republican National Convention. An admirer praised her for her wonderful work on her son's campaign.

She replied with a wink, "It's the money, honey."

Coors dismissed the article as a "puff piece."

He is also a big admirer of his father, Joe Coors, who was famous for his opposition to labor unions and who, in 1973, helped launch the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. In the late 1960s, as a member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, Joe Coors opposed left-leaning student groups.

"I am no friend of the left," Coors said. "You can go to Boulder today and try to find a conservative political science professor, I don't think there are any."

Coors also sits on the board of the family's Castle Rock Foundation, a Golden nonprofit that has given to conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, as well as minority programs.

He has taken contributions from executives with the H.J. Heinz Co., the company in which Teresa Heinz-Kerry maintains a small interest. Coors is a member of that company's board of directors. John Mork, president of Energy Corporation of America, and other executives with the Englewood-based oil and gas company gave money to Coors, who sits on that company's board.

The donations wouldn't influence him, Coors said.

"I don't think a $2,000 contribution can buy my vote," Coors said. "I don't think a $10 contribution can buy my vote. I don't think a $1 million contribution can buy my vote."

Salazar basically says the same thing. He received contributions that can be traced to groups lobbying for Indian tribes that want to build a casino near Denver International Airport. The project is opposed by the state. Salazar, as attorney general, would have to represent the state if tribes file a lawsuit.

But Steven C. Hillard, the CEO of Council Tree Communications LLC who gave to Salazar and threatened the lawsuit, said if Salazar were elected to the Senate, the task of representing the state would fall to the new attorney general, ending any appearance of a conflict.

Finding inspiration

There are more than a dozen third-party candidates also running for Senate, but none of them have separated themselves from the fray, Loevy said.

Images of cowboy-hat-wearing Salazar and gee-shucks-grinning Coors are etched in voters' minds by television commercials. The dominant images -- the rancher and the humble, Western businessman -- contrast with the realities.

Salazar wears a suit and wire-rimmed glasses, not a cowboy hat, to work in a big downtown Denver law office where he wrangles each day with other lawyers. And Coors, for a political neophyte, is incredibly well connected to Washington, D.C., circles -- connected like a millionaire.

Coors' father was a friend of President Reagan. He got to meet a president because of it. He later shook hands with Bush, as he contributed to the Texan's campaign.

"I went down to see him when he was governor and thinking about running (for president)," Coors said. "My question was, 'What are you going to do about big government and all this spending?' And he said something that I thought was very telling. He said, 'Pete, that's just not my agenda.' I said, 'I'd like to help you. I'd like to make it my agenda.'"

Meanwhile Salazar credits college aid with giving him the boost he needed to get to where he is today. He gets most excited talking about a former politician he recently met -- Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator and the former head of the Veterans Administration.

Cleland, who lost both his legs and an arm in the Vietnam War, sat near tears in his wheelchair amid the red, white and blue campaign signs at Colorado College last month. He told veterans to vote for Salazar and Kerry and warned students to expect to be drafted to fight an unwinnable war in Iraq if Bush is re-elected.

Just weeks before, Bush senior strategist Karl Rove cast doubt on Cleland's national loyalties, pointing to similar remarks of criticism against Bush that he had made elsewhere.

"Karl Rove and the kingmakers of Washington, D.C., emblazoned on his head the word 'unpatriotic,'" Salazar said. "To those powers of evil I say, 'How dare they?' They cared more about the quest for power than about those who have served the people."

  • Pete Coors versus Ken Salazar

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