By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
A year and a day after his last visit to Denver, President Barack Obama returned to the town where he accepted his party’s nomination to rally support for Sen. Michael Bennet, who faces a primary election challenge from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
“Michael is running in a very tough environment,” Obama told a crowd at the Fillmore Auditorium on Denver’s Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon. “But he’s got one very powerful advantage — He’s got you. He’s been fighting for each and every one of you in Washington. He needs you to fight for him now.”
Calling Bennet “an agent of change,” Obama lauded the former Denver Public Schools superintendent’s record in the Senate since Bennet was appointed to fill Ken Salazar’s seat last January.
It was Obama’s third visit to Colorado since he was inaugurated last year. In August, Obama held a town hall on health care reform in Grand Junction. This time last year, Obama signed the massive stimulus bill in a ceremony at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
A festive crowd estimated at 2,700 paid at least $25 each to squeeze into the Fillmore to hear Obama and boost Bennet’s bid for election. Another 400 donors paid as much as $15,000 to rub shoulders with Obama at a Bennet fundraiser in the downtown Sheraton.
Between the two fundraisers, the Bennet campaign raised as much as $700,000 in a single day, according to campaign manager Craig Hughes. That’s more than Romanoff raised all last year and more than the Republican frontrunner, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, had in the bank at the end of 2009. Bennet reported raising $4,748,673 through Dec. 31, one of the highest fundraising totals for a non election year by any Colorado candidate in memory.
Appearing before Obama spoke, Bennet announced new legislation he plans to introduce to freeze congressional pay until the economy recovers and block members of Congress from receiving taxpayer-funded health insurance until lawmakers pass health care reform.
“If Congress can’t get its act together on health care,” Bennet thundered from the stage, “then the American people shouldn’t subsidize their benefits.”
The plan is similar to one Bennet’s primary opponent unveiled at a candidates debate Tuesday. Romanoff vowed he would refuse “taxpayer funded health insurance” until a health care bill was enacted. He credited Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown with coming up with the notion.
Not everyone was happy to have Obama pass through town.
A few groups of protesters — some asking Obama to forbid DEA agents from raiding medical marijuana facilities, some angry Obama is taking sides in the Democratic primary, and some just angry — waved signs and shouted across the street from the Fillmore before Obama arrived. But once it started to snow, and the chill afternoon turned frigid, most of the protesters rolled up their banners and scattered.
Unaffected by the weather, Republican Senate candidate Norton blanketed the airwaves and the Internet with an advertising “blitz” blasting Obama for his administration’s deficit spending. In a television ad filmed in Jefferson County, Norton looks at the camera and throws out the welcome mat for Obama: “Mr. President, you should pledge to balance the budget or else decline to seek re-election,” Norton says. “That’d be change we could believe in.”
The 30-second ad was scheduled to run on radio and TV stations statewide through Thursday, a Norton campaign spokesman said. If the response was good, her spokesman said, the ad could run longer.
Former state Sen. Polly Baca, D- Thornton, a Romanoff backer, joined other former Democratic Party officials on Tuesday at a news conference on the sidewalk in front of state Democratic headquarters. The former national committeewoman and DNC vice chair told Obama to stay out of the Senate primary.
“It is inappropriate and unheard of in my lifetime for a sitting president to interfere in local Democratic Party primaries,” Baca said. “I respectfully request that the President” and other Democratic Party groups “cease theiractions re the Colorado primary for the United States Senate.”
Julia Ann Hicks, past vice chair of the state party and an early Obama supporter, made it clear she was concerned about the precedent.
“We support President Obama and we fought to get him nominated here in Colorado, but he should stay out of our primary process,” she said. “We are not children, and we don’t need the national party, or the leader of our party, telling us how to vote.”
Jennie Peek-Dunstone, the state party’s executive director, said President Bill Clinton got involved in some primaries during the 1990s. She also pointed out that Democratic Party rules forbid party officials from taking sides in primaries, but not elected officials like the president.
Romanoff held a news conference last week to highlight his endorsement by 61 current and former state legislators. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, Sen. Mark Udall, and Reps. Jared Polis, Betsy Markey and John Salazar have all endorsed Bennet.
A spokesman for the Romanoff campaign declined to comment on Baca’s demands, but hastened to point out the protest wasn’t authorized by the campaign.
A separate group organized through the Web site AngryVoters.org staged a protest outside Obama’s visit and planned a march into downtown.
Romanoff, who spent much of the day campaigning in El Paso County, said after the Obama visit that the president’s position on campaign finance was closer to his own than it was to Bennet’s.
“I respect the President,” Romanoff said in a statement. “In fact, I’ve taken the same approach he did, by refusing to accept contributions from special interest groups. That may not make me popular in Washington, but the truth is, Washington is broken. I look forward to working with the President to deliver the reforms — in health care, the economy, and energy policy — that America needs.”