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.
In the tent, Campbell moves easily through the people who are drawn to him, shaking hands and accepting the occasional hug. He stops often to talk or listen intently, the lines around his mouth and eyes set in his basset-hound face. But then he smiles, a perfect, white-toothed smile, a smile so friendly and warm that even those who left his service in disgust remember it fondly.
Becky Mizell, whose name tag announces that she works for a medical firm in Pueblo, wants to congratulate Campbell for switching to the Republican Party. He thanks her, then leans close to confide that in the old steel-mill town, the move made him "a lot of enemies" among Democrats who'd supported him from the beginning of his political career. "Don't let them get you down," she advises. "You did the right thing."
Ken and Marsha Hobert, business managers for the Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association in Estes Park, tease Campbell because he no longer comes to their annual motorcycle rally. The senator, recently returned from a rally with 300,000 other bikers in Sturgis, South Dakota, and looking forward to the Four Corners Iron Horse Rally near his home in Ignacio over Labor Day weekend, politely assures the couple that he'd love to attend when his busy schedule allows.
And then there is Kogovsek, whose former seat Campbell wrested from incumbent Republican Mike Strang in 1986. "We'd be sunk without you, Ben," Kogovsek says.
Campbell nods. "I'll be damned if I'm going to sit by and watch us break another promise to Indians," he says. "We'll keep fighting."
Back from the fair, Campbell is speaking to the National Indian Gaming Association at its annual meeting in the Colorado Convention Center. He's left the hat behind and added a gray knit coat; his hair, bushy as a coyote's tail, is pulled back but unbraided.
Casinos on Indian reservations have been "phenomenally" successful, Campbell says, but that success has a price. Tribes that distributed the gaming profits among their people, rather than reinvesting the money, have eroded the necessity of their children getting an education. And they also must be careful of a "white backlash" from businesspeople who want access to the same exemptions that allow federally recognized Indian tribes to set up gaming establishments.
"Non-Indians," Campbell warns, are trying to bypass the federal statutes by having legislators introduce special bills designating them as Indian tribes, "when, in fact, they have no Indian blood."
This leads to a subject close to Campbell's heart--through which may or may not pump Indian blood; he has no way to prove it. "The paradox is that they are forcing the government to issue cards that say who is a real Indian," Campbell says. "If you're of Indian descent, you shouldn't have to prove it. We're the only category of people that has to get government approval to say we're real."
As the senator steps down, his chief of staff, Ginnie Kontnik, intercepts a tall black man making his way toward Campbell. The senator doesn't have much time today, Kontnik tells Stan Washington, chairman of NAACP economic development in Las Vegas.
Washington has come to Denver on behalf of the Moulin Rouge, "the only land-based hotel/casino in North America licensed to African-Americans." The hotel/casino's owners are desperate for investment capital--as well as the special considerations allowed Indian gaming--and they hope to get both from a tiny Connecticut tribe, the Mashantucket Pequot, that has made big bucks from its gambling operations.
The matter will be coming up for a tribal vote in a few weeks. Now Washington is trying to set up a telephone conference call between a Las Vegas congressman who supports the hotel/casino management and Campbell, in hopes that "the only American Indian in Congress" can be persuaded to influence the Mashantucket Pequots' decision.
Kontnik tells Washington to call Campbell's office, then whisks the senator away to his district headquarters on Pennsylvania Street. He's got a plane to catch to Durango early that afternoon "on Mesa Airlines," she says, rolling her eyes, "and you know how unreliable they are."
In late July, Campbell, irate over repeated delays and cancellations of his weekly flights home, had called for a congressional investigation of the New Mexico-based commuter airline, citing concerns about safety and mismanagement. Company officials complained that the senator was going public with his complaints rather than trying to work with the airline on any problems, as retaliation because Mesa had refused to hold a flight twenty minutes for him.
But if Campbell is going to hook up with the 40,000 bikers waiting for him at the Iron Horse rally, Mesa is his only option. That, or an eight-hour drive from Denver.
Campbell's district office, located a few blocks from the State Capitol, was built in 1890 by renowned architect Frank Edbrooke as a home for the Alfred Butters family. Butters, who'd served as Speaker of the House for the Territorial Legislature and then gone on to become a state senator in the initial Colorado General Assembly, was only the first politician to occupy the building. Democratic Senator Tim Wirth had his offices there almost a century later and then passed them on to his successor, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
In the entryway are photographs of Campbell dressed in a Cheyenne eagle-feather bonnet, given to him by the Northern Cheyenne when he was enrolled in their official records in 1980. Other walls are decorated with Indian dream-catchers and paintings, as well as photographs of Western scenery; coffee-table books about Colorado line the tables.
Serious-looking young staffers hurry from room to room. To get an hour with the senator on this or any other day, you must first get past Kontnik. "He's enjoying great national press at this time, just great," she says. "But we're not willing--not the senator or staff--to get beaten up or nailed to the wall."
Specifically, Campbell says, "I'm not interested in discussing all that bullshit about my changing parties. All reporters are interested in is going to my former staff to get juicy accusations. But nobody talks to the staff who stayed on."
That staff is particularly interested in seeing that people read the "authorized" 1993 biography of the senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, by Herman Viola. "That might answer a lot of your questions," says deputy press secretary Doyle, a former journalist who first met Campbell as a campaign volunteer in 1986. "It's the most accurate account I've found."
On the front cover of the book is a photograph of Campbell wearing a cowboy hat and his trademark Indian jewelry, standing with his arms crossed in front of the U.S. Capitol. The back cover shows Campbell as an Indian chief, wearing an eagle-feather bonnet and face paint and holding a lance as he and his trusty steed, War Bonnet, trot down Pennsylvania Avenue during Clinton's inaugural parade.
Viola, former director of the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C., wrote the book at Campbell's request after the senator read two of Viola's earlier efforts about American Indians. In the book's preface, Viola says he accepted the "challenge" of writing Campbell's life story with the caveat that he would publish what he found, "warts and all." Campbell had assured him he was "clean as a hound's tooth," the author said, except for a few speeding tickets and some trouble he got into as a youth.
And in fact, few warts appear in Viola's book. Those that do--Campbell's youthful scrapes with the law, his three marriages, his infamous temper--are largely glossed over or turned into attributes. But Viola and his archivist wife performed an even more valuable service for Campbell while researching the book: They found anecdotal support for his claim to Indian ancestry.
"There are things in there that I didn't know myself," Campbell says, settling back into an easy chair in his sitting room. "For instance, I had no idea that my grandmother was murdered on the streets of Pagosa Springs by a jealous lover. All my dad ever said to me was that she had died. She was a hooker, or they called them 'washer women' in those days."
Albert Campbell was working at a sanitorium in Weimar, California, when he met Mary Vierra, a Portuguese immigrant who'd contracted tuberculosis in 1917 and become a patient there. They fell in love, married in 1929 and had two children: Alberta, born on her father's birthday on July 12, 1930, and Benjamin, born April 13, 1933. A devout Catholic, Mary had both children baptized in that faith.
Albert, dark-haired and brown-eyed, was an alcoholic who couldn't hold a job for long. He and Mary tried to make a go of their own business, but that failed when he kept drinking and disappearing for weeks or months on end. Meanwhile, Mary was in and out of the sanitorium, where she also worked during periods of relative health.
When Ben was less than two years old, Mary requested that her children be placed in St. Patrick's Home for Children, a Catholic orphanage outside of Sacramento. Albert Campbell had deserted the family, she said, and she was too sick to care for the kids alone. But orphanage officials said Ben was too young and urged Mary to find help so that she could keep him at home.
Mary's employers let her bring her children to live on the grounds of the sanitorium with the children of patients. And increasingly, Mary was one of those patients. Ben Campbell's recollections of those days are vague, but one memory stands out. "We could never touch our mothers or be with them, but at least we could see them and wave to them or talk to them through a window," he told Viola.
In January 1939, in poor health and with her husband in jail for drunkenness and failure to support his family, Mary finally was allowed to bring her children to St. Patrick's. "Talk about abandonment," Campbell told Viola. "I think the experience left some real scars; to this day I have a little bit of fear about being abandoned. I don't blame my mother for that. She had nothing. My dad was off drinking. She didn't have a choice."
The orphanage separated Campbell from his sister. Although their stay there lasted only six months, Campbell would later say that his sister became "a stranger to me." Alberta married right out of high school, but the pretty, shy girl never found happiness. At 44, Alberta died from a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. Although there was no suicide note, "Ben was convinced her death was deliberate because of previous attempts," Viola noted.
The same stresses that eventually killed Alberta made her brother strong, self-reliant and independent, according to his biographer. But they would also shape how he reacted under pressure. Campbell's third wife, Linda Price Campbell, to whom he has now been married thirty years, told Viola that early in their dating Campbell said she frightened him because she was getting past the self-protective wall he had fashioned around his emotions. "I do think he has a real fear of losing what he has, and that makes him very insecure," she said.
The cycle of reunion, then dissolution, continued throughout Campbell's childhood. His parents fought bitterly, and young Ben often picked up his soused father at a bar. He got in fights at school, and the family was always poor and hungry. "I remember one day, in fact, when my mother opened a can of peas and gave half of them to my sister and half to me," Campbell recalled. "All she kept for herself was the juice in the can."
Life finally got better when Ben was a teenager. Albert at last pulled himself together, and Mary opened a grocery store and restaurant in their home. The family learned firsthand the beneficent effects federal government can have when the road that ran in front of the store was replaced by an interstate with a major off-ramp.
When he wasn't at the store, Ben found work picking and packing fruit. It was at this job that he was introduced to judo--by a young Japanese co-worker who reacted to Campbell's bullying by putting the older boy on his back. At the other boy's invitation, Campbell began to study judo in the Japanese neighborhood.
Although teachers said Ben showed promise in school, it was also noted that he was "resentful and hypersensitive, but pleasant." He liked sports but showed no real skill at any team games; he was thought to be gifted in art and story-writing, though he seldom pushed himself. In high school he was an indifferent student except for shop and art courses, and he flunked U.S. history. One teacher summed him up as "dreamy."
Seeing no point in finishing high school, Campbell dropped out in 1950 and joined the Air Force.
Forty-six years later, Campbell credits those early working days with inspiring him to break rank with his new party over the proposed increase in the minimum wage. After that, he voted against a Republican-sponsored amendment that would have exempted small businesses from the wage hike--much to the consternation of the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the National Chamber of Commerce.
"Although I'm comfortable with my new party," Campbell says, "in these matters my beliefs stem from the fact that I come from a dysfunctional family, with no health care, minimum-wage skills, parents who never got past the eighth grade. I think I'm an unusual senator in that I've had experiences that have tempered my beliefs as a fiscal conservative.
"The majority of senators come from wealthy, stable backgrounds with great educations; many have several degrees," he continues. "I think that's great, but maybe I bring some real life to the senatorial image. I know what it is to come up poor, to live in an orphanage, to get down on my hands and knees to pick tomatoes, and to be hungry. You can show all the charts and graphs and statistics you want, but you can never understand that kind of hunger until you've experienced it.
"As I told one guy who was giving me a hard time about voting for an increase in the minimum wage, when I was down on my knees picking vegetables in the mud, it was organized labor--not the NFIB or National Chamber of Commerce, but the Teamsters--who got me a job with decent wages so that I could afford to attend night school so that I could get a job as a teacher--and now I'm a U.S. senator. That's not something I can put out of my mind or my heart."
The minimum-wage hike was long overdue, Campbell says, but he'd previously voted against it because it was always attached to some other legislation he couldn't support. This summer, though, when it came through as a stand-alone bill, he had no problem supporting it. "There are two different schools of thought on the Hill," the senator says. "One is that you are elected to do whatever your constituents want at the time. The other is, you do what's right--and that's the primary direction I lean."
While he was in the Air Force, Campbell earned his high school equivalency degree. As a military policeman in Korea, he managed to continue his judo training through a Korean physician.
When he returned to the United States, Campbell entered San Jose State College, in large part because it had a top judo program. It was during this period that a truck driver offered to teach him how to drive an eighteen-wheeler, whereupon he received his Teamsters card and earned enough money to finish college.
Campbell married his first wife when he was 22. "He had an unrecognized need to come home to a loved one, a need that lingered from his troubled days of childhood when he felt abandoned by his mother," Viola wrote. Unnamed in Viola's book, she was described as "a young woman endowed with considerable physical assets but little else." The relationship was purely physical, and both realized the marriage was a mistake; after a few months they had it annulled. (She was a strict Catholic, and divorce was out of the question.)
Campbell poured renewed energies into his first love, judo. He became the captain of the San Jose State team and won the Amateur Athletic Association Pacific Coast championship four times, one of the youngest Americans to hold a fourth-degree black belt. After graduating with a teacher's certificate in 1958, he worked toward his master's while concentrating on judo.
In 1963 Campbell won the gold medal at the Pan American games. But it was only after being accepted to Meiji University in Tokyo, which has one of the top judo programs in the world, that his training began in earnest.
The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo marked the first time judo would be a medal sport. Focusing on the Olympics and paying his way through school by teaching English, Campbell put up with Meiji's grueling regimen. He did not take losing lightly and would hammer his locker after a loss and swear to beat his opponent the next time. His fellow athletes remembered Campbell as perhaps not the best athlete, but certainly the most driven to succeed.
His dedication to the sport cost him his second marriage, to a fellow San Jose student who left Campbell shortly after they moved to Tokyo. But his single-minded devotion to the sport earned Campbell a spot as one of four members of the U.S. judo team.
After winning his initial contest, Campbell lost to the eventual bronze medalist when his knee, injured in a previous bout, collapsed and he was forced to forfeit the match. Nevertheless, Campbell was given the honor of carrying the U.S. flag from the Olympic stadium following the closing ceremonies.
"I think what I learned most from judo was to not give up," Campbell says. "In the West, most sports teach you to win at all costs, that winning is everything. That's not so in Japan, where winning is thought to be a natural by-product of training and perseverance."
Campbell, who will receive an honorary doctorate from Meiji University later this month, says one incident at the school was particularly good training for a future politician. One day, he recalls, he watched as a fellow judo classmate had his arm twisted by a teacher. The student grimaced in obvious pain but said nothing. Then the teacher grabbed the student's other arm and twisted. When this, too, elicited no cry of surrender, the teacher began choking the student until he was nearly unconscious.
"When it was over, I went up to my friend and asked him, 'What in the hell was that all about?'" Campbell recalls. "He said, 'I was practicing not giving up.'
"I think of that a lot in this business. You take all sorts of insults and verbal abuse, attacks by a misguided press. But you just have to grit your teeth and not give up when you know you're right.
"Before I changed parties, there was a study by one of those Washington think tanks that said I was in the top five for positive stories in the press about me. After the change, I was in the bottom two. Only [Bob] Packwood was worse. There were times when all these ugly, distorted, untruthful things were being written, and I was at the point of, 'Who in the hell needs this?' But then I'd remember my friend and practice not giving up."
Campbell knows he has a short fuse but says it might have been worse without the judo training. "It helped me learn to control my temper," he explains. "Otherwise, I might have ended up like some of my friends--in jail or dead."
But when he does boil over, he doesn't apologize. "People still tell me I blow up too easy," Campbell says. "In my own defense, did the voters want to elect a fish? Some vanilla, spineless yes-man who'll agree to anything just to get a vote? I never could stand to take a beating. Just because I'm in public office doesn't mean I'm a public doormat.
"People sometimes think their elected officials can be used to get their frustrations out. They'll call them all sorts of names, and we're supposed to say, 'Oh, yes? I'm a son of a bitch? Well, that's interesting, and I'll take it under consideration.' Well, you're gonna get a different reaction from me, 'cause I don't care about getting elected if I can't keep my dignity and my pride.
"I work hard. My whole staff works hard. I'll fight like hell for you if we agree on something, or you can convince me of your position in a gentlemanly way. But don't get in my face or you're going to have a fight on your hands."
Campbell brought more than a fighting spirit back from Japan: He also had gotten the idea of looking into his past. He'd always felt an affinity for the Japanese-Americans he'd met in California, "who were discriminated against just like half-breed kids like me," Campbell says. The Japanese were proud of their culture and their ancestors. "I once considered myself Japanese," Campbell told a Japanese reporter thirty years after the Tokyo Olympics.
That same reporter said that Campbell told him his father never revealed that he had Indian blood. (Campbell himself says that as a kid he told few people he was part Indian and instead passed as an Italian--which would make it hard for people to discriminate against him because he was a "half-breed.") According to the Japanese reporter, Campbell realized he was Indian when he watched Indians making jewelry in New Mexico.
Other people have gotten other versions of Campbell's story. An editor at Indian Country Today, the nation's largest Indian publication, cites an article in which Campbell said he realized he was an Indian because of his childhood fascination with bows and arrows.
According to Viola's book, Campbell became interested in tracing his Native American heritage after he returned from Japan in the mid-Sixties, at a time when Indians were rediscovering pride in their past. "The family knew he was Indian, but Albert Campbell insisted they keep it a secret," Viola wrote. "He was ashamed. There was a great deal of prejudice in California at that time against people of color, especially Japanese and Indians."
Now when Campbell pressed his father about his heritage, Albert told him only that they were related to the Black Horse family of the Northern Cheyenne. So in 1968, Campbell traveled to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. After sharing what little information his father had given him with patriarch Alec Black Horse, the old man smiled and said, "I'm glad you came. I needed another son."
Campbell began making regular visits to the reservation, sometimes three or four a year, usually laden with gifts of food and clothing. "He believes his generosity facilitated his ready acceptance by the Northern Cheyennes," Viola noted.
Certainly it was not Campbell's ability to prove that he was three-eighths Northern Cheyenne. According to Viola, important documents had been lost in two fires--one at a military base where Albert Campbell's records were kept, another on the Lame Deer reservation--and even Viola, an experienced archivist, had trouble fitting the bits and pieces together.
The best Viola could do was theorize that Campbell could be descended from a Cheyenne girl who may have escaped the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek and later turned up in New Mexico. This girl grew into the woman who was killed in Pagosa Springs and was probably the mother of Albert, who at age ten shows up alone on the Crow Reservation in Wyoming. Albert claimed to be half-Apache--possibly, Viola suggested, because of his father's roots. Albert ran away from the Crow reservation and ended up in Lame Deer, where he was taken in by the Black Horse family. During the course of Viola's research, the Northern Cheyenne suggested that Albert's mother might have been the older half-sister of Alec Black Horse, from the southern branch of the tribe in Oklahoma.
But even before Viola started researching Campbell's background, the Northern Cheyenne had accepted him. In 1980, with the Black Horse family speaking for him, Campbell was officially enrolled as a member of the tribe and took the name Nighthorse. In 1984, the tribe made Campbell one of its 44 chiefs, an office that has no real power and mostly oversees religious ceremonies and serves as a sounding board for the tribal council.
Campbell says that tracing his Indian heritage was the most important act of his life. Not only did it give him a past, it gave him a whole new family of cousins--however many times removed. "Unfortunately, they're almost always broke," he says, laughing.
"They acknowledge and accept me, and that's enough for me," he continues, bridling at the suggestion that some people, including other Indians, question his right to claim that heritage. "What do they need, a blood test? Great--next we'll say you have to have a blood test to prove you're Jewish.
"It hurts," he continues. "There was an incident when I was first running for Congress when there was an orchestrated attempt to discredit me. The chairman of the tribe got so pissed that he was going to form a car caravan from the reservation. He wanted to ask this guy, 'Who are you to say who is or isn't one of us?'"
And an Indian heritage isn't necessarily a political bonus, Campbell points out. He gets hate mail directed solely at his advertised ancestry. "They say, 'You dirty redskin,' and things like that," he complains. "It'd actually be easier to pass as an Italian, like we did when I was a kid."
He gets criticism from the Indian side, too. During his first campaign for Congress in 1986, Campbell says, he thought about dropping the "Nighthorse" name because it was difficult to fit on posters. But then an Indian friend accused him of being ashamed of his heritage.
"Sometimes Indians don't understand that I can't be 'their' senator, that I have to represent all the people of Colorado," he says. "White, black, yellow, green. That's probably part of the reason there's not more Indians in Congress. They want to run only on Indian issues.
"I had to learn my own lesson about that," he continues. "Early on in my career, I was looking for support from the Southern Utes, and an old woman told me, 'We support you and will give what we can, but not too much, because it would hurt you if you are seen by whites as only an Indian candidate. You have to speak for all the people.'"
Even so, Campbell acknowledges that he tries to champion Indian causes whenever appropriate. His favorite piece of legislation, he says, was when he sponsored a 1991 House bill to change the name of the Custer Battlefield National Monument to the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
And he says that Americans could learn a lot from the Indian way of thinking. For example, in this year's presidential race, "Dole is portrayed as too old," he says. "But Indians believe in listening to their elders, that dignity, experience, knowledge and patience come with age.
"White society denigrates the old. We put them in rest homes until they dry up and die. It's 'Oh, you're over seventy, you don't know what the hell you're doing.' Indians refer to all elders, even those who aren't related to them, as grandmother and grandfather."
Often Campbell finds himself the man in the middle, caught between traditional Indian beliefs and the pro-development stance of some of his constituents, including tribal members. The Southern Ute Grassroots Organization that opposes the construction of Animas-La Plata, for instance, does so in part because of cultural prohibitions against damming water and altering the natural world. But the Southern Ute tribal council has sided with water-hungry real estate developers and white farmers and ranchers.
Campbell first jumped in to support the water project when he was a freshman state representative in 1981. Seven years later, at the close of his first term as a congressman, Campbell was credited with the passage of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act, the implementing legislation that had been negotiated between the tribes and such jurisdictions as the states of Colorado and New Mexico. Despite Campbell's strong support, though, the project has been stymied several times since, labeled economically unfeasible by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Funding for the first phase of the $710 million project will come from the federal and Colorado governments, as well as potential users. But while the two Ute tribes will own one-third of the water, any provisions for getting the water to their lands falls under the project's second phase--for which there are no funding commitments.
"I don't know how Phase II will be funded," Campbell says. "Maybe by the tribes themselves. But at least they own a third of the water in the reservoir, and that's better than letting it run downhill to California."
Campbell says he doesn't know if he will support federal funding for Phase II. Without that funding, the project's Indian opponents argue, building Phase II would bankrupt the tribes.
Campbell sees no conflict between planned development and Indian ways. "Indians believe that God is in everything--animals, plants, stones," he says. "Indians have a reverence for all things and see them as equals. The Christian-Judeo ethic is that man has dominion over all these things. The Indian way is a good way to believe. On the other hand, I'm not opposed to dams and timber-cutting, just so long as we don't totally destroy everything."
Campbell hasn't completely immersed himself in Indian culture. Although he has participated in some ceremonies, such as dances, singing and sweat lodges, he has not joined in the most significant religious ceremony, the Sun Dance. Like the Sun Dances of most tribes, the Cheyenne version goes on for four days of dancing and praying without food or water. But unlike most of the other dancers, the Cheyenne mutilate themselves by cutting off strips of skin and piercing chest muscles with thongs, by which the dancers are suspended.
"Your body is all you have to give back to the Creator," explains Campbell. "I've been told by some of the older people that I need to do it. They say I've been given lots of gifts--artist, senator--and it's time to give something back. I've often wondered about doing it, but I wonder how it would be perceived. After all, I wasn't raised on the reservation. And I don't know if I'm emotionally ready, not to mention the physical stamina it takes.
"I know for sure there'd be a political backlash," he adds. "The network of my enemies would be all over it: 'He's a heathen and pagan. He lacks Christian family values.' If it's not Christian, then it's a cult. So I go and watch and support the dancers. But I don't know if there will ever be a right time for me."
Tribal leaders waited with him on the night of his 1992 election to the Senate. When it became clear he had won, Campbell says, they wouldn't let him acknowledge his victory before he had gone through a purification ceremony. "They're really proud of me," Campbell adds.
A sign outside the powwow grounds at Lame Deer welcomes visitors to the Northern Cheyenne reservation, "Home of U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell."
If the Northern Cheyenne wanted to enroll Campbell, "good for him," says Sage Remington, a full-blooded Ute. "But it doesn't mean the rest of us have to accept him."
The problem with Campbell's claim to an Indian heritage, according to Remington, is that he has adopted only the romance and myth of Indians. "He knows nothing about what it was like to be raised on a reservation or as an Indian in an urban area," he says. "He's a good sideshow, the best thing since P.T. Barnum. He pulls out a feather and the peace pipe--or maybe today it's a Harley-Davidson and tomorrow it's the Marlboro Man. He's a real chameleon. But as an Indian, he portrays an image as the dominant culture wants to see Indians.
"The problem for young Indians is that Campbell sends a message that dressing up in an eagle bonnet, wearing your hair long and making Indian jewelry is what it is to be an Indian," Remington continues. "That's a myth they can't live up to. How we view ourselves must be redefined for the modern world. You can't be an Indian part of the time. Being an Indian means going through a lot of pain because of discrimination and being on the outside looking in at your own country. It's not something you discover at a midlife crisis, searching for your roots. Campbell dilutes the reality of what it means to be an American Indian. The pain and the anguish aren't there. Neither is the great joy."
Remington, a spiritual leader and Sun Dancer who was raised on the Southern Ute reservation, is one of the leaders of the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization that opposes Animas-La Plata. He took offense, he says, when Campbell pulled out a pipe on the floor of the Senate while arguing for the project.
"He was using it for a prop, like theater," says Remington. "The peace pipe should be used only when the truth is being spoken and not in a place filled with animosity and negative thoughts. But he used it to attack opponents of the water project.
"The way I was taught is that when the pipe is present, you should respect diverse opinions even if you don't agree with them."
Even as he was researching his Indian heritage, Campbell was adding other identities. He became a husband again in 1966 when he married Linda Price, a young teacher from Montrose who'd enrolled in one of the judo classes he was teaching in California.
In 1969 he and Linda moved from California to a ranch on a mesa overlooking Ignacio, the capital of the resource-rich Southern Ute reservation. Southern Ute chairman Leonard Burch offered him the job of managing the tribe's modern horse-training facility.
That helped supplement the money Campbell was making off yet another interest: jewelry. Campbell says he first learned jewelry-making from his father, who claimed to have been trained in the art by Navajo friends who lived in California. The admittedly impatient Campbell will sit for hours designing and making his pieces, which he says combine both Indian and Japanese themes and techniques.
As the jewelry-making business took off--by the late Seventies, he was making as much as $150,000 a year from it--Campbell was able to quit his job at the reservation. In 1979 his artistic career got a big boost when he was featured with other major Indian artists in an Arizona Highways article describing "the new look in Indian jewelry."
But by the next year, Campbell had added another identity: politician.
In 1980 the Democrats were having a difficult time finding anyone to run in Statehouse District 59, which consists of the four counties in the Four Corners. The Republican candidate, Don Whalen, was extremely popular, having coached the Fort Lewis College basketball team for a number of years. Then the Democrats hit on Campbell, who says he'd attended one of their meetings just out of curiosity. When the experts gave him little chance of defeating Whalen, that was all the incentive Campbell needed.
At first the Democrats tried to help Campbell organize his campaign, asking him to cut off the ponytail he'd been growing since discovering his roots. But Campbell refused, and the race against the well-dressed Whalen became known as "buckskins versus Brooks Brothers." Campbell campaigned hard and won 57 percent of the vote--including a 15 percent crossover from the Republican side.
During his time in the state legislature, Campbell walked a fine line between ranching and environmental interests, both strong factions on the Western Slope, and earned an 88 percent approval rating from environmental groups.
After six years, he announced he was ready to retire and return to his ranch. And then the Democrats asked him to run for Congress from Colorado's third district.
The third congressional district is one of the largest in the country--in land area, if not in its population, which includes a curious mix of rural conservatives and labor-union Democrats in Pueblo. Incumbent Democrat Ray Kogovsek had retired unexpectedly in 1984, and the seat was occupied by popular Republican Mike Strang, who'd made inroads among conservative Democrats.
It was the challenge of once again being the dark horse that convinced Campbell to run, even though Linda and their two children were not interested in living in Washington, D.C.
Campbell recruited Sherrie Wolff, then the executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party, to run the campaign. The strategy was to play up Campbell's background as a renaissance man: orphan, small businessman, war veteran, truck driver, Olympic athlete, teacher, artist, rancher and, yes, Indian. He wasn't just a man of the people, he was the people. Even his penchant for Harley-Davidsons gave him that independent air that Coloradans respect.
Campbell's campaign attracted many young staffers, including Ken Lane, a lawyer then with a small firm in his hometown of Pueblo. A friend working at the state legislature had called Lane, who'd been active in several local races, and asked if he'd be interested in working for Campbell as his campaign treasurer. Although he knew almost nothing about the man, Lane was flattered by the call and agreed to meet with Campbell, who drove down to Pueblo.
"We went to dinner, and by the end, I was sold on who he was," says Lane, who now works as a political liaison for the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C. "He was down-to-earth, concerned about issues of the common man and very moderate in his views. I liked his background, too, his rags-to-riches story."
Campbell came from behind to defeat Strang, and Wolff and Lane went with him to Washington, as chief of staff and legislative assistant, respectively. During his first term, Campbell introduced and passed more bills than any other representative. Some were bits of fluff, like the House resolution to name January 7 as National Ski Day, but others, including the water-settlement act, were more substantial.
Much of the credit for Campbell's impressive legislative record should go to his staff, Lane says. "He was generally a hands-off manager," he recalls. "He was good about letting his staff grow into their roles." And that staff became one of the best and most loyal in the Beltway, according to Lane, with each member developing areas of expertise. "The longevity of the staff helped develop an institutional memory, which was uncommon on the Hill."
Staffers researched issues and then gave their information to Campbell--who often was ruled by his emotions rather than his head, Lane says. "We liked Ben's freshness, and I thought he genuinely felt an affinity toward us and treated us as valued employees," he adds. "I also liked his bravado. But he was sometimes difficult to handle and had a tendency to fly off at the slightest provocation. He doesn't deal well with pressure; confrontations have a tendency to unnerve him, and he strikes back--reverts to the bully mentality of his youth and the 'lone athlete against the world.' Then he doesn't care who he hurts."
Lane laughs. "It was certainly never, ever dull working for Ben Campbell."
In 1988, when Campbell was up for re-election, Lane was named campaign manager. More loyal staffers soon signed on.
Dave Devendorf was one of them. At the request of a friend, he'd worked briefly with Campbell's 1986 campaign. Two years later he met with Lane to volunteer his help. A few days after that, he met Campbell personally for the first time. "Ben did most of the talking, asking more about me than I asked about him," Devendorf says. "I have to tell you, I was awestruck. We all went to lunch together, and the hook was set. I went from being a hard worker to being a tireless worker."
Campbell easily won re-election. In 1990 Lane replaced Wolff, who went back to her former job with the Colorado Democratic Party. At 32, he was one of the youngest on Capitol Hill to hold the chief-of-staff position, responsible for policies and operations at both home and district offices.
The hallmark of Campbell's offices was their attention to individual constituents. "But he was definitely not the most active lawmaker," Lane says. "He's not interested in the nitty-gritty details. The staff had to bird-dog him a lot on the issues, otherwise he'd let them drop. It was also up to the staff to do the fighting behind the scenes, rounding up support by talking to other staffs and their bosses."
Sometimes rounding up support included calling Linda Campbell and asking her to press her husband to stay on an issue. Recalls Lane: "We'd be in the middle of a fight, and Ben would be like, 'I'm sick and tired of this shit.' So we'd have to rely on Linda telling him, 'Ben, you have to be interested in this issue; you can't ignore it.'"
Campbell's short attention span extended to the water-project proposal. Credit for that legislation, according to Lane, should go to Dan McAuliffe, who'd worked for Campbell as a statehouse intern and then volunteered in the 1986 campaign, eventually becoming the senator's legislative director.
"It was Dan who did all the research, worked the other staffs, fought all the battles and then handed it over to Ben," Lane says. "Ben even acknowledged that if it hadn't been for Dan, there wouldn't be even the possibility of an Animas-La Plata water project."
After six years in the House of Representatives, Campbell was once again contemplating retiring from public life. Then Senator Tim Wirth, a liberal Democrat, unexpectedly announced that he would not be running again.
Wirth's announcement inspired a political free-for-all. Terry Considine, a staunch conservative and advocate of term limits, had been gearing up to run against a true liberal. Now he didn't know what--or whom--he would face.
Campbell decided that maybe he'd stay in Congress after all--this time as a senator. But former governor Richard Lamm and Josie Heath, a former Boulder County commissioner, also determined they'd make a run at it.
After a hard-fought Democratic primary, Campbell emerged the victor. Polls gave him a twenty-point lead over Considine, who'd suddenly found himself up against a moderate-to-conservative Democrat. A Democrat who shared his interest in term limits--even though Campbell had already spent six years in Congress.
But there were crucial differences between the candidates, too. While Considine was a buttoned-down business type, Campbell had a knack for catching the public's eye--and plenty of press, as "the only American Indian in Congress."
"The Indian thing is part of Campbell's mystique," complained Dick Wadhams, Considine's campaign manager. "And if this campaign turns on mystique and style, we lose. If it turns on issues and substance, I think we can win."
Campbell's advertising, which stressed his modest upbringing and his American Indian heritage, showed him riding the range on his pinto, his ponytail bouncing at the back of his neck. But beneath the stylish campaign were some substantial flaws.
After Campbell attacked Considine for receiving draft deferments during the Vietnam War, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Campbell's campaign literature falsely claimed he'd been trapped behind enemy lines in Korea for five weeks.
Campbell acknowledged that the information was erroneous. He blamed the mistake on his mother, who had been unable to contact him for five weeks during the war, he said, and assumed he had been captured or lost. That, however, did not explain how the claim ended up in Campbell's campaign literature.
Considine went after Campbell in a series of debates, painting his opponent as a "do-nothing" member of Congress and contending that Campbell had gone on an oil company-funded trip to Alaska when a vote on whether to open up certain regions there to exploration was coming up. In response, Campbell's camp made another blunder. A TV ad for Campbell contended that after he returned from the trip, he voted against the oil company. Unfortunately, the House had yet to vote on the measure.
By the close of the race, Campbell's twenty-point lead had slipped to single digits; he was low on money and was "getting my butt kicked" in debates with the Harvard graduate. That's when he was contacted by Northern Cheyenne leaders, who said his campaign was being hurt by evil spirits. They sent Campbell an eagle feather to wear in the pocket over his heart, and red paints made from earthen materials so that he could place a dot on each palm, over his heart and on top of his head.
"I asked Linda what I should do," Campbell says. "She's Swedish and not really into this Indian thing, but she said, 'What have you got to lose?' So I did what they said."
And he took some heat for it. "Some newspaper columnist made a wiseass remark about me using a 'pagan ritual,' which really made me angry," Campbell says. "Indians believe in God and Jesus; they just have different names. They have amulets, Jews have a Star of David, Christians have the cross. They all use incantations. But because they're Indians, their religion is pooh-poohed.
"Call it coincidence, but the polls began changing within a few days and the money was rolling in."
Perhaps not coincidentally, however, late in the campaign Considine was confronted by the press on the role one of his property-management companies had played in the Silverado banking scandal. And the pro-choice Campbell--with the aid of the National Abortion Rights League--was also hammering at his opponent's anti-abortion stance.
In the end, Campbell won easily.
Campbell's first two years in the Senate were more remarkable for his appearances off the floor--on horseback, on Harleys--than in Congress. Although he sided with Clinton and the Democratic Party line on 80 percent of the votes, he split off often enough--particularly on environmental issues --to be perceived as a maverick.
Then on March 3, 1995, Campbell announced he was changing parties.
"I am doing so with the realization that I can no longer continue to support the Democratic agenda nor the administration's goals, particularly as they deal with public lands and fiscal issues," he said.
"This decision is not being done out of vindictiveness or as an impulsive gesture. I have given this a great deal of thought, particularly during the past thirty days in dealing with the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA).
"If anything, this debate has brought into focus the fact that my personal beliefs and that of the Democratic Party are far apart. As a co-sponsor of the BBA every term I have been in Congress, I am absolutely convinced at the present rate of growth in both our federal deficit and our national debt that it is only a matter of time until we find ourselves in the same financial collapse that Mexico now faces. The difference will be, no one will bail us out, and our collapse will precipitate the collapse of the economies of the free world. The BBA is not the total answer to our fiscal problems, but at least if it had passed, it would have given Americans the chance to participate in the decisions.
"My change of parties does not mean I will not do my best to continue to represent the interests of individual Democrats, just as I would with any other constituent. I have always been considered a moderate, much to the consternation of the left wing of the Democratic Party. My moderacy will now be to the consternation of the right wing of the Republican Party, because I have no intention of changing my position on WIC, the youth corps, women's choice and many other issues.
"This morning I placed a call to the president, the vice president, the minority leader and the governor of Colorado to notify them of my intentions and to assure them my move was not personal. They were all highly disappointed. I assured them I will continue to support them when I think they are right and oppose them when they are wrong. It is clear, however, that I have not been able to live up to the expectations of the Democratic Party, so it is best to go our separate ways.
"Changing parties will raise a host of accusations or speculation. I have no other motive other than trying my best to represent my state and this nation. No one has offered me anything, nor have I asked anything.
"I am changing parties based on my own convictions and those of my family."
He was certainly not doing it based on the convictions of his staffers, who were just as surprised by Campbell's announcement as the rest of the country. About half of Campbell's staff quit; others were fired in what they characterize as an office "purge" by Ginnie Kontnik.
Then-chief of staff Ken Lane says he heard about Campbell's plan to switch parties the night before the senator announced it to the world at a press conference. "It was embarrassing to find out the way I did," Lane says. "He told Sonny Bono, of all people, before he told me, who had served him and his family faithfully for nine years. God...Sonny Bono?"
Lane says he didn't know why Campbell really made the switch--and still doesn't. He didn't buy Campbell's initial Balanced Budget Amendment version, or Campbell's explanation that he was also angry at the state Democratic Party for failing to support him. "Ben made himself believe that," Lane says. "It ate at him, and I know it ate at his family, who felt they were never given the respect they deserved. But I tried to make the distinction, when he told me what he was going to do, between the party leaders in Denver and Boulder and the rank-and-file Democrats who had supported him. The saddest comments I heard were from those people who felt they had been abandoned."
The angriest comments came from Democratic leaders. Former colleagues, especially Representative Pat Schroeder, labeled Campbell a disgrace and a traitor. The Democratic Party demanded that he return the money he'd been given for his Senate race; Campbell countered that his voting record had given the Democrats their money's worth.
For all Campbell's problems with the left wing of the Democratic Party, Lane predicts he'll have more trouble with the religious right. "Practically every year, I'd hear rumors about Ben switching parties," Lane says. "Then Ben would say, 'Why trade one set of nuts for another set of nuts?' His dislike for the Christian Coalition is well-known. The most hate-filled, venomous correspondence we ever got in the office was from the so-called Christian groups. They used to drive him nuts. Now he's in their party."
Lane did not make the switch. "After the party change," he says, "Linda [Campbell] called and asked me to stay. She said, 'Ben needs you; you served him well.' But I couldn't. Ben says he changed parties because of his principles. Well, I stayed with my party because of my principles."
After Campbell's announcement, Lane handed in his resignation, agreeing to stay on to help through the transition period. It was only when he offered Kontnik a ride to Campbell's office after they'd taken the same flight from Colorado to D.C. that he learned she was going to replace him as chief of staff. The senator didn't feel he could be trusted, Lane was told.
Lane didn't approve of the rough way staffers were handled, but given Campbell's childhood, he realized what was motivating it. "As a person left at an orphanage, coming from a dysfunctional family, unsure of love and relationships, Ben needs acceptance," he says. "He needed it from the staff. When he didn't get it, he reacted the same way he did when he was a child--by lashing out. It hurt him, and when he gets hurt, he gets angry, and that's the dark side of Ben Campbell...He can be very vindictive."
But although his former boss can also be opportunistic, Lane says he doesn't think Campbell was calculating potential political gains when he changed parties.
"I don't think he switched so that he could be chairman of a committee or placed on certain committees," Lane says. "Ben hated committee work; it was like pulling teeth to get him to go to committees. Now he's obviously been rewarded with plum assignments, but Ben's no fire-breathing legislator. He's not interested in the daily grind, and that's what committees are all about."
For the same reason, Lane doesn't see Campbell running for governor, even though the senator has said publicly that he's given it some thought. "He's not an administrator," Lane says. "He'd soon tire of the day-to-day running of a state." And though Campbell's name has surfaced as a potential Secretary of the Interior in a Bob Dole cabinet, Lane doesn't think that makes sense, either. As a senator, Campbell gets to fly back to his ranch once a week to be with his family; a cabinet position wouldn't allow him to do that.
But Lane predicts that Campbell could also have trouble keeping his Senate seat. "I see a stiff primary in his new party," he says. "Others in that party have been waiting their turns for years and won't take kindly to being bumped out of line by a party-switcher."
If Campbell isn't particularly good at administration or lawmaking, what's his specialty? "Passion," replies Lane. "If he's involved with something, he comes at you from the heart, and that's a hard thing to resist. I'd be lying if I told you that even now I can't totally dismiss my admiration for Ben."
Devendorf is one of the staffers who survived the switch. In 1991 Lane had hired him to run Campbell's Pueblo office; three years later he was promoted to director of constituent services for the state. His loyalty to Campbell hasn't missed a beat.
"It wasn't like I agreed with him 100 percent of the time, anyway," Devendorf says. "Maybe 85 percent, but he was always willing to listen the other 15 percent of the time.
"My family was pretty non-political, and I was a moderate. So I was working for the man, not the party. I fully understand those for whom it was a big deal; it was heart-wrenching to see them go. Many of them were no less committed to Ben, but they felt that the 'Democratic senator' label was important."
Devendorf changed his own affiliation from Democrat to Republican a year after Campbell made the switch. "Not because he asked me to, but because I came to agree with him," Devendorf says. "He told me the main issue with him was concern about the deficit and what was going to happen if we didn't deal with it. He just thought that the Republicans were the only ones willing to face it."
In retrospect, Devendorf says, it wasn't too hard to see that change was in the offing. "I can't tell you the number of times I heard him say it would be much easier to be a Republican to vote his conscience," he says. "At the time, I just thought it was the boss talking after a long, hard day. But then I think he got tired of the arm-twisting.
"He told me a while after the change that when he was young and more liberal, he found that he sided with the Democrats a little more often than Republicans, and that's why he was a Democrat. But as he got older, he found that he was siding with the Republicans a little more often, especially on fiscal issues...Maybe I'm getting a little older too, because I found myself agreeing with him."
James Doyle, too, stayed on. The former Campbell volunteer had been working at a newspaper in Loveland when he noticed a story about the district director at the senator's Fort Collins office resigning. A native of Pennsylvania who'd come to Colorado to study journalism at the university in Boulder, Doyle was ready to try something new.
"I had three kids, and it's hard to make a living as a journalist on a small newspaper," he says. He applied for the job and got it.
As a reporter, Doyle was very familiar with the state's politicians, and he was intrigued by Campbell's unique blend of identities: Indian, biker, rancher, jewelry maker. "He was the only politician I could have considered working for," Doyle says. "And I was surprised to find that my perception of him was pretty close to reality. What you see is the real Ben Campbell, the sum total of all his experiences, which is what made him a fiscal conservative but a social moderate."
When staff members disagree with his stances, Doyle says, Campbell is always willing to listen to their arguments. "He's got an open mind and can be persuaded," he adds. "But in the end, Ben Campbell does what he thinks is right."
Doyle, raised by Irish-Catholic parents who were lifelong Democrats, considers himself independent-minded; although he was registered as a Democrat, he'd never felt obligated to vote a straight party ticket. And he didn't feel compelled to quit when Campbell switched parties.
Doyle believes a major reason for the split--besides Campbell's support for the Balanced Budget Amendment--was a lack of support from leaders of Colorado's Democratic Party. When Campbell was running against Lamm and Heath in the primary, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb endorsed Lamm. (Campbell returned the favor by endorsing John Frew, the current president of Colorado Ski Country, when Webb was running for re-election in 1995.)
"Ben split the vote between Lamm and Heath, and that's why he won," Doyle says. "The party wanted Lamm, and they've never forgiven Ben." And not only did Campbell beat Lamm, but he went on to win the election without the unqualified support of his party. "He would have never been elected if all he appealed to were Democrats outside of Denver and Boulder," Doyle says. "He got the crossover vote and the independent moderates. His life experiences were the sort that everyday Coloradans could relate to."
Less everyday Coloradans apparently had more trouble. "It's funny," Doyle says, "but the party that espouses inclusiveness was never fully able to embrace someone who spent his childhood in an orphanage, who was a common laborer, a member of an ethnic minority, someone who grew up poor."
The point was driven home two years ago, Doyle says, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. President Clinton was holding a rally at the Denver Civic Center; Governor Roy Romer, Webb and Campbell were all there. "But Ben was clearly the outsider," Doyle recalls. The dignitaries had been invited to lunch at the governor's mansion; when Doyle went to pick up his boss, Campbell had already left, after feeling slighted by the others.
Doyle learned that Campbell was switching parties the night before the press conference. "It was late, so at first I didn't know what to think," he recalls. "I wondered what was going to happen to me, but I decided not to make any decisions until I talked to Ben personally."
Campbell called him the next day and asked him to stay on, Doyle says. "I asked what it would mean if I stayed a Democrat and he said, 'Jim, I didn't ask for your party affiliation when I hired you and I don't care about it now, so long as if you stay, you feel you can support me and work for Colorado.'
"I decided right then that the man was more important than any party label."
A year and a half after he switched parties, Campbell makes no apologies for the move.
By and large, he says, most members of Congress, including the Democrats, have come to terms with his party change. "Except Pat Schroeder, and I don't understand that," Campbell says. "I've always sided with her on women's issues, and she knows I will continue to do so.
"But I can't say I truly dislike anyone," Campbell continues. "Now, there are some I will disagree with until the cows come home. But we get along. For instance, Ted Kennedy, I tease him that he'd give it all away, but really, he's a great guy."
Although he concedes they were a fine staff, Campbell feels less charitable to former aides who were "more concerned with being Democrats than doing their job.
"I was warned by the Republican leadership to let them all go as soon as I announced I was changing parties," he says. "But I offered to keep them all on, if they felt they could work for me and the people of Colorado regardless of the party...That was probably a mistake."
He let Lane go early, he says, because "he was throwing a hissy fit." And he got tired of other staffers' "self-pity," which was getting in the way of their work.
One of the important jobs of his office, Campbell says, is providing services for constituents, taking on the problems individual citizens have with federal agencies. The media rarely notices this sort of work, Campbell complains.
He also criticizes the amount of attention devoted to certain bills. "I think sometimes the bills you stop are more important than the ones you try to pass," Campbell explains. "For instance, I stopped a bill that would have sold the public lands in ski areas to private investors. I had to rally the Western senators to do it. Of course, you never get any publicity for that."
Campbell continues to split with his new party on some votes, such as raising the minimum wage. He says he's looking forward to working on a pet Democratic project, health-care reform, although he prefers offering incentives to doctors to establish practices in urban and rural areas rather than "socializing" medicine. And he also voted for a ban on assault rifles, which he now regrets because "it hasn't done a damn thing," he says. "But opponents really ticked me off before the vote by threatening to kill me and my staff.
"When people say politics is a dirty business, they're right," Campbell says. "But there's also the opportunity of making some meaningful change to better people's lives. That's why I would stay with it and how I'd like to be remembered."
Business got dirty again this spring, when Campbell's environmental record came under attack. And it's on environmental matters where the senator's assorted cultures--Indian, rancher--often clash the most.
Animas La-Plata isn't the only battleground. In fact, with the exception of Pat Schroeder, all the members of Colorado's congressional contingent side with Campbell on that one. When Schroeder voted to remove $10 million in funding this July, Campbell saw it as retribution for his party switch.
The big fight this spring started with Campbell consenting to appear in Banana Republic ads, as part of the "freedom at work" campaign, wearing a jacket from the store (along with his own leather motorcycle chaps). Before he agreed to the modeling stint, Campbell got an okay from the Senate ethics committee, which said he would have to return the jacket. Campbell already planned to donate the $2,000 modeling fee to Dull Knife College in Lame Deer.
But then Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who's currently representing the Rocky Flats grand jurors, suggested that the expensive ad campaign featuring the senator was essentially a gift on its own. "It is hard to see how the direct offer of a tailored, fully funded campaign would not be treated as 'in kind' gift or contribution," Turley wrote the Senate ethics committee.
Beyond that, Turley said, the ad campaign could pose an ethical problem because Donald Fisher, chief executive officer of GAP, Inc., Banana Republic's parent company, had business pending in Congress.
Before a Senate subcommittee headed by Campbell, Fisher--who'd donated $60,000 to the Republican Party--testified in favor of creating a public-private trust to make a park of the Presidio, a former Army base in San Francisco. Fisher lives next door to the site. "And, of course, doesn't want a bunch of condominiums to spring up," Turley says.
"Campbell originally opposed the bill. Then it comes to the floor, and suddenly he's all for it. In fact, [Senator] Barbara Boxer credited him with trying to save it."
Campbell's office denies any connection between the ads and the senator's stance on the Presidio bill, which was later scuttled.
But in the meantime, Turley threatened Banana Republic and the GAP with a boycott by environmental groups, contending that Campbell's "poor" voting record on environmental issues did not fit the company's image. The League of Conservation Voters, which Turley describes as a "moderate" environmental group, claims that Campbell voted against 80 percent of major environmental legislation. That included supporting a freeze on the Endangered Species Act, selling public lands to reduce the deficit, and opening public lands to timber salvage companies. The ads were quickly pulled.
"Professor Turley's weak attempt to create 'Gap-gate' out of the senator's participation in this advertising campaign weakens Turley's pro-environmental message by teaching his students that the truth takes a back seat to cheap publicity and theatrics," Campbell spokesman Alton Dillard said at the time.
And even Ken Lane thinks the sweeping condemnation against Campbell's environmental voting record "is to some extent unfair," he says. "I think he's been excellent on Colorado environmental issues, he's just not as interested or in tune with national issues. As a staff, we were not wild-eyed environmentalists. Like Ben, most of us tended to be moderates and pragmatists who saw the need to balance use and protection."
But that could be changing with Campbell's new staff, new party and new allegiances, Lane suggests. "Now there's nobody to keep him in balance, nobody to caution or rein in his excesses," he says. "Those of us who were with him from the beginning knew when to push and when to back off and wait for another day. From what I've seen lately, I think he's been captured by the extreme elements of the Republicans on environmental issues."
Doyle disagrees. "Ben works well," he says, "with groups like the Sierra Club on things like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which is the most important natural-resources legislation for this state since the Colorado Wilderness Act, which he also worked on. He's also been at the forefront regarding Rocky Flats, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Superfund cleanups."
"The whole thing was stupid," Campbell says of the Turley incident. "He was just angry because I voted against a bill that would have stopped logging companies from getting dead timber out of the national parks where they supply fuel for fires like what we saw on Storm King Mountain when those firefighters died.
"I went to debate him at the university, but he barricaded himself in his office," Campbell continues. "What a weasel. If it was up to him, we'd never cut a tree. He lives in a damn dream world."
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is back in his world, at his ranch in Ignacio. Up at dawn, he's about to lead a group of bikers from the Iron Horse rally to Silverton.
His association with bikers, like most of his interests, has raised a few eyebrows. For example, there have been his fights against helmet laws, the time he hosted a get-out-of-jail party for Hell's Angel leader Sonny Barger, and his recent sponsorship of a car-and-bike rally at the Capitol. "Actually, I see a lot of similarities between Indians and bikers," Campbell says. "They're both nomadic, tribal, refer to each other as brothers and sisters, both like tattoos and earrings.
"Both like to travel in the wind--on a motorcycle or a horse--and dress in leather. Both use bears and eagles as symbols. Both are independent and distrustful of government."
Even if one particular biker/Indian is part of that government. "It's not exactly the image people have of senators," Campbell admits. "I don't fit the mold. But if they don't like it, they can throw me out and I can return to making jewelry."
Or maybe think seriously about that cabinet post. Or "maybe governor...hell, I don't know. And right now, I don't want to think about it. I got to hit the road with my friends.
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