By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Michael Bennet doesn’t spend a lot of time at his campaign office. Early on a Monday morning last week, the senator rushed from a meeting with top campaign staff — it ran a bit long — out the door to squeeze in a stop at his Senate office across town before flying back to Washington. The Senate was scheduled to continue debating financial reform legislation and Bennet, a member of the Senate banking committee, had some things to say.
The day before, Bennet kept his schedule clear for Mother’s Day, celebrated with his wife, environmental lawyer Susan Daggett, and their three daughters, Caroline, Halina and Anne. And the day before that, the Democrat spent most of the day in Pueblo, kicking off a “listening tour” with veterans, having just arrived back in the state Friday evening.
Once the senator leaves campaign headquarters on the upper floors of an office building in Glendale, staffers and volunteers visibly relax, though only a little bit. It might be Monday morning, but already the campaign is in high gear, with meetings under way, a steady stream of volunteers passing through the front door and the persistent sound of both office and cell phones ringing.
Facing a primary challenge from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Bennet has had to ramp up his campaign operation from scratch since early 2009 when Gov. Bill Ritter appointed him to fill Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s term. Unlike most candidates — including his primary opponent, his staffers are quick to point out — Bennet didn’t even have a single name on his own political mailing list, but made up ground quickly and counts more than 125,000 supporters and donors.
Starting quickly — a good eight months before he knew he’d face a primary but well aware national Republicans were targeting the seat — Bennet put campaign veteran Craig Hughes, a partner at Denver-based political consulting firm RBI Strategies & Research, in charge of building his campaign. It’s the first time Hughes has been in sole charge of a candidate campaign, though he has run ballot measures and in the last election was senior advisor for the Obama campaign in Colorado. That campaign won the state’s electoral votes for the Democrat for the first time since 1992. Earlier in his career, Hughes was political director for a dozen East Coast states for the Clinton White House.
Hughes worked part-time assembling the Bennet operation until last summer, when he went on leave from his firm to manage the campaign full time. As winter neared, Hughes bulked up the campaign, which employs just short of 30 people and counts at least an additional 100 steadfast volunteers. The campaign moved into its current headquarters on South Colorado Boulevard early this year.
There’s no mistaking that this is a professional operation, even as staffers laughingly show off the incongruous neon signs mounted outside each office and the even more incongruous Make-up Studio.
That’s right, tucked along the office’s shotgun hallway, near another room whose neon lights announce “Screen Testing,” the Bennet campaign has its own Make-up Studio.
The campaign earlier this year took over the former digs of the John Robert Powers Acting and Modeling School, which closed about a year ago. The school shut its doors in a hurry, leaving behind some angry students, the neon signs and an assortment of modeling paraphernalia, including child-sized costumes, Broadway-style lighting, and mirrors — lots of mirrors.
And the Bennet daughters, ages 5, 9 and 10, make some use of the facilities when they visit headquarters — playing dress-up, acting, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, at being child stars. (It’s not much of a stretch, since all three were featured in a campaign commercial that ran statewide for more than a month this spring.)
Staffers credit Bennet’s daughters with helping keep the mood light around the office, even as the hours pile up and the campaign maintains its focus on one of the key swing Senate races in this year’s midterm elections. Their mother also wins unanimous praise as Bennet’s most effective surrogate speaker — crucial because the candidate spends most of each week in Washington.
Among Bennet’s other top campaign staff:
Deputy campaign manager Adrianne Marsh joined the campaign earlier this year, having worked as communications director in Bennet’s Senate office. Previously, she held the same post for Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and worked on her 2006 campaign.
The campaign’s campaign coordinator for field operations, Adam Dunstone, worked the last election as field director for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in Iowa — where he worked for Romanoff campaign manager Bill Romjue, Biden’s 2008 Iowa manager — and before that worked on Colorado congressional candidate Angie Paccione’s election bid.
Research director Mike Phillips arrived at the Bennet campaign fresh from Peter Brown’s unsuccessful mayoral bid in Houston. Prior to that he worked at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the national organization that works to elect Democrats to the Senate.
Sergio Gonzales, political and outreach director, deals with community leaders and interest groups, including labor organizations and environmental groups, working to secure endorsements and coordinate political activities. He’s one of the campaign’s most prominent surrogates and regularly speaks before groups.
Communications director Trevor Kincaid previously worked for Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, and handled similar duties before that for Nick Lampson, the Texas Democrat who won Republican Tom DeLay’s congressional seat.
At campaign headquarters last week, volunteers and field operatives arrive and depart, dropping off completed petitions and picking up blank forms. Bennet plans to make the primary ballot at this weekend’s state assembly in Broomfield. He’s heading into the nominating convention with the support of an estimated 42 percent of the delegates — candidates need 30 percent to win a place on the ballot — but is conducting a parallel petition drive. His campaign is aiming to gather the signatures of at least 10,500 Democrats, 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts. It’s partly an organizing tool — “a good dry run for our field operations,” one staffer says — and partly insurance, since Romanoff counts the allegiance of 57 percent of the delegates (roughly 1 percent went to the state assembly uncommitted), and the rules allow delegates to vote however they like.
History, too, suggests anything can happen at the assembly, as Salazar learned six years ago when he entered the assembly with a comfortable lead and wound up losing top-line designation to grassroots candidate Mike Miles once delegates cast their votes. Salazar, at the time Colorado’s attorney general, went on to win the primary and then beat Republican nominee Pete Coors in the general election.
The state assembly isn’t the only venue where votes could be unpredictable this year.
On the day last week when Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Spector — a five-term senator who switched parties last year to become a Democrat — was headed toward a primary loss and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, was about to win his party’s Senate nomination against an establishment-backed candidate, Hughes reflected on the unusual voter mood and the challenges facing the campaign.
It’s not a good year to be part of the Washington establishment, or to be a conventional politician at all, he suggested. Bennet’s background in business and as Denver Public Schools superintendent could be assets — his first campaign commercial, which began running the day after March precinct caucuses, was the first time he’d ever appeared in an ad, staffers are quick to point out — in such a tumultuous election.
“If there’s a year for the nonpolitician candidate,” Hughes said, “this is it.”