Taking it to the streets

Candidates connect across state from behind the wheel

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

BOULDER — The bus rolled in about 20 minutes after the candidate arrived. The old school bus — painted to resemble classic Colorado license plates — had earlier transported U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and his family around northern Colorado but limped in to the Democrat’s next stop last Saturday, at a rally alongside Boulder Creek, a stone’s throw from the Pearl Street Mall. A day into its inaugural voyage across the state this week, it turned out the vintage vehicle needed a brief trip to a mechanic.

Democrat Andrew Romanoff emerges from the Backbone Express, a converted Chevy van his campaign has been using to travel the state.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

It used to be campaigns would roll through town on trains on whistle stop tours, slowing at every station to deliver a speech from the back deck of a passenger car festooned with Old Glory. But this summer, Senate candidates from both parties have been criss-crossing the state in more maneuverable modes of transportation.

Bennet doesn’t have the road to himself as campaigns kick into high gear, just weeks before mail ballots drop on voters across the state. His Democratic challenger, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, cruises in style in an oversized van that doubles as a roving billboard.

Brothers Riley, left, and Travis Weis talk on walkie-talkies through a window while their dad, Vince Weis, watches and waits for U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Andrew Romanoff during one of the candidate’s campaign outings.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

And Republican Jane Norton rode a Chevy Trailblazer from point to point last week on her tour aimed at reminding voters of her pledge to undo the massive health care legislation passed by Democrats earlier this year. Norton’s primary opponent, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, only recently hired a driver — for more than a year, he drove himself around the state in his own vehicle — but could unveil a statewide tour as the August 10 primary approaches, his spokesman said.

Sen. Michael Bennet’s daughter Anne, 5, makes faces in the window of the Democrat’s campaign bus at a stop at Boulder Municipal Park on July 3. In the foreground are Susan Daggett, Bennet’s wife, and state Sen. Claire Levy, D-Boulder.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

When Bennet’s bus first appeared, a cheer went up from the crowd gathered to greet him in downtown Boulder, where he rallied alongside fellow Sen. Mark Udall, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and state Senate President Brandon Shaffer. It was the third stop on a week-long tour — timed to coincide with the Senate’s Fourth of July recess, it would be the longest stretch of uninterrupted campaigning since last winter for the lawmaker — that started in Fort Collins and also passed through Greeley, Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Eagle, Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Montrose and Grand Junction.

Perhaps it was a result of the miles, but Bennet’s stump speech that afternoon in Boulder made ample reference to his bus, tied into his campaign themes.

Anne Bennet, left, daughter of Sen. Michael Bennet, applauds her father alongside another young supporter at a campaign rally July 3 in Boulder.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

“That bus was built in 1964, I was born in 1964,” Bennet told the crowd. “That was the last year of the Baby Boom generation. And for my money, no generation in the history of the planet has been given more than we were given, and we find ourselves at risk of being the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity — not more — to our kids and our grandkids. That would be shameful.”

The campaign found the nine-seat bus here in Colorado on Craigslist, a staffer informs, and Bennet’s wife, environmental attorney Susan Daggett, even sewed curtains and seat covers for the interior. Between stops, the roomy interior doubles as a playroom for Bennet’s three daughters and a passle of friends along for the ride.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, left, shakes hands with Bennet after Udall introduced his fellow Democrat at the rally.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Bennet’s bus tour hit the road about a month after a similar tour launched by rival Democrat Andrew Romanoff, the former Colorado House speaker who is challenging the incumbent in the August primary. Dubbed the Backbone Express Tour — a nod to the signature line in the candidate’s speech to the state assembly, where he called on Democrats to “stiffen your spine or get out of the way” — Romanoff’s itinerary aims to take in 100 communities in 10 weeks.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, visits with a constituent as the crowd gathers for a rally supporting U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in Boulder July 3.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“The road to Washington ought to lead from Main Street, not from Wall Street,” Romanoff said in a statement accompanying the kick-off of his tour. “My campaign and my career are focused on and fueled by the people of Colorado.”

The seven-seat Romamobile displays campaign logos and pictures of the candidate, including one featuring his dog Zorro adorning the back of the bus, captioned “A Senator for the Rest of Us.”

But Romanoff’s tour, too, got off to a bit of a rough mechanical start. After cruising up and down the Front Range for several days the first week of June, the mid-’90s Chevy conversion van was forced to spend the weekend at an automotive shop in Colorado Springs, where The Colorado Springs Independent spotted the vehicle sidelined for some repairs. Apparently a cylinder was misfiring, but things were swiftly set aright and the mobile billboard kept up a heavy schedule at parades, festivals and assorted campaign stops.

Republican Senate candidate Jane Norton, center, poses for a photograph along with a raft of supporters during one of her recent tours around the state.
Photo courtesy Jane Norton

After a lull when the campaign nursed the Express — Romanoff admitted a couple weeks ago he was reluctant to take it into the mountains but got plenty of use out of it in town — the tour went back on the open road for the holiday weekend, making stops in Weld County, up and down the Front Range, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction and Boulder.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers came along on Norton’s “Repeal Obamacare Tour” for four days last week, carrying the message that the two Republicans are working to reverse the health care bill President Obama signed in March. (Suthers is part of a multi-state lawsuit challenging the law on constitutional grounds and has endorsed Norton in the Senate primary.)

The two took their message down highways and byways, starting in Centennial and traveling on to Elizabeth, Colorado Springs, Lakewood, Canon City, Pueblo, Salida, Montrose, Fruita and Rifle.

At his Boulder rally, Bennet recalled a leg of the journey from the day before, again taking advantage of the bus over his shoulder.

“You know how these car trips are if you have kids or grandkids — the first 45 minutes go pretty well and then all the slapping starts, and the fighting starts in the back, and everyone pretends it was someone else’s fault,” he said. “In my wildest dreams, I would not have believed that experience in the front seat of my minivan would have prepared me for service in the United States Senate.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com