Brian Colon, Leader of the New Mexico Dems, Dishes on Winning the West

Brian Colón, chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, knows a little something about elections in the West. So we asked his take on the Denver convention's importance to the West, the Udall family dynasty, and the most famous political facial hair in the West.

Westword (Joe Horton): What's the significance of having the convention in Denver this year?

Brian Colón: It goes to showing the importance of the western states. In the past they may not have been in play, but clearly in this election cycle, the road to the White House leads through the West, and I think there were a couple of important factors and some very persistent and persuasive governors here in the West—my governor most especially.

Governor Bill Richardson, who chaired the convention in 2004, said look, the West is going to be in play and we need to make sure we have a presence and the eyes of the country ought to be on the West because that’s where the activity and this election is going to be won or lost. And so you have Gov. Richardson who said Denver’s the place where it’s gotta be. Colorado is where it’s gotta be. And Colorado did a great job of pulling together a committee to bring it to the West and I applaud them for that.

WW: What would you describe as major western issues?

BC: There has to be a couple things that jump out. Of course, the economy: when you have vast amounts of land with pockets of people, it’s sometimes very difficult to get traction on economic development. And so I think that the issues of the economy are very, very particular to the West because we don’t have the concentrations of the workforce that you may have in other parts of the country. I think another issue that’s very particular to New Mexico and say, Gov. Napolitano’s state, Arizona; we have issues of Native American sovereignty. The other issue that’s very particular to the western states, or at least to New Mexico and I think Arizona to a large degree as well, are the uses of water—water rights, and how we apportion those water rights. We got litigation over water that’s been going on for decades. What is the federal role in those types of issues and how is the federal government going to address the concerns of the limitations in the water supply?

WW: Knowing that Sen. Obama has made several trips to New Mexico and has made it a key priority of his campaign, do you think that he has a problem with Latino voters?

BC: I think you’ve kind of hit a very important point, and that is that, how do you communicate with those populations? The answer is a complex one, because those populations are not uniform in their voice. You can’t just say the Latino vote in New Mexico, because I can tell you, growing up in New Mexico and having lived here my whole life, the Hispanic community in northern New Mexico is substantially different than the Hispanic community in southern New Mexico. There’s not a single voice that speaks for the Latino population or the Hispanic population in New Mexico. So what does that mean? Well, that means that the federal candidates have to become keenly aware of the issues that are important to each of those communities. Whether in the north it’s about the land grants [much of the land-grant debate centers around the rights of the descendants of families who received Spanish and Mexican land grants before New Mexico was annexed to the U.S. and how they should now be compensated], or whether it’s in the south about frankly having fundamental access to water services.

WW: Why has Gov. Richardson been so successful?

BC: I think that clearly Gov. Richardson is in a fantastic position to help communicate Sen. Obama’s message. Even more than that, he’s in a very unique position, because I’ll tell you—if you do some research you’ll find this to be true, this is not just me bluffing—but Gov. Richardson has this ability, and it’s only I think been developed over the past few decades, but he’s had this charming ability to be able to be seen on the reservations as somebody’s whose very attuned to the needs of Native Americans. Now part of that comes by the fact that he was the congressman for many of the Native American communities here in New Mexico. But on a different note—but it’s an important note—they look at Bill Richardson and in a lot of ways they see a minority who they can relate to. He has this very uncanny ability to connect with, in my opinion, Native American populations. And he’s done it time and time again.

Obviously he connects with the Hispanic population. For him that’s a no-brainer. What’s not so obvious is really that connection I think that he has with the Native American communities.

WW: Could he be the vice president? Will he?

BC: Look, he’s got a proven track record. There is not another person out there that has the international affairs experience, in my opinion, tied to a track record of success, that Bill Richardson has. And I think that’s why he’s always discussed when it comes to whether it’s the vice-presidential opportunity or whether it’s for Secretary of State or whether it’s for ambassador, he is always a top tier and very credible candidate.

WW: As chairman, how do you divide your time and attention between the local, state and perhaps national needs?

BC: It’s a difficult balancing act. We have in New Mexico this particular election cycle every single one of our legislative seats is up for election. That’s very unusual. On top of that, we have, for the first time in our history, all three of our congressional seats are open races. Never before have we had all three congressional districts running in open seats.

I’ve got this amazing task of trying to take my team and try and balance the importance of the legislative races with those federal races with the presidential race. Those are all three very different things, I mean, and it’s tough. So we have a very strong, coordinated team for a coordinated effort in New Mexico because it’s important to have the conversations because what may be good for, say, [Democratic congressional candidate] Harry Teague in the eastern part of New Mexico may not be the same thing that’s important to, Senator-in-waiting Tom Udall or President-in-waiting Barack Obama. So we really have to make sure that we’re doing our best to have a symphony that’s all reading off the same sheets of music. And that’s kind of my role, I’m kind of a conduit in that regard.

WW: The Tom Udall race has connections to Colorado, with his cousin, Rep. Mark Udall, running for our open senate seat as well. What do you see in terms of the impact of state and national parties in these very important senate races?

BC: I think there’s some wonderful synergy going on now in the West. Clearly, like you say, the Udall family can paint a broader stroke with their brush—you know, collectively I think they’re more exciting than just individually. It wouldn’t be the first time they were called the Kennedys of the West. They’re very, very popular. They’re endeared to many people and I think that’s going to be very helpful to us here in the West.

WW: What would you consider success in November? A failure?

BC: Obviously a success is making sure that New Mexico goes blue all the way across the board. A failure would be a missed opportunity to increase our numbers in the federal delegation and increasing our numbers in the legislative delegation. That would be a failure.

There’s not a lock on anything. I’ve seen too many [Karl] Rove tactics to know, to be able to say, anything’s a lock. Because the Republican Party is very good at what they do when it comes to coming in and undermining campaigns with deception. And I have no doubt that that’s exactly what they intend to do this election cycle.

WW: Last question, maybe the most important one for you—Gov. Richardson: with or without beard?

BC: (laughs) You know, I think his charm transcends that beard.

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