Relatively unknown Bennet tapped to replace Salazar

Prospect of 2010 Senate race against Bennet has GOP salivating

By Jason Kosena

It seemed to come out of nowhere.

The appointment of Denver Public School superintendent Michael Bennet — a political outsider — shocked the most connected Democrats and nearly every Republican in Colorado. Bennet will fill out the remainder of Sen. Ken Salazar’s term while his one-time boss, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, stays home.

Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

A preview of 2010? Colorado AG John Suthers and U.S. Senate-appointee Michael Bennet eye each other prior to the State of the State address. Suthers has indicated he intends to run against Bennet for Senate.

When President-elect Barack Obama tapped Salazar to head the U.S. Department of Interior, nearly everyone thought Gov. Bill Ritter was likely to appoint Hickenlooper, the energetic and popular mayor, to fill Colorado’s junior seat in the U.S. Senate. And if not Hickenlooper, surely one of the other well-known Democrats who had expressed interest, such as Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CD 7, Andrew Romanoff, the term-limited House Speaker who is available for a new job, or any one of several more prominent figures in Democratic party politics.

Almost everyone was wrong.

“This is a critical time in history,” Ritter said during a Capitol press conference on Saturday announcing his pick.

“The economic challenges facing America and Colorado are unprecedented. People are losing their jobs. Businesses are closing. Families are hurting. Our challenges are so serious that it will take a new generation of leaders, a new way of thinking and a bold new approach
to problem-solving to steer us through this.

“Uncertain times call for certain leadership, and that’s why Michael Bennet is the right choice to represent all Coloradans in the Senate.”

Bennet’s impressive resumé includes extensive work in both the public and private sectors — including his service as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff. However, because he never has run for public office, he never has had to divulge his opinions on abortion, labor laws, gun control, taxes or any other public issue.

In addition, his fundraising capacity is unknown, his background never has undergone trial by campaign fire, and his name ID, especially in the state’s rural areas, is nonexistent.

It’s no surprise that Republicans are salivating at the prospect of an unexpectedly competitive Senate race in 2010.

“My experiences, not only in public service, but also in business, have taught me that when people come together, put aside partisan differences and focus on pragmatic problem-solving, we can accomplish great things,” Bennet said during the press conference, where he was flanked by his young family. “I will bring these values with me, as I join a new generation of leadership in Washington, D.C.”

Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

U.S. Senate-designee Michael Bennet answers questions from the media during a press conference last Saturday while his daughters Caroline, 9, right, and Halina, 7, left, listen. Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Bennet to replace the outgoing Sen. Ken Salazar who will serve in President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Although Bennet is largely unknown, his record shows that he’s capable, and many have said Ritter appointed him because he sees the 44-year-old as a rising star — a man who is hard not to like, once you get to know him.

Before leading DPS through the most extensive and recognizable reorganization in decades, Bennet served as Hickenlooper’s right-hand man, and he is credited with helping the city through a difficult budget crisis and labor negotiations.

His work in the private sector also is well known.

Bennet left Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s after serving in the U.S. Attorneys Office and came to Colorado to work as the managing director for the Anschutz Investment Co. That position put him within elbow’s reach of many of the state’s wealthiest and most powerful business elite.

But will Bennet’s personal connections and management skills help him master his new role as a U.S. senator — and, more importantly — as a candidate?

It depends on whom you ask.

State Democratic Chair Pat Waak said Bennet’s two-year head start should allow him to run as an
incumbent in 2010 rather than as a school superintendent, and that incumbency offers a huge advantage
to candidates.

Dick Wadhams, Colorado’s Republican state chair, said Bennet is an unknown who will have to cast controversial votes and create a record on issues from tax increases to union-card checks before asking the state’s voters for their support.

“No doubt Michael Bennet is a very impressive individual in many ways, and he has done an outstanding job at DPS,” Wadhams said. “But he had a chance to come out (at the press conference) and take a stand on some of the issues, and he didn’t do that. He will have to take a stand, though, soon, because you can’t vote ‘present’ in the U.S. Senate.”

Wadhams was not shy in expressing his belief that Hickenlooper, who energetically helped pass Referendum C in 2005, would have been a more challenging foe in 2010.

“I think this seat was going to be competitive no matter what. But Mayor Hickenlooper would have clearly been a very formidable candidate, and, by not selecting him, I think that made this seat far more competitive,” Wadhams said.

“It will be a great race in 2010. This race is much different with this vacancy and this appointment. There is no doubt about that.”

Wadhams said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers already has begun making phone calls and is likely to establish a campaign to run against Bennet in coming weeks. He also mentioned Denver attorney and radio talk show host Dan Caplis as a possible contender.

“I think the field is wide open right now,” Wadhams said. “We have a strong group of folks to run not only in this race but also against the governor in 2010.”

Bennet, clearly the political novice, has already begun to master the early lessons of campaigning. His advisers are in the process of setting up a 2010 campaign Web site, and Bennet is in Washington, D.C., this week learning the ropes from his soon-to-be predecessor, Salazar.