Former U.S. Senator Ben Campbell has an enduring love for driving big rigs
By Paul Abelson
He’s best known by his full name, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and if you type that into a Google search you’ll quickly learn that he is only the third Native American to have served in Congress and the Senate. He represented the state of Colorado, but spent his early years in California. He is also the first and only national legislator to hold a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
You’ll see the facts, but you won’t get to know this complex and fascinating individual. I met him at this year’s Great West Truck Show and immediately realized how different this retired senator is from your typical politician.
First of all, he’s Ben, not Senator Campbell. He is both relaxed and relaxing, as comfortable among truckers as he is among his fellow lawmakers — perhaps even more so. It’s because he never lost sight of his roots.
Ben started driving trucks in the farms and orchards of California. When he was just 14 (legal age to drive farm vehicles) he ran in a Ford Model A with a platform back. It had no roof or windshield so it could get under the branches of pear trees. Workers on the platform harvested the fruit. The old Ford, then about 20 years old, was far from roadworthy, but in the orchards it didn’t matter.
During his early years working as a fruit picker and being a troublemaker, Ben became friends with some Japanese boys who were involved in judo. They taught him the sport and, as he put it, “It kept me off the streets and out of jail.” He left high school early, joined the Air Force, and served during the Korean War. In Korea, he gained his high school G.E.D. and continued his judo training.
Once he returned to the States, he entered San Diego State Teachers College, now the University of California at San Diego, working his way through school as — what else? — a truck driver, mastering the art of shifting twin-stick transmissions. He joined the Teamsters and remains a member to this day.
Campbell graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in both physical education and fine arts. Although coaching, especially in judo, was his first career, he later went on to be a successful designer of Native American Jewelry, winning more than 200 design awards. A man of many talents, he also trained quarter horses on his ranch on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. Many of those horses won championships.
At San Diego State, he continued to study judo, becoming captain of the U.S. Olympic team in 1964. He continued to coach the U.S. International Team until, after 20 years of judo, he decided he was burned out.
During that time, he met his wife, Linda, in Sacramento. After coaching, he moved to Colorado where he worked as a teacher and a cop, but he still drove a truck to supplement his income. Soon he entered the political world. Ben was elected into the Colorado legislature and eventually drafted to run for a seat in Congress. He served three terms in the House of Representatives, and then ran for the U.S. Senate, all as a Democrat. During his first Senate term, he changed his affiliation to become a Republican, and was elected as such to his second Senate term.
Peace of mind behind the wheel
Campbell’s love of trucking and the people behind the wheel often shaped his political positions, most notably his opposition to NAFTA. It also had an impact on the way he spent his free time, away from the Washington hubbub.
“When things got too hectic, I’d go home, pop in a truck and go deliver Budweiser,” he says.
During his second term in the Senate, Ben wanted an aerodynamic tractor to haul his mobile office around the state. The Sterling A9500 fit his needs. After retiring from the Senate, he sold his office trailer and looked for something he and Linda could comfortably travel in.
The Campbells decided to have New Horizons RV from Junction City, Kan., custom build a rig. Their 2011 trailer came with three slide-out sections that expand living area considerably. The interior is fully wood-paneled and insulated, including the rear section that does double duty. It hauls either the Campbell’s Mini Cooper or a pair of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. When not serving as a mobile garage, it can double as a guest bedroom.
The 48-foot trailer weighs 26,000 pounds, but since it’s registered as a recreational vehicle and has a gooseneck hitch, Campbell doesn’t have to take it over the scales. To pull this fine rig, the 2002 Sterling A9500 had its Cat C16 engine somewhat modified with Pittsburgh Power components and technology. Not content with the 600 hp the engine came with, Campbell had Ron Duel of Jamrs, Inc. & Custom Chrome, Bloomfield, N.M., bring it up to 850 hp, with a whopping 2,750 lb-ft of torque. Power goes through a double overdrive 18-speed Eaton Auto Shift transmission to a single drive axle. Farmington Freightliner, Farmington, N.M., helped with engine and suspension work.
The Campbells took their made-over tractor and newly delivered trailer, named El Capitan, to the truck show in Las Vegas and entered their first truck competition, the Pride and Polish beauty contest. Campbell was delighted. Not only did he get to spend an enjoyable few days talking trucks and making new friends, he got some competition tips from the trucker parked next to him, show veteran Bill Sandvik. Ben earned his first trophy, for third place in the Limited Mileage class.
As much as Campbell loves talking trucks, he hates talking politics. One time an individual approached and said, “Hey, I know you.” That usually means someone recognizes him as a politician, so Ben answered, “No man, I don’t think so. We’ve never met.” The man insisted. “Yeah, I know I know you.” Ben tried again to dissuade him. Finally, the stranger said, “You used to drive for Dardell.” “That was 35 years ago,” Ben said, starting a long and friendly conversation.