Photo by Chris Schneider / The Rocky/2007
Gov. Bill Ritter is shattering conventional wisdom in tapping the popular but politically untested Michael Bennet, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, as the U.S. Senate replacement for Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar.
The surprising move, expected at a state Capitol news conference Saturday, perplexed many political insiders, most of whom considered Bennet the darkhorse candidate in a field crowded with big name, political veterans like Bennet's old boss, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.
To some, the reaction wasn't head-scratching.
It was jaw-dropping.
"I'm very surprised. He's improbable. He's risky," said pollster Floyd Ciruli, who figured the little-known Bennet would barely be a blip in the polls because he's so unknown. . "He's qualified, and he could be a really, very special and sensational senator. But at least initially, from the political side of it, you are puzzled."
Bennet's selection was confirmed by multiple Democratic sources, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the governor's announcement. Ritter's office only announced the 2 p.m. news conference. Bennet declined comment, as did various top-level Democrats who had been informed of the decision.
The selection was unconventional, just like Bennet and his unique political résumé.
A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale Law School, he started his career in the legal field and was counsel to the deputy U.S. Attorney General under former President Bill Clinton.
He later moved into the business world and relocated to Denver, helping the Anschutz Investment Company reorganize and turn around "distressed" companies like Regal Cinemas, United Artists, Edwards Theaters and the energy company Forcenergy.
In 2005, the Denver Board of Education plucked him from the mayor's staff to become Denver Public Schools superintendent, and he made his name reforming the pay-for-performance plan and wrestling with budget challenges.
"His strengths are that he has clearly got a lot of ability ... running the Denver school system without it blowing up is probably one of the more impossible jobs in the state," said political consultant Paul Talmey of Talmey-Drake Research & Strategy.
Still, Talmey was as surprised as anyone that Ritter bypassed "the obvious choice" — the better-known Hickenlooper.
"My sense of Bennet is that he has got to keep campaigning for the next two years, because he doesn't have the name recognition," Talmey said. "He's obviously a very bright guy. He has never held a public (elective) office, so there's not much of a track record there to run on or run against."
Already, Republicans are preparing to paint that blank canvas by putting Bennet's votes under a microscope, particularly on economic and labor issues and other matters that are expected to surface before the 2010 re-election contest.
"I'm obviously very surprised," said state Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams. "And I'm perplexed by the appointment, especially when you had someone as formidable as Mayor Hickenlooper who clearly had political and financial bases of support to draw from in 2010.
"Because he has his own polititical persona right now, Hickenlooper would not have been as defined by the votes ... whereas Mr. Bennet — while there are many admirable things about Mr. Bennet — he will be defined by the votes that he casts," Wadhams added.
But he has some Republican fans, too. Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado and former state GOP chairman, called it "a super pick."
"He's very bright. He's very principled. This is a guy who gets things done," Benson said. "He's a deep thinker. He sticks his neck out and takes chances. If you're going to accomplish anything in this world, you have to stick your neck out."
"Bennet will increase the overall IQ of the U.S. Senate tremendously," said Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown. "He's a smart guy."
Still, most of Bennet's fans are in and around Denver. Elsewhere around the state, he'll need a bigger introduction — particularly in places where various local newspapers were endorsing a different candidate, outgoing state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
Gil Cisneros, president and CEO of the Chamber of the Americas, had supported Polly Baca's hopes of becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Appointing Bennet "could be a coup for Republicans in 2010," Cisneros said. "He doesn't have any election experience where he's had to run for office. I think he's a carpetbagger and doesn't have a lot of experience with Colorado."
There is some irony in Bennet's selection. He had been touted as a potential Education Secretary in President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet. But when he found out he didn't get the job, he broke the news before going into a DPS board meeting by shouting down the hall: "I'm not going to Washington!"
Ritter, observers say, is sticking his neck out by asking Bennet to make that move, especially since they'd likely end up running for re-election on the same ballot in 2010.
The wisdom of the selection is in debate, but the surprise was near-unanimous on Friday.
"If the governor was looking for an unconventional, outside-the-box selection, this meets that qualification," said Democratic consultant Steve Welchert. Asked if that was a good or bad thing, Welchert said, "The judgment is yet to be made."
Staff writers Lynn Bartels and Daniel Chacon contributed to this story.
Winners and losers
Michael Bennet has built a reputation for innovation, including solutions that have at times angered traditionalists. Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat and fellow reformer, called him "one of the best intellectuals I know."
President-elect Barack Obama
Before he was a surprise pick for the U.S. Senate, Bennet was a surprise finalist to become secretary of Education. Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, said Bennet represents what Obama wants in a senator — someone who is younger, not tied to Washington, D.C., and thinks in new ways.
Denver city officials
Several City Council members had feared the possibility of Mayor John Hickenlooper getting the job and leaving his post as they work to close a $56 million budget gap. Hickenlooper may not be happy he didn't land the appointment, but he reportedly told confidantes that if he didn't get it, he wanted it to go to Bennet (his former chief of staff).
Several union leaders said Friday that they want to see what it's like to work with Bennet, but he has his detractors, especially among the teachers union. Bennet had to cut that union's power to achieve his biggest reforms, and another union — the Teamsters — endorsed Joan Fitz-Gerald for the Senate seat, even though she was seen as a long shot.
Party and community-organization leaders outside the Denver area took up a grass-roots campaign to get outgoing House Speaker Andrew Romanoff the job after he traveled the state and attended meetings in their areas for four years. Cathy Shull, director of Progressive 15, said that, unlike Hickenlooper, Romanoff actually had been to the Sterlings and Fort Morgans of the state.
Romanoff has spent the past several weeks soliciting endorsements from community groups and small-town newspapers, and his fan base is more passionate than that of any other applicant. While most of the candidates who did not get the post go back to prominent positions, Romanoff is term-limited from his House post and needs a job.