Sources: John Salazar tapped for state ag post

U.S. Rep. John Salazar is close to accepting an offer from Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper to head the Colorado Department of Agriculture, two highly placed sources close to the Denver mayor’s transition team confirmed Thursday.

The sources, who are close to the Democratic governor-elect but not authorized to speak on the record, said Salazar told Hickenlooper that if he does accept the job, he would commit to it for Hickenlooper’s full four-year term.

As a result, Salazar likely would not seek a rematch with U.S. Rep.-elect Scott Tipton, the Republican who doused Salazar’s re-election bid last month, the sources said.

Salazar, who could not be reached for comment, told the Durango Herald earlier this month that he was considering a rematch with Tipton. He lost re-election to the Cortez businessman by about 3 percentage points in November, but trounced Tipton by 25 percentage points in his first re-election bid in 2006.

The sources said that while Democrats would support Salazar if he decided to run for Congress again, they consider him a big fish if they can persuade the San Luis Valley farmer to join the Hickenlooper team.

They said Salazar’s knowledge of agricultural issues and his integrity within the state would send a strong message that the Hickenlooper administration would be a friend to the farming and ranching community. An official announcement of the appointment isn’t expected until sometime next week.

“This is not a placeholder for John Salazar to run for Congress. This is so he can be an active and influential voice on behalf of rural Colorado for four years in the administration,” one of the sources said. “John’s made clear that he’s interested in four years, not one or two, and the opportunity to be a very powerful voice on behalf of rural Colorado is something of significant interest to John Hickenlooper. This is an opportunity to expand the breadth of reach, and a former congressman has that for sure. He brings an awful lot to the table, and it’s hard to compete with that.”

Two years ago, Salazar was on President Barack Obama’s short list to be U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, a job that ultimately went to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Before he was assigned to the House Appropriations Committee in 2008, he spent four years on the House Committee on Agriculture.

During his six years in office, the Manassa potato-seed farmer and rancher also served on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Salazar spent two years in the Colorado House before running for Congress.

Though popular in the agriculture industry in the valley, he earned a lot of friends in southeast Colorado for battling the U.S. Army in its efforts to expand the Pi&#241on Canyon Maneuver Site north of Trinidad. As a member of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, the congressman got Presidents Bush and Obama to sign legislation barring the Department of Defense from spending any money expanding the training site, including purchasing or using the government’s eminent domain powers to obtain nearby ranch land.

The sources said the transition team fears the state’s current agriculture commissioner, John Stulp, will feel as if he’s being pushed aside. They said Stulp, a Lamar wheat farmer and rancher who also operates one of the state’s largest wind farms, could be considered for some other position within the Hickenlooper administration if Stulp is interested in remaining in state government.

“John Stulp doesn’t need to reapply for the job,” one of the sources said. “He’s a valuable person who would be considered, no matter what.”

Reeves Brown, president of Western Slope advocacy group Club 20, said Salazar as the state’s agriculture commissioner is good news for everyone in that industry.

He said Salazar has been a tireless advocate for farming and ranching his entire life, and having him in that role would ensure that rural interests remain at the forefront of the new governor’s agenda.

“I would say John Salazar is ideally qualified to be ag commissioner, as (state Sen.) Al White was to run the tourism office, and to me it is evidence of the caliber of thought Hickenlooper is putting into finding the right people for these jobs and the statewide nature of his Cabinet,” Brown said. “If he is willing to stay on the political stage in that role, I think all of Colorado agriculture benefits. I would challenge anyone who would question John Salazar’s credentials as an advocate for agriculture. Being an advocate for agriculture is not partisan, and John Salazar has not been partisan in that role.”


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