An agreeable evening
Me and my shadow
By Ernest Luning
Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff agreed on plenty during their first Senate primary debate Tuesday night in Denver. Spectators hoping to see sparks fly were mostly disappointed as Bennet consistently sought to erase distinctions between his policy positions and those held by his opponent, but Romanoff hammered at his contention that his refusal to take contributions from political action committees was distinction enough.
Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, right, shake hands after their debate Tuesday night. Moderator Aaron Harber is at right.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman
“I agree with what Andrew just said,” Bennet answered more than a few times during the hour-long contest between the Democratic rivals at St. Cajetan’s church on the Auraria campus.
“Andrew’s right,” Bennet said another time, referring to his opponent’s position and legislative record on climate change. “And I want to applaud his leadership on this,” he added.
On issue after issue — from energy policy to financial reform, abortion rights to the “broken” Senate — the two Democrats sounded similar notes, and Bennet rarely failed to point this out.
“Millions of Americans are losing our jobs, our homes, our health coverage and our savings,” Romanoff said in his opening remarks. “Yet the U.S. Senate, which is supposed to be the greatest deliberative body in the world, has become a place where good ideas go to die.”
Bennet didn’t waste any time agreeing with Romanoff.
Citing “countless meetings” he’d had with Colorado residents “in living rooms across the state,” Bennet said voters are “completely discouraged by the conversation that’s going on on the Senate floor back in Washington or what they’re seeing play out on their cable television sets at night. I completely agree with everything Andrew said about the dysfunction in Washington, and the fact the Senate is broken. It’s very important for us to construct politics that moves past that discussion.”
Throughout the debate, the candidates heaped personal praise upon each other but clashed sharply over their respective approaches. When Romanoff said he might have voted against the health care bill passed by the Senate because of the back-room deals that favored some states to win their senators’ support, Bennet countered that he had taken to the floor to denounce the deals and helped shame one senator into withdrawing his.
The debate fell exactly a month before the March 16 precinct caucuses, when Democrats will begin choosing between the two. Both are likely to make the primary ballot at the May state assembly, where the support of 30 percent of delegates is required, and then it’s on to the August vote where Democrats will pick a nominee to face a Republican in November.
Republicans will follow the same process, though their field of potential nominees is larger. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, former state Sen. Tom Wiens, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, businessman Cleve Tidwell and patent attorney Steve Barton are vying for the chance to appear on the ballot this fall.
Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools Superintendent who has never before run for political office, was appointed to the seat last January by Gov. Bill Ritter when Ken Salazar left to join the Obama cabinet. Romanoff, who was forced from the state House by term limits in 2008, campaigned for the appointment and announced his primary challenge in September.
Noting that national Republicans have targeted the Colorado Senate contest — rated a tossup by most election observers — Bennet suggested Romanoff’s primary challenge was merely delaying the real battle.
“I don’t think it does us a lot of good to be fighting as Democrats when what we should be doing is getting ready to take on the Republicans in November,” Bennet said.
Quoting President Barack Obama, who turned down PAC donations when he was a senator, Romanoff pressed his signature issue.
“I don’t think it does us a lot of good to be fighting as Democrats when what we should be doing is getting ready to take on the Republicans in November,” Bennet told members of the audience on Tuesday night.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman
“I am the only candidate in this race who is turning down the corporate cash that threatens to drown our democracy,” Romanoff said. “My opponent says I can’t win this way, but I think it’s the only way a Democrat can win this year. It’s the only way to restore confidence in the political system. It’s the only way to break the special interests’ death grip on Washington.”
Obama has thrown his support behind Bennet and was scheduled to appear at a series of fundraisers for the senator Thursday in Denver.
Near the end of the debate, the candidates entered their liveliest exchange of the night with a dispute over their apparent harmony on issues, and whether it favored the incumbent or the challenger. The crowd of nearly 300 erupted in cheers, whoops and hollers as the polite exchanges turned more pointed.
After Bennet credited Romanoff with making a good observation about rising health care costs, Romanoff made his rival an offer.
“I appreciate the accord that’s breaking out on this stage,” he told Bennet, “and I welcome you to join our team.”
“I am the only candidate in this race who is turning down the corporate cash that threatens to drown our democracy,” Romanoff said during the debate as an example of his differing positions from Bennet.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman
“I love you,” Bennet shot back. “I wish you were running a primary against one of the people that is causing the problems.”
Romanoff took the occasion to challenge Bennet. “The point I’m making is this,” he said. “We’re electing not just a speechmaker, but a senator, and it’s important, I think, to lead by example. If you agree with me,” Romanoff said directly to Bennet, “then join me. You and I tonight can become the first two candidates in America to turn down the special interest dollars that are corrupting Congress. Can you do that?”
Over raucous applause, moderator Aaron Harber tried to move on to another topic. “We’re going to run out of time, we only have about 10 minutes left,” he said, but then relented as the audience shouted for Bennet to answer.
“Listen, I appreciate your perspective on this, Andrew, I really do,” Bennet said, “and I think it’s genuine. And I think you did a great job as speaker of the House, and I know that you collected a lot of PAC money while you were speaker of the House. I know you had your own PAC — I didn’t even know you could have your own PAC,” Bennet said with a look of dismay. “And lots of other PACs contributed to that PAC.”
Romanoff’s PAC, the Romanoff Leadership Fund, was formed in the fall of 2004 to “support Democratic candidates to the General Assembly,” and remained in existence until a month ago, state records show.
After lying dormant for some time, the Romanoff PAC closed out its accounts on Dec. 30 with a $1,331 contribution to the Fisher House Foundation, a charity based in Maryland that operates “homes away from home” for family members of patients undergoing treatment at Veterans Administration and military hospitals. The foundation operates a house in Aurora adjacent to the Denver VA Medical Center, among others around the country.
While many in Congress establish “leadership” PACs to raise money for colleagues, Bennet hasn’t created one.
Bennet reported raising $885,195 from PACs through the end of the year, roughly 18 percent of his total $4,748,673, according to the campaign fundraising watchdog site OpenSecrets.org.
Romanoff, who entered the race nine months into the year, reported raising $629,909 through the most recent quarter. His campaign returned donations made by unions last fall and last week sent back a check for $10,000 that came with the local United Food and Commercial Workers union endorsement, his campaign said.
Romanoff boasts that his campaign received contributions from more individual Colorado residents — more than 2,600 — than any other campaign in the state last quarter. But that distinction is likely to fall to Bennet after the Obama fundraiser on Thursday, which will count nearly 2,000 supporters each paying at least $25 for a ticket to a “grassroots rally” at the Fillmore auditorium on Denver’s Capitol Hill.
Calling the debate a “really good discussion,” Bennet said immediately afterwards that the policy differences between the candidates were negligible, if they exist at all.
“I thought there was an awful lot of agreement up on that stage,” Bennet told The Colorado Statesman. He declined to elaborate, suggesting the similarity between the candidates’ positions should speak for itself.
Asked about Bennet’s insistence on agreeing with him throughout the debate, Romanoff dismissed it as a tactic. “That was clearly the talking point somebody gave him on the way into this debate,” Romanoff told The Colorado Statesman. “I think that that was fairly transparent.
“But the choice you have in office, not just in the course of the campaign,” he continued, “is to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I was disappointed by his decision to turn down the offers I extended to join me rejecting PAC money or federal health benefits until every American gets the health cover we do.”
That last point, Romanoff’s offer to go without health benefits available to senators, was the one new proposal he unveiled at the debate. It’s based on a similar proposition made by Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat.
Both candidates pointed out the debate’s rampant accord in follow-up messages to supporters the day after the debate, but each drew different lessons.
“I debated my shadow last night,” Romanoff’s e-mail began. Referring to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll that showed Bennet trailing Jane Norton, the Republican front-runner, by a greater margin than Romanoff, who also trailed, he continued, “Lagging in the polls, my opponent has evidently decided that ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ The ‘debate’ turned so silly that I finally offered him a spot on our team. He declined.”
Bennet, in his post-debate e-mail, also noted how agreeable things had seemed, and then went on to highlight the incumbent senator’s ability to make a splash in the Senate.
“While the debate showed some real areas of common ground between Michael and his opponent on policy, it was clear throughout that they’re taking different approaches to solving the problems that are hurting Colorado’s working families,” Bennet’s e-mail began.
“In the last week, Michael has taken action on many important issues: he supported the creation of a bipartisan debt commission, co-sponsored legislation to protect our elections from a flood of corporate money, and urged Majority Leader Harry Reid to include a public option in the final health care bill,” Bennet wrote, asking supporters to sign a petition backing his health care proposal.
The debate was sponsored by the Denver Young Democrats and moderated by Harber, whose Harber TV outfit recorded the show for broadcast on Comcast cable television and streaming on the Colorado2010.com Web site. Harber said the debate would begin airing near the end of the month.
Both candidate’s campaign teams said there will be more debates, though likely not before caucuses.