Colorado governor mum on Salazar replacement |

Colorado governor mum on Salazar replacement

Barry Gutierrez/Rocky Mountain NewsSen. Ken Salazar has his boots shined today at Executive Shine at Denver International Airport while he waits for a plane to Chicago, where he is poised is to be announced as President-elect Barack Obama's interior secretary.

DENVER, Colorado ” With Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar apparently headed to Barack Obama’s Cabinet, the process of choosing his successor will come under intense scrutiny after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s alleged attempts to sell a Senate seat there.

Colorado law gives Gov. Bill Ritter the power to name a replacement if Salazar is appointed interior secretary. Ritter, like Salazar, is a Democrat.

But if the Illinois scandal is influencing Ritter, the Colorado governor isn’t saying. He fended off questions about Salazar and Blagojevich Tuesday, saying it’s too early to talk about any replacement.

“We’ll have a process in place when the process is final, but I’m really not going to do more than to say today that Ken Salazar is a very effective United States senator,” Ritter said. “We’ll miss him. But I also think he has the potential of being one of the greatest secretaries of Interior that this country has seen.”

An Obama transition team official said Monday that Salazar, 53, is Obama’s choice for interior secretary. Salazar is a former director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and, as senator, has opposed drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also has urged prudence in leasing Western lands for oil shale development.

It would be a tough choice for Ritter, a first-term governor, because Democrats want someone who can raise enough money to keep Salazar’s seat, which comes up for election in 2010. Salazar had raised more than $2 million for re-election.

Potential successors include Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who won favor by hosting a successful Democratic National Convention this year, and Salazar’s brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette said she had received several calls encouraging her to seek an appointment. Another candidate is Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who took a traditionally Republican seat in suburban Denver in 2006.

Ritter is known for appointing committees to study difficult issues before taking action. And one observer said he might do so with a Senate seat.

Ken Bickers, chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado, said appointing a committee to screen candidates could give Ritter both political cover and ensure transparency, especially after Illinois’ experience.

On Tuesday, Illinois lawmakers launched an unprecedented impeachment inquiry against Blagojevich after rejecting proposals to set a special election where voters could fill the Senate seat vacated by Obama ” the seat Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell before his arrest last week on federal corruption charges.

Ritter, Bickers said, “will want something so he’s not susceptible to any kind of allegation that it’s a political payoff.”

Having a panel recommend a Salazar replacement could limit damage to Ritter, who’s also up for re-election in 2010, should that replacement seek election but fails to win, Bickers said.

Colorado recently has trended Democratic. In November the state voted for Obama, elected a second Democratic senator, Mark Udall, and captured a Republican congressional seat. But Ken Salazar’s centrism and willingness to defy party leaders have helped him in a state where there are more registered independent voters than either Democrats or Republicans.

In his 2004 campaign, Salazar rallied a political base built up as state attorney general to narrowly defeat beer baron Pete Coors. As senator, he upset Democrats when he backed Alberto Gonzales, President George W. Bush’s nominee for attorney general. Gonzales later resigned under criticism about his management of the Justice Department.

U.S. Attorney Troy Eid, a Republican, praised Salazar on Tuesday as someone who crosses party lines “to protect our state’s people, land and water.”

Ritter formed a committee and asked it to nominate three candidates to replace Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican who won a congressional seat in November. Ritter also has appointed committees on transportation, education and health care funding.

Salazar’s potential replacements carry some risk.

Perlmutter has championed renewable energy and can work well with Republicans ” but Democrats would risk losing his congressional seat. Colorado law requires an election be held within 90 days of a congressional vacancy.

DeGette’s Denver-based seat is more secure. But Bickers noted DeGette has been a lightning rod on liberal social issues, including her support for stem cell research.

Salazar’s brother, John, a potato farmer from southern Colorado, has extensive experience in agriculture. Ritter would want to avoid any appearance of nepotism, Bickers said, and could avoid that if John Salazar was recommended by committee.

Still, state Democrats worry about Salazar’s district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats. Salazar also just was appointed to the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which decides how federal tax dollars are spent.

Hickenlooper’s boyish charm won him local political support and he has extensive business experience, earning millions of dollars in the restaurant business. Critics question his ability to raise the large amounts of money needed to keep a Senate seat.

Ritter also could pick a Republican, or even name himself to the seat.

Most states leave the choice of appointing U.S. senators to the governor. Last year, John Barrasso, a conservative Republican surgeon and Wyoming state senator, was picked by Gov. Dave Freudenthal to fill the seat of Sen. Craig Thomas, who died while being treated for leukemia. Wyoming law required the governor, a Democrat, to pick a Republican successor.

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