Barack Obama has yet to take office, and already the balance of power in Colorado and the Southwest is shifting.
U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar is bound for the Department of the Interior, which is a good thing. For too many years, the primary focus of that department has been on how the interior of the country, primarily the West, could serve the rest. Salazar has the ability to bring some much-needed balance.
But the man Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has nominated to fill Salazar's senate seat is a Denver man with no Western Slope experience and perhaps little awareness of life beyond the Front Range. That was to be expected: Of all the people reported to be under serious consideration, none were from west of the Continental Divide, and neither is Ritter. Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who was term-limited out of office, might have been best suited in that regard, because he has spent years considering statewide governmental issues.
Michael Bennet, the Senate nominee, is virtually unknown on the Western Slope. He is also a virtual unknown in the world of politics, which could cost Colorado in the inevitable jockeying for power that will accompany not only a new president but a different party in the White House. Superintendent of the Denver Public Schools (undeniably an urban district), Bennet is well-respected. There is no reason to believe he will not learn quickly, but there is also no doubt that he has a late start, and he is not likely to have time to learn much about rural Colorado while also learning about Washington.
Meanwhile, Colorado has another freshman senator, Mark Udall, who hails from even farther north on the Front Range. An avowed environmentalist and part of the Southwest's Udall dynasty, he does have some awareness of rural issues, but that does not give him much in common with Western Slopers. Udall did not accomplish a great deal in Congress; it is difficult to have high hopes that he will push rural western concerns in the Senate.
The second Salazar brother in office, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, is moving up in the world, though, and that is a plus. His seat on the House Appropriations Committee will give him not only power but a podium from which to expound on rural issues.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, awaiting the results of an influence-selling investigation, has withdrawn from his commerce secretary nomination. It is the right thing to do, but it will be another loss for the West. If the scandal dissipates, Richardson may retain his connections with Obama, but the Cabinet seat is likely to go to someone east of the Mississippi.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has been tapped to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Her understanding of the complex role of migrants and other undocumented workers will be a benefit to the West. Whether she can handle the myriad other responsibilities of that department remains to be seen, but she, too, will be a Western voice.
The political landscape is shifting. Regardless of his connections with Kansas and Hawaii, Obama's politics are rooted in Chicago, but he must now think of the entire nation. Early on in his presidency, economic concerns will claim center stage, and rightly so, but those problems do affect Americans beyond the coasts and the Rust Belt, and other concerns cannot be put on hold entirely either.
Keep writing to the Salazars, and add Udall and Bennet to the mailing list. Western issues, especially natural resource issues, must not be lost in the shuffle.