Dem Senate candidates spar over Social Security votes

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

DENVER — The mean Democrat wants to throw Grandma under the train, or at least jeopardize her Social Security checks. That’s according to charges and countercharges that filled the air Wednesday as Sen. Michael Bennet and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, his primary challenger, accused each other of letting down senior citizens.

And by day’s end, a mysterious independent group had emerged to bash Bennet for a Senate vote on Social Security payments while bolstering the Romanoff campaign with a poll that showed him nearly even with Bennet.

For the second time since mail ballots went out last week, the Romanoff campaign gathered reporters at his southeast Denver headquarters to denounce charges made by the Bennet campaign. At the same time, Bennet took apart an attack lobbed at him by a third party over the same topic. Both candidates said they were strong supporters of Social Security and said the single votes cited by critics didn’t prove otherwise.

Romanoff hit back hard after learning of a flier sent out by the Bennet campaign that accused him of supporting a “risky privatization plan” that could have “gutted Social Security.”

Owner of Vision Real Estate Greg Geller sits on the front steps of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff's house, which Geller bought for $360,000 on July 23.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

At a press conference called on short notice, a livid Romanoff accused Bennet of trying to “distort the record and deceive the voters” and called the flier an example of “the politics of personal destruction and desperation.” He unfurled a nearly decade-long string of 100-percent ratings from senior citizen advocacy groups, calling Bennet’s attack “a smear campaign” designed to distract voters and frighten seniors.

The Bennet attack arrived in mailboxes Wednesday.

On an oversized postcard that displays a worried elderly couple with a kitchen table full of bills on one side and dispirited Wall Street traders on the other, the Bennet campaign contends “Andrew Romanoff would gamble Social Security in a risky stock market” and lists a vote the former state legislator cast in 2004 to support the claim.

Romanoff was one of seven Democrats to support Senate Joint Resolution 04-28, which was sponsored by two conservative Republicans during the last year that party controlled the General Assembly. Democrats took over after the 2004 election, and Romanoff became speaker of the House.

The resolution, the Bennet campaign charged, “endorsed proposals to privatize Social Security. The Bush-administration-backed proposal that Speaker Romanoff supported would, divert a portion of worker’s Social Security deduction and allow workers to invest money in personal retirement accounts.” Under this plan, according to the Bennet campaign, “a market plunge would hit the poorest, hardest.”

Romanoff disputed the Bennet campaign’s interpretation of the legislation.

“The resolution doesn’t call for privatization, you won’t find that word anywhere in the resolution,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “It doesn’t call for workers to divert their Social Security tax dollars to these accounts. It does propose allowing young workers to bolster Social Security by creating these individual accounts as an option to supplement what they might be expected to receive from Social Security,” he said.

“The resolution also says, ‘We oppose cuts in Social Security benefits,’ the last line in the resolution,” Romanoff continued. “If I had voted against that resolution, you would see a different mailer coming out from the opposition that would say I’m in favor of cutting Social Security benefits. Presumably they would interpret a vote against opposing cuts as a voter in favor of cuts.

“When you’re willing to just manufacture these attacks without regards to the truth, you find whatever flimsy evidence you have to justify whatever attack you’ve got in mind on the basis of a poll you’ve already conducted. And if you can’t find any evidence, you just make it up,” he said.

The Bennet campaign didn’t concede any ground.

“Throughout this campaign, Speaker Romanoff has pretended to be someone he isn’t,” Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid said after Romanoff’s press conference. Kincaid said Romnaoff “is claiming to be on the side of seniors, though his record shows very clearly that he worked to privatize Social Security.”

After numerous “whereas” statements, the legislation resolved, “That we, the members of the General Assembly of the state of Colorado, respectfully request that the members of Colorado’s congressional delegation support optional personal retirement accounts and not support increases in payroll taxes and cuts to social security benefits.”

The Bennet campaign distributed citations from major newspapers warning of the dangers of President Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security, but Romanoff batted those back, saying the proposal he voted for in 2004 wasn’t the same as the one Bush floated in 2005.

The difference is, the resolution Romanoff supported called for optional personal accounts — sort of a national 401(k) plan — while Bush’s proposals would have diverted money from the Social Security system. Some privatization critics, however, contend any plan that ties federal withholdings to the stock market opens the door to unnecessary risk.

Romanoff hauled out another piece of legislation, which passed the General Assembly with his vote the year after the resolution the Bennet campaign cited. Sponsored by state Sen. Bob Hagedorn, D-Aurora, and state Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, Senate Joint Memorial 05-006 laid out in page after page the reasons lawmakers opposed Social Security privatization.

The legislation is called “Memorializing Congress To Oppose Privatization Of Social Security,” and concludes by saying “That Congress should reject proposals to divert money out of Social Security to fund private accounts.”

Romanoff poured on his criticism of Bennet’s attack.

“The reality is I opposed privatization, and the votes reflect that,” he told The Statesman. “My opponent, on the other hand, voted against the $250 to seniors to make up for the cost-of-living increase they’re not getting. So instead of actually defending that vote, or any of the others he’s cast, he’s chosen to attack me. It’s a Washington dance I’ve labeled the Potomac Two Step.”

Early last year, Bennet voted in favor of sending Social Security recipients a $250 check out of federal stimulus funds because cost-of-living adjustments hadn’t gone into effect that year because of the slow economy, but the legislation failed. Later, when some Democrats proposed funding the payments with new deficit spending, Bennet voted against it, along with a handful of other Democratic senators, including Mark Udall, saying Congress had to find a better way to pay for it. The second proposal also failed to pass.

New political group joins the fray over Social Security votes
Romanoff’s charge against Bennet over the $250 payment to seniors was similar to one leveled by a shadowy political organization that emerged Wednesday with a radio ad, robocalls, a website and a poll.

New Leadership in Colorado, a newly formed 527 group fronted by Debbie Wamsley — who was, until recently, chief of staff of the Colorado AFL-CIO — came out swinging with a commercial that ran in heavy rotation on a liberal Denver talk radio station.

Sounding for all the world like a late-breaking news bulletin, the 60-second ad opens with an urgent tone:

“News from Washington coming in that Bennet voted against a cost-of-living increase for senior citizens on Social Security,” says a voice listeners soon learn belongs to someone named Susan. “So is Michael Bennet out of touch with seniors in Colorado, Mark?”

“That’s the charge being made, Susan,” says a male voice. “Senator Michael Bennet voted against Senate Amendment 3353 that would have provided senior citizens with a $250 increase in their Social Security. And that has some senior citizens furious.”

Then, over the sound of traffic — perhaps meant to indicate “Mark” is standing on a street corner somewhere — an elderly woman weighs in:

“He voted to bailout Wall Street, and now he won’t help folks like us who depend on Social Security? Senior citizens need to send Michael Bennet a message that this is not acceptable.”

“Thank you for that report, Mark,” the character called Susan responds. “And we’ll have new reports later,” she promises.

Every charge in the ad is false, the Bennet campaign said in an unusually strong rebuttal. The campaign offered up pages of detail blasting nearly every word in the 527 group’s attack, which was mirrored in a robocall that went out Wednesday too.

The problem is, the ad claims Bennet “voted against a cost-of-living increase for senior citizens,” but that’s not what the Senate voted on. And the bank bailout? That took place months before Bennet was even a senator.

After a disclaimer attributing the ad to New Leadership in Colorado, the ad directs listeners to www.thebennetrecord.com, a website that went on and offline throughout the day Wednesday and that, for a time, hosted an audio file of the radio ad. Later, however, the ad disappeared from the site and the results of a poll commissioned by the 527 appeared.

The poll — conducted by a Washington, D.C.-based firm called Zata3, which specializes in robocalls and text-message blasts, and whose slogan is “Advocacy is Our Calling” — showed a tighter race between Bennet and Romanoff than previous polls have shown.

After surveying 800 “likely and somewhat likely” Democratic primary voters, the poll showed Bennet with 44 percent support and Romanoff with 40 percent, with the remainder undecided — a gap nearly within the poll’s 3.6 percent margin of error.

A Denver Post/9News poll released in late June showed Bennet leading by 17 percentage points.

The new poll was conducted Tuesday, Zata3 owner Brad Chism told The Statesman. He emphasized that what his firm offered was “a snapshot of the electorate,” adding that “we call it data pulse, not data MRI.” The brief survey used automated calls, which he said provides excellent results for a match-up like the one he polled, but shouldn’t be confused with the depth available from lengthier, live surveys.

“We’re not suggesting this is something that is meant to serve all needs,” he said, “but it’s a very accurate tool if you’re doing head-to-head surveys, strength of support and candidate favorability ratings.”

Chism added that he was surprised to learn the poll had been commissioned by a group that launched attack ads against Bennet the same day it released the results.

New Leadership in Colorado filed documents with the Colorado Secretary of State on July 13 designating itself an “Unincorporated Nonprofit Association,” with its proposed activities described as, “To educate voters on political issues.” Wamsley filed the documents, listing an Arvada address.

The people behind the 527 declined to speak with The Statesman, instead sending this reply, signed by Wamsley, to repeated e-mail inquiries:

“New Leadership in Colorado is a group of Colorado people who believe that our state deserves great leadership. We are not affiliated, nor are we coordinating in any way with either Michael Bennet, Andrew Romanoff, Ken Buck, or Jane Norton’s campaigns. We are a Colorado Nonprofit Corporation and are registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a Political Organization under IRC Section 527. We have nothing further to add, but we thank you for your inquiry.”

Bennet blames time constraints for failure to commit to debates
Romanoff also swung at Bennet on Wednesday for ducking debates, something Romanoff said the incumbent has done seven times this year. The Bennet campaign has said the time constraints involved with a weekly commute from Washington make scheduling difficult.

The Romanoff campaign on Wednesday circulated a photograph of Romanoff “debating” an empty chair the day before at KBDI-TV studios in Denver, meant to highlight Bennet’s absence from a debate the public television station’s producers told The Statesman they’ve been trying to schedule since January.

“The empty chair was good company,” Romanoff said, “but I’m looking forward to actually seeing my opponent at one of these debates.”

The two have debated twice — in February on the Auraria campus in Denver and in April at Colorado College in Colorado Springs — and are scheduled to tape a half-hour debate moderated by 9News reporter Adam Schrager on Saturday. That meeting is set to air Sunday morning on the YourShow public affairs program.

“It’s just not credible to say in the course of six months you can’t find the time to come back to debate on public television. That’s just ludicrous,” Romanoff said.

After ticking off a half-dozen other organizations he said had been rebuffed by Bennet after extending invitations for the two to debate — including a radio show, TV station, magazine, progressive groups and a county Democratic club — Romanoff threw down a new gauntlet.

“I will fly to Washington and debate my opponent there if he’s unwilling to visit Colorado anytime soon,” he told The Statesman.

A few hours after his press conference, returning from a campaign event in Edwards, Romanoff was no less angry about the charge he’d somehow endangered Social Security.

“It looks like I’m going to have to have a press conference every week to respond to the latest distortion, disinformation and defamation that’s coming out of the opposition’s campaign,” he told The Statesman.

Citing the poll released Wednesday night, Romanoff said the Bennet campaign must be doing its own polling that shows it’s losing ground. “So in their despair,” he said, “you resort to the worst kind of politics, which is to just make things up.”

The Bennet campaign wouldn’t say whether it had a poll in the field last week probing negatives for both candidates.

Romanoff said his campaign was certain Bennet polled the question recently.

“They called folks and said, if you thought Andrew Romanoff supported privatization, would that make you less likely to vote for him? And they must have found that, sure, yeah, that would,” he said.

“So I suppose next week they’ll take another poll and ask, would you be less likely to vote for Andrew Romanoff if you found he was biting the heads off of squirrels?” Romanoff said. “And I bet a lot of voters would. I wouldn’t vote for myself if I’m doing that. So they’ll put that on a mailer too.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com