On Thursday, January 3, Joe Salazar spent the last hours of his tenure in the Colorado Legislature doing the same thing he’d done for much of the past six years: taking on powerful interests at the Capitol, chief among them the oil and gas lobby.
“Representative for less than 24 hours, and then I’m done. And then there’s freedom,” joked Salazar as he took the microphone at a small rally in Civic Center Park. He addressed a few dozen environmental activists who gathered in the shadows of the Capitol to send a message to lawmakers as they prepare to be sworn in for the new legislative session.
“We’re at a very pivotal time,” said Salazar. “In fact, the time may have already passed for us to reverse some aspects of climate change. We’re all responsible for what is happening in this world, and all of us are obligated to do what we can.”
Salazar has a new job. This week he was named the new executive director of Colorado Rising, the group behind Proposition 112, which would have increased required setback distances between new oil and gas wells and occupied buildings. Voters defeated the measure in November following a $40 million opposition campaign by the oil and gas industry, but activists aren’t giving up; they want the legislature’s new Democratic majority to act to protect Coloradans from the health and safety risks posed by fracking.
“We have seen a history of inaction by policymakers,” Salazar told the group gathered at Civic Center Park. “There’s an awful lot of talk, but very little action. There’s an awful lot of ignoring constituents. We have to stop that pattern of elected officials ignoring the very people who elected them to serve in that building.”
In the meantime, Colorado Rising and 26 other activist groups from across the state have signed a letter to Governor-elect Jared Polis, who takes office on January 8, calling for a moratorium on the approval of new drilling permits until a new set of health and safety protections can be drafted and put in place. Salazar said that while he considers Polis a friend, he and other activists won’t hesitate to hold the new governor accountable on climate and environmental issues.
“Don’t get too comfortable in your blue sneakers,” he said to cheers. “Blue sneakers can step in shit just like boots can.”
After the rally, Westword spoke to Salazar, an attorney by trade, about his vision for Colorado Rising and the group’s plans for the 2019 legislative session.
Westword: I’m sure you had a lot of opportunities after leaving the legislature. What drew you to Colorado Rising?
Joe Salazar: This is the quintessential issue of our time. It affects civil rights, civil liberties, it affects economics, health, safety, everything that is happening with climate change. And if you’re going to have direct impact on communities, environmental justice is where to go.
Is environmental litigation going to be a focus for the organization going forward?
That’s one of the directions that we’re going. We’re still going to be working on policy issues at the State Capitol. We’ll be looking at individual candidates as well — during election cycles, if we’re going to endorse particular candidates or not. We really want to be an organization that has a vast effect on not only the politics, but the law.
What are some of your priorities for the legislative session?
Well, number one, we have to try to understand what [the majority’s] priorities are. For us, it’s always a focus on health, safety and welfare of the public and the environment first. I’m sitting down with the Speaker in the next couple of weeks to find out what their legislative priorities are, and then try to work on legislation with them to push them as hard as we can for protections all across the board.
You’ve seen firsthand how much influence the industry wields in the halls of the Statehouse. How do you deal with that?
It’s always a challenge. You know, every time I brought a bill, the industry would always bring twenty to thirty paid lobbyists to the Capitol to argue against it. We would bring a mass of community members, and it never seemed to work; [they] were never taken more seriously than the lobbyists. So it’s always a challenge, but I’ve been here six years, and I know how to navigate those challenges.
How do you go about emphasizing the climate implications of fracking?
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The policy focus is always going to be on health, safety and welfare. And here’s the thing: The industry always pivots toward economics and jobs. Short of human-caused war, there is going to be nothing as devastating to jobs and the economy as climate change. Nothing in human history is going to affect us more than that. We already see it happening in Miami and other places, where the sea level has risen to the point where it creeps into downtown Miami.
The green movement seems to have been energized by the recent protests led by the Sunrise Movement in the halls of Congress. How do you plan to bring that energy to Colorado?
We’ll bring it every day. That was one of the things that made me a very effective legislator: Leadership knew that I just had to put something out on Facebook, or make phone calls, in order to have a protest at the State Capitol. And I’m happy to do that right now, too. Polis knows that, as well as the speaker and the president of the Senate, and I’m happy to wield that when we need to.
I would much rather not have to do that. I would much rather be able to sit down with people, and say, "Hey look, instead of having a mass of people coming in and bombarding you in your office, let’s work on this right now." If you’re forcing us to do that, then we’ll do it. Because the tenor out there, the feeling out there, is that people are really concerned about climate change, and they will come and fight, not only for themselves, but for their children and their neighbors and future generations.
Colorado Rising and other groups will hold a "We Won't Back Down" rally at the State Capitol at 7:30 a.m. today, January 4, before the start of the Colorado Legislature. Find out more on the Colorado Rising Facebook page.