By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado’s junior U.S. senator gets trounced regularly for refusing to take a public stand on such important issues as the Employee Free Choice Act. But Sen. Michael Bennet didn’t hold back when he was grilled by high school students instead of reporters or political opponents.
Perhaps being surrounded by 100 students at a June 12 Mile High Youth Corps team-building event in Denver’s Hallack Park made the former superintendent of the Denver Public Schools go all soft and nostalgic, because Bennet — who left DPS to fill the Senate seat Ken Salazar abandoned to become secretary of the Interior — went into detail in explaining his views on a wide range of topics, including the economy, the Iraq war and the regulation of the banking industry. He also touted the federal stimulus package passed by Congress in February by announcing that new money from the package will help fund summer employment for many of the assembled members of the Youth Corps, a program to engage students in entry-level “green-collar” jobs.
“We’re glad that money is going to be available to help students like you,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
What about the EFCA?
The students, however, failed to ask Bennet about his stand on the issue that habitually makes him clam up: the Employee Free Choice Act, or Card Check.
The EFCA has become a major wedge issue for political insiders looking for ammunition to use against middle-of-the-road Democrats such as Bennet. At its heart, the legislation as it is currently written aims to ease union organization rules and, in theory, clear a path for organized labor to eliminate a secret ballot in elections on whether to unionize. Republicans and business leaders say union leaders will use the open voting process to intimidate workers they know oppose unionization.
Democrats and advocates of organized labor disagree, pointing to a provision in the act that would allow for a secret ballot if 30 percent of workers ask for one. Democrats also say it will level the playing field because business leaders currently are able to intimidate workers who favor unionization. Republicans have been adamant in their position that the EFCA will harm businesses and make it harder for corporations to turn a profit.
Bennet has carefully avoided discussing the legislation since taking office in January. The new senator is perceived as a moderate Democrat, and, since he was appointed without ever running for office, he has never had to defend his positions publicly. So some politicos say he’s smart to stay on the sidelines, where he won’t make any enemies.
But others, including Colorado Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams, disagree, saying Bennet is one of Colorado’s United States senators, and the people he serves deserve to know where he stands.
“It’s breathtaking that he cannot decide on the issue,” Wadhams told The Colorado Statesman last week.
“Maybe he is using the issue to raise money by putting his vote up for sale. He’s been a United States senator now for more than five months, and he should be able to come up with a position,” Wadhams continued. “But even before that, it wasn’t like that issue wasn’t in the forefront of the public debate. If he is contending that he didn’t know enough about the legislation before being selected to the Senate, then he must have had his head in the sand.”
Wadhams, known as a master of finding the right time to pounce on political opponents, recently took Bennet’s endorsement of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor after a 25-minute meeting as a point of contrast.
“I mean, he can make up his mind about our Supreme Court nominee in less than half of an hour. But it’s taken him five months on Card Check — and he still doesn’t know where he stands?” Wadhams continued. “That is just wrong!”
When asked about the EFCA legislation and about Wadham’s criticism by The Statesman after his meeting with the high school students, Bennet said he thinks Wadhams is promoting a false choice.
“What I have said clearly is that there aren’t enough votes for the language (of the bill) as drafted — the things that (Wadhams) keeps talking about — to come to the Senate floor,” Bennet said.
“What is happening is, people from labor and from business are trying to work out a compromise to see whether they can get something that will pass. And I hope that whatever that something is, that it will help to serve the interests of Colorado businesses and working families.”
Bennet then continued touting his hope that a balanced compromise can be found.
“We need to be very careful, especially in these economic times, with every piece of legislation that we are dealing with,” he said. “And we need to be sure to protect the right of workers to organize and to collectively bargain, free from intimidation, and we also need to see that our small businesses are nimble enough to help grow us out of this recession that we are in.”
Bennet also defended his support of Sotomayor and passed off criticism that his decision was hurried.
“Let me say that Judge Sotomayor is one of the most impressive people that I have met in a very long time,” Bennet said. “I am very pleased the president nominated her. She is brilliant, and she has a deep understanding of people’s daily lives. Notwithstanding what Dick said, having read a great number of her opinions and descriptions of her opinions, I got a very good sense of her before I ever got to talk with her.”
What about Iraq?
EFCA aside, during his discussion with the Denver high school students last week, Bennet clearly stated his positions on several issues.
When asked by a young student how long it would be before American troops are out of Iraq, Bennet called the action in Iraq a “distraction” from the war on terror and strongly stated his support for the war in Afghanistan.
“We are going to be out of Iraq mostly over the next 10 to 12 months,” Bennet said. “We have a lot of work that still needs to be done in order to create the political stability the country needs to make sure that it doesn’t collapse once we pull out. The president is committed to creating the stability, and I absolutely think that is the right thing to do.
Bennet continued by noting that “some very dangerous things” are happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Our troops are fighting fiercely against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and that is where our focus has to be,” Bennet continued. “We were distracted by Iraq.”
How do we keep a recession from recurring?
Bennet, who sits on the Senate Banking Committee, was asked how the country could stop the financial meltdown that occurred last fall happening again. Displaying his background in education and his ease in talking with young students, Bennet carefully explained how a lack of oversight and regulation allowed the overleveraged banks on Wall Street to fail when housing prices sagged.
As the students’ eyes began to glaze over, Bennet described what Congress is doing to ensure the same problems don’t happen again.
“What we are doing now is having a conversation in Washington, D.C., about how to create (regulation) so we don’t find ourselves in the ridiculous position that we are in now (again). Where we are talking about whether or not financial institutions are too large to fail because it will take the rest of us down with them. And then, as taxpayers, being forced into putting a gun to our heads to bail them out,” Bennet said, adding that such regulation probably will be pushed through Congress by early fall.
“The way we are going to get out of that position is to say (to banks) that if you are going to grow like that again, then you have to have more assets on your books, because we are not going to bail you out again,” he continued.
How is the Colorado economy doing?
Although unemployment in Colorado is still on the rise, and the state Legislature is facing dismal budget cuts, Bennet told the students he believes the state has hit the bottom of its economic recession.
“I think we have stopped the incredible slide that we were in,” Bennet said. “Our unemployment rate is still very high, and I don’t think that we have seen things come back yet. But I think what we are going to see now is the beginning of a recovery.”
Although optimistic, Bennet was sure to add a caveat, predicting that Colorado’s recovery will be long and slow.
“It’s going to take us a while to get out of where we have been,” he said. “We have been in a time for the last 10 years where we have had too much debt from the consumer all the way up to the federal government. And now we have to pull that back in. We, as consumers, need to save more. And we’re trying to save more. And I think that is what we need to do.”
Giving Obama a grade
It’s hard to criticize your president when you’re a first-term, appointed senator in the president’s majority party. So it was no surprise that when a student asked Bennet to grade President Barack Obama’s performance, the senator offered high marks and praise.
Also not surprisingly, Bennet toed the Democratic line, blaming the Bush administration for many of the country’s current problems.
“He inherited a pretty big mess,” Bennet said of Obama. “He is calling on all of us to make some pretty hard decisions, and the next one is going to be on health care reform…. I think he is working hard on that. It’s been a heavy load to carry. He has had a lot to clean up.”