Athlete, Artist, Indian Chief

From dark horse to Nighthorse, it's been one hell of a ride for Ben Campbell.

United States Senator Benjamin "Ben" Nighthorse Campbell is working the crowd at the Colorado State Fair when a man approaches with his hand outstretched.

"Ben, I wanted to thank you--you really saved our butts this time," he says, pumping the senator's hand. The man is Ray Kogovsek, former U.S. representative from the third congressional district, which later became Campbell's first federal seat. Kogovsek is now a lobbyist for the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal councils in their struggle to get funding for the Animas-La Plata water project in southwest Colorado; Campbell--who refers to himself as "the only American Indian in Congress"--has been their staunchest advocate.

Billed as an Indian water-rights project, Animas La-Plata will not deliver any water to the two reservations until--and unless--the second phase of the $710 million project is built. The first phase, which has yet to get off the drawing board, would create a pumping station that would draw water from the Animas River that runs through Durango and pump it hundreds of feet up into a reservoir; from there it would be piped to the much smaller La Plata River side to serve new developments and farmers.

Authorized in 1988 under an agreement negotiated with the two tribes, the project has been stalled numerous times, opposed not just by environmentalists but also by the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization that has rejected its own tribal council's endorsement.

In late July the House sided with the project's opponents, voting in favor of deleting nearly $10 million for preliminary construction of Animas-La Plata in fiscal year 1997, pending further study.

But then Campbell got in gear. He spent the next several days buttonholing fellow senators, especially those in his new party; he also threatened to reduce the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been dragging its feet in giving final approval, by the amount already spent on the project--some $57 million.

From the floor of the Senate, Campbell brandished a ceremonial pipe and an eagle's wing and warned his colleagues not to renege on the deal struck with the tribes. And on July 30, the Senate voted nearly two to one against the House's action and to preserve the project's funding. Although House and Senate committees still must iron out differences in the budget bills, Animas-La Plata has cleared another hurdle...for now.

Several weeks after the Senate vote, Campbell is back in Colorado at the state fair. "You'll find him in the middle of a big crowd," his deputy press secretary, James Doyle, advises. "He always draws a big crowd." But a late-afternoon thunderstorm has put a damper on the crowds, and the senator has taken refuge in a barn-sized tent while he waits for the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce's annual barbecue for state legislators.

Many of the other men waiting for the festivities to begin are doing their best to seem at home amid the cows and hogs and sheep, wearing neon-white straw cowboy hats that look like they were purchased that day and boots that will never see the inside of a stirrup. Campbell, however, fits right in--he and his wife have been raising horses and cattle since 1969, on the ranch they bought near Ignacio on the Southern Ute reservation.

A gray felt Western hat with a band of Indian-design beadwork rests on top of Campbell's gray-black hair, which is pulled back into a single braid that hangs below his shoulders. A silk scarf, the closest he'll come to wearing a tie, is gathered loosely at the neck of his white shirt by a silver clasp of Campbell's own design. A small pot belly hangs over the silver concho belt that holds up his black jeans; otherwise, at 63 years old, Campbell looks fit.

He clearly knows how to dress the part--whatever that part may be. Today he's a member of the "cowboy caucus," with which he first rode into politics in 1980 as a state representative from the Four Corners area. Two weeks before, he donned black leather chaps and jacket to lead a motorcycle rally at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. And in January 1993, as a newly elected Democratic senator, he wore the full regalia of a Cheyenne Indian chief when he rode a horse in President Bill Clinton's inaugural parade.

Although Ben Nighthorse Campbell may be Colorado's most recognized politician, few look beneath the surface of his Harleys, his jewelry-making, his Indian allegiances or his defection from the Democratic Party in March 1995.

His critics--including several staffers burned by the senator's sudden party switch--contend that underneath that conveniently colorful exterior, Campbell has a dark side, one that harbors grudges and sees enemies behind every rock and tree. Some of this can be attributed to Campbell's rough beginnings and his need for acceptance, but some of it is just plain paranoia, they say. And those same critics, some of whom are indeed enemies, charge that Campbell's claims to an Indian heritage protect him from any real scrutiny of his character--much less his legislative record.

But those standing behind him, including remaining staff members as fierce in their defense of Campbell as the thunderstorm roiling above the fairgrounds, portray him as a complex, multifaceted man who is true to himself and his constituents, a man whose lifestyle and legislative record are an honest reflection of his background and experiences. Underneath all the trappings of political and cultural affiliations, they say, he's still "just Ben"--hot-tempered and profane, yes, but also independent, loyal to those who are loyal to him, a man of the people.

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