Bennet on Bennet: Pragmatic, not partisan
fort collins now
Northern Colorado residents learned a few things about Colorado’s newest senator over the weekend.
They learned he makes atypical career choices, jumping from Yale Law School to investment banking and from city government to school district leadership. He dresses comfortably, at least on weekends, and he’s still looking for more permanent digs in Washington, D.C.
And maybe most importantly to Michael Bennet’s future success, they learned he plans to spend more time in Colorado than he does in that city.
Bennet, who was sworn in just over a week ago to replace new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the Senate, heard Saturday from Weld business leaders, farmers and ranchers and a smattering of residents who were just wondering who the heck he was.
In open-house meetings and during an interview with the Summit Daily News sister paper, The Greeley Tribune, Bennet acknowledged his selection was a bit unorthodox.
But he said he would bring the same enthusiasm and humility that he’s used to find success in his other careers.
“I think it’s very rare for a person to come to a job like this fully briefed on the job they’re going to work on,” he said. But that’s OK ” “Each experience I’ve had has informed the next experience.”
For instance, he learned while working for Philip Anschutz, the conservative Colorado mogul, that when dealing in bankruptcy restructuring, pragmatism is a virtue.
He learned as superintendent of Denver Public Schools that there are not Democratic and Republican answers to pressing education problems.
“What I mean is something more than that, which is that is a place where very tired orthodoxies are not going to get us to a place we need to be,” he said. “At least there are areas that I think I bring fairly extensive experience, and now having spent two weeks (in Washington), I can tell you useful experience, because there aren’t a lot of people there who restructured $3 billion of debt or restructured a school district. I’m hopeful that what I am bringing is a set of complementary values.”
He said his willingness to learn and his understanding that there’s a lot of it to be done are why his first day of tours throughout the state was spent in Weld County.
“Agriculture … is one thing that I need to get caught up on quickly,” he said.
Since his appointment and swearing-in, Bennet has been praised by members of both parties as thoughtful, intelligent and unbound by ideology.
He said he wanted to help solve the country’s problems, and though they are multitudinous, he believes he is suited to do it.
He views himself as someone seeking pragmatic, and not necessarily partisan, solutions to disagreements.
Here’s Bennet on two topics that foster the most discord in this region.
Water: “It’s the kind of thing where you can hold completely diametrically opposed positions from somebody else, and you can both have legitimate positions. From your perspective where you are, this project should be built. But from your perspective over here, this shouldn’t be built.”
Immigration: “The demagoguing on this issue isn’t getting us anywhere … The politics is just so much smaller than it needs to be, I think, to get it done. It’s not obviously partisan in any way; it becomes partisan.”
Although Bennet said he’d strive for bipartisanship, party politics is sure to come into play relatively quickly, because he will begin defending his seat very soon; he will have to stand for election in 2010, which would have been the end of Salazar’s term.
Displeased Democrats continue to murmur about his appointment, while Republicans lick their chops.
But John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University and a state political expert, said it would be a mistake to underestimate Bennet.
“He’s young. He’s got energy. He’s obviously smart. He and (Gov. Bill) Ritter have already been doing the right things by going all over the state introducing him,” he said. “I think in a couple years, he’ll be pretty well known.”
Bennet earned millions working for Anschutz, but he still will need the largesse of wealthy donors for his 2010 campaign. Straayer said while some people voiced their support for other would-be appointees, they’ll come back to Bennet.
Bennet doesn’t consider himself hamstrung, despite his newness to the state political scene.
“Anyone was going to have to do the work, and that’s what I’m beginning today,” he said.
He said he knows he and his fellow senators have their work cut out for them on the economy, the nation’s two wars and other issues of international scope.
“I’m not overwhelmed by that, but … I would like to be part of a conversation that actually takes these challenges seriously,” he said. “Because if we don’t, we’re not going to succeed. We’re going to make mistakes; there’s not a shred of doubt, no question in my mind, that we’ll make mistakes. But we’ve got to try.”
Trying new things is, well, nothing new for Bennet, who is still so close to his experience at Denver Public Schools that he still says “we” when talking about the district’s student performance.
He said in that experience, he learned the importance of listening to different groups.
He started every morning with a meeting of 15 principals, cycling through each school every three weeks. People told him he wouldn’t be able to honor the commitment, but he did.
“It had two effects: One was, I really was able to learn something about the business of teaching and learning,” he said. “And also, I was able to get a very strong understanding about things like No Child Left Behind … and another thing, which is a little Machiavellian, was to create a real espirit de corps, that we had all been sent here to change the system.”
He said he would fly home as often as possible to continue those conversations with farmers, business owners, educators and Coloradans of every stripe.
“That’s what this is going to be about for me. The things that I don’t know, I am going to go out and learn.”
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