Colorado still sizing up its new senator
April 9, 2009
FORT COLLINS ” Michael Bennet works a crowd like he’s been in politics for ages.
Sleeves rolled up, jacket off, Colorado’s newest senator walks before a few dozen Democrats at a recent meet-and-greet and waves off the microphone he’s offered with a smile.
The Democrat rattles off a brief stump speech without notes, talking up President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan and plans to reform education and health care. Then he switches gears and tells a funny anecdote about running into a fellow member of Congress from Colorado in the laundry room of his Washington apartment building.
The crowd laughs ” then peppers Bennet with questions, not all of them friendly, for more than two hours. Some stick around to continue the grilling even after the beer glasses and ham sandwiches are swept away.
Bennet keeps smiling, unflustered, though he’s never run for office before. Despite his confidence, even Democrats in Colorado, it seems, are waiting to be persuaded Michael Bennet is up to the task.
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Ask anyone who’s met Michael Bennet, even briefly, and they’ll tell you how smart he is. A Yale-educated lawyer with an impressive resume in law and business, the 44-year-old was superintendent of Denver Public Schools from 2005 until this year.
When Colorado’s then-senior senator, Democrat Ken Salazar, was tapped to be Obama’s Interior secretary, Gov. Bill Ritter made the biggest appointment of his career. He chose Bennet, a confidant to Obama on education policy but a virtual unknown outside Denver. Democrats gaped.
“It was this out-of-the-blue spoiled, rich white guy,” said Awilda Marquez, a prominent Denver Democrat who was White House liaison to the State Department in the Clinton administration. “Yeah, like the Senate needs another rich white guy.”
Marquez, who with other Latinos had pushed for a Hispanic appointment, was livid. They demanded a meeting with Bennet.
“There were a lot of angry people in the room. It was full and intense,” Marquez recalled. “But then (Bennet) started talking. I have to say, yeah, he was the smartest person in the room. He heard. He listened. He didn’t just ignore us and talk about what we wanted to talk about. We were all impressed.
“I’ve heard him since, and I have to say: I’ve rethought this rich white guy.”
Others are still sizing him up.
In the Senate, Bennet takes his cues from Democratic leaders and from Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who has only a couple weeks’ seniority on him.
Bennet supported Obama’s $787 billion economic recovery plan and Obama’s budget. He supports a bill making it easier for noncitizen residents in college and the military to become citizens. He joined ruling Democrats to release $350 billion in financial industry bailout funds, and he supported an expansion of children’s health care. He voiced outrage over bonuses for corporate heads seeking federal help.
He also has put his name to matters unlikely to ruffle feathers: A proposed new veterans’ cemetery near Colorado Springs, an amendment to encourage health care access in rural communities.
But one action raised eyebrows back home. Bennet, along with Udall, joined a group of party moderates led by Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, one of the chamber’s most conservative Democrats. Some Colorado Democrats griped that because Bennet was appointed, not elected, he ought to side with the president on most every question.
“Some people have been pretty upset about this,” said John Erhardt, a Democratic political consultant who leads Denver’s chapter of Drinking Liberally, a progressive activism club. “There’s a feeling of, where is this guy going?”
Bennet has said he joined the caucus to support what he calls “pragmatic problem-solvers.” But the move prompted some to question his loyalty.
“There are the party stalwarts who feel that the person who should be nominated is someone who has put in the time and the effort and sort of earned the position,” Erhardt said. “(Bennet) may be a smart guy, and the higher-ups know him, but it’s the people who have the votes, and down here I’d say the jury’s still out.”
Here’s the biggest question yet on Bennet: How would he vote on the Employee Free Choice Act? The bill would make it easier for unions to organize, and it’s fiercely opposed by business.
Asked directly, Bennet hasn’t said how he’d vote.
“Right now there isn’t something that can be passed,” he told the Fort Collins Democrats, explaining that he was meeting with both sides.
“Temperatures are running high on both sides and we need to make sure … that we’ve got all hands on deck talking about health care reform,” he said, changing the subject.
His answer frustrated Scott Newkirk, 39, of Fort Collins.
“I can’t believe how bad he waffled on that,” Newkirk said. “What we’ve got here is someone who may or may not be willing to make tough choices. I really hope he faces a primary challenge.”
Bennet won’t be easy to pick off. His campaign raised about $1.37 million in the first fiscal quarter of the year ” a staggering haul for a political neophyte.
It helps that Bennet has deep family connections in Washington, where his father was once president of National Public Radio. It also helps that his campaign team is stacked with veterans from Obama’s successful Colorado team, including campaign manager Craig Hughes.
Republicans say Bennet’s an untested newbie they can pick off next year. But privately they say Bennet has shown he has some serious political chops
“He has a wealth of connections and people who like him,” conceded Ryan Frazier, a city councilman in Aurora who is exploring a GOP run for the seat. Frazier was quick to add, though, that several Republicans are capable of defeating Bennet next year.
“Things are just getting going,” Frazier said.
Bennet doesn’t seem nervous about his first election. Just a few weeks into the campaign circuit, he acts like he’s been at it for years, cracking jokes that he goes to so many events his young daughter thinks that’s her job.
“I’m traveling the state and traveling the state and traveling the state, every single weekend,” he said.
In Fort Collins, one Democrat sharply challenged Bennet for trying too hard to compromise with Senate Republicans. After the meeting, 50-year-old Tim Caffrey praised the senator.
“He’s a good salesman. I’m for Bennet all the way,” Caffrey said.
Caffrey’s not the only one impressed by Bennet’s campaign style, which shifts from down-home to bookish in a flash. Bennet got the crowd giggling when he admitted he was about to say a “wussy politician thing.” A few breaths later he dropped a reference to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 and how it affected foreign policy of the era.
“A lot of the politician gloss is not there,” said Kathleen Worthington, 61, a retired lawyer from Windsor.
Worthington conceded not all Democrats are thrilled with Bennet. But she predicted the party would stick by him because many are starting to believe he can hold the seat.
“He’s the kind of person who reach out to people, who can take 2010. That’s all we need,” she said.