Salazar’s nomination for Interior opens floodgates as Dems posture for Senate seat

By Jody Hope Strogoff
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The nomination of U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar to be Secretary of Interior and the soon-to-be vacancy of his office means that some lucky Democrat in the state can count on a big present from Santa Bill (Ritter) within the next couple of weeks.

Sen. Salazar explains his proposal for drilling on the Roan Plateau earlier this year at the Capitol.

The governor, as we all know, has the ability to choose Salazar’s successor and has said he plans to do so shortly. The announcement will come probably between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, sources said.

The number of Democrats hoping to receive this political plum is large enough to fill Santa’s toy bag many times over. There are names from the past — former Senate candidate and current health care executive Tom Strickland and two-time Cabinet member and former mayor of Denver Federico Peña come to mind; several from current day politics — Reps. Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette and John Salazar, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and Gov. Ritter himself; and a few whose political star is yet rising — DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet is clearly among that group.

Sen. Ken Salazar, pictured at the DNC in August, was nominated for Secretary of the Interior by President-elect Obama.

There is clearly no shortage of Democrats who could be selected to fill Colorado’s Senate seat, but it will be up to Ritter to make the final decision. We’re sure he’s scouring his list and trying to determine the perfect pick.

So who’s been naughty and who’s been nice? Santa might check his list before settling on just one.

The top Democrats:

• Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, no surprise. He tops almost everyone’s list whenever a political position is mentioned. He’s incredibly well-liked by most Democrats and Republicans and has had the support of the business community in his relatively short political life. A proven vote-getter, he won reelection last year in a landslide. He has the ability to raise big bucks, as he did for the Democratic National Convention in Denver this year, and he has just enough of the “outsider” image to fit right in a new administration elected on the notion of ‘change.” Plus, he’s proven himself to be a pragmatic problem solver with a proven record of getting things done. His campaigning on for infrastructure issues for Denver has yielded positive results for the city.

Potential downside of a Hickenlooper selection?

He’s still untested in environs outside of Denver. While many think his quirky style and penchant for policy has served him well in Denver, Hickenlooper has not run before on a statewide level. And should Hickenlooper go to Washington right now, it would set in motion another game of dominoes with the city having to have a special election in May to pick his successor.

• Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CD 7, has already garnered experience in Washington, D.C. that could easily be transplanted to the upper chamber. Perlmutter has won three elections in a swing district, has been successful at raising campaign funds, has a genuine support among the unions and is also heralded by business groups such as the Southeast Metro Chamber of Commerce, which recently tapped Perlmutter as their outstanding person of the year.

Downside?

If Perlmutter is selected, he’d have to give up his congressional seat. While Perlmutter has twice been reelected with solid majorities, an open seat in CD 7 would likely attract serious Republican contenders for 2010 and it is a seat that the GOP in Colorado would love to have, especially since it was once represented by Republican Bob Beauprez.

• Tom Strickland is currently vice president for United Health, one of the nation’s largest health care companies in Minneapolis. But Strickland’s political experience has been based in Colorado. Twice the nominee for U.S. Senate in the state, Strickland lost his two bids but not his affinity for serving. A seat in the U.S. Senate is something he still craves. Besides hefty experience in the private sector during his career, Strickland has proven himself an able fundraiser and likely could raise the necessary money to fund a campaign to keep the seat in 2010. He has name identification for a statewide race and a close relationship with Ritter. Strickland was managing partner of Hogan &?Hartson in Denver, the law firm which hired Ritter after he stepped down as Denver district attorney.

Downside could be the same thing which works in Strickland’s favor: he has run for the U.S. Senate before — twice — and lost. While that shows Strickland’s perseverance to be in the Senate, it could also brand him as a two-time loser.

• Rep. Andrew Romanoff, who is retiring from the state legislature in January, is obviously bright, earnest and very likable. His Republican colleagues might not always agree with him, but they generally respect Romanoff and consider him a bright star. His affable personality, numerous achievements and ability to lead are strong plusses.

But on the negative side, Romanoff is not well known beyond the metro area, despite the fact that he served as Speaker of the House. He has not had to raise a lot of money for his own races, and his strengths as a statewide candidate in 2010 are still uncertain.

Romanoff is considered to be a strong contender for a regional appointment in the Obama administration so if he isn’t Ritter’s top pick, there is little reason to worry about this up-and-comer’s future.

• Rep. John Salazar is considered a star not just in CD 3 but among Colorado Democrats. He is well respected and has won reelection in a swing district. He has been able to raise big bucks.

But Salazar, the older brother of the Interior Secretary-designee, was recently appointed to the powerful Appropriations Committe in the House. It propels the Congressman to the national spotlight and pretty much guarantees that Salazar could retain his CD 3 seat for as long as he wants. Risking it in an open election is one argument against his moving to the Senate right now.

• Rep. Diana DeGette, the dean of Colorado’s congressional delegation, has made it known that she’d entertain the prospect of moving to the Senate. A national leader on health care issues, DeGette is well versed in policy on the Hill. She has easily defeated Republican opponents in her reelection campaigns in the democratic First District. DeGette has been able to rise in power within her own caucus in the House and with Democrats in control, she could be on the fast track for future assignments.

DeGette, however, has never run statewide and that could hurt her chances to succeed Salazar in the Senate. While popular with her constituents in Denver, whether that support could be established in rural parts of the state could be problematic.

Late this week Federico Peña took himself out of consideration for the Senate seat. In a press release, Penã cited his desire to remain in Colorado and contribute from here.

Mike Miles, who lost to Salazar in the primary for Senate in 2004, has remarkably reappeared on the political scene now that a Senate seat is being discussed. He has begun a mini-campaign to get supporters to contact the governor about his willingness to serve. But Miles may be miles short in this pursuit. Although Miles won topline at the state assembly that year, he was trounced in the primary and soon after dropped out of the political arena. He does not have the ability to raise money, is considered a far left liberal and his chances of nabbing this Senate seat are practically nil.

Former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, who lost her primary bid for Congress in August to Jared Polis, is also said to be interested in the appointment. While respected by many, she is viewed as a tough partisan who could have trouble attracting statewide support in 2010.