"Who is this guy?"
As a crowd streams into Penrose Library on Saturday morning to hear from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and his improbable U.S. Senate pick, Michael Bennet, Pete Lee looks on. Like many, Lee, a local Democrat and recent state Senate candidate, says he was surprised by Ritter's selection.
"I think the more logical pick would have been the recently unemployed Andrew Romanoff," Lee says, referring to the outgoing Colorado House Speaker.
But Lee notes that Ritter has shown himself to be a savvy politician, and that Bennet has racked up accomplishments as a lawyer, businessman and school administrator.
"This guy has not failed at anything he has done," Lee says.
The room keeps filling as Lee talks, with people sitting cross-legged on the floor and standing in a massive scrum near the door. Close to 400 people give Ritter a booming ovation as he takes the podium to talk about the state's budget challenges, his strategy for enduring a global recession and his Senate selection.
"I think we're in this very unique time in history," Ritter says, suggesting it's one that requires transformative leaders like Barack Obama. "In meeting with people and talking to the applicants [to replace Ken Salazar], I came away believing that Michael Bennet is such a person as well."
A mostly Democratic crowd gives Bennet warm applause as he begins speaking, and laughs as he rattles off jokes.
"It's a crowded room and it's hot and there are people standing, which is all code for 'talk fast,'" Bennet deadpans. He suggests one big reason for the high turnout is a sense of, "Who is this guy?"
True to his word, Bennet keeps his speech to well under 15 minutes. During a question period, most attention goes to Ritter. One big question left unasked is what happens in 2010 when Bennet, in his first-ever election campaign, must win over voters.
Bennet could be sworn into the Senate in the next week if Salazar's confirmation as Interior secretary goes smoothly. After listening to him speak, some seem reassured by his charm and intellect.
Others remain puzzled. John Morris, chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party, wonders what will happen if Bennet ends up competing in 2010 against a well-known Republican like John Suthers, who won a statewide race for attorney general in '06.
"As good as Michael Bennet is personally," Morris says, "he's totally unknown to the state and to this county."
The 44-year-old does have powerful allies. He was an early supporter of Barack Obama, having given $4,600 to Obama's campaign in March 2007, and was among the finalists to lead the president-elect's Education Department. Bennet's presence already bears an Obama imprint, with Matt Chandler, the Obama campaign's Colorado spokesman, having quickly taken the same role for Bennet.
A graduate of a Washington D.C. private school and then Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Bennet worked as personal assistant in the late 1980s for Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste now, of course, president of Colorado College. He went on to Yale Law School and then worked in the Justice Department during Bill Clinton's administration before moving to Denver in 1997, where he directed an investment company owned by noted conservative Philip Anschutz.
In 2003, Bennet became chief of staff for John Hickenlooper after the restaurant owner was elected Denver's mayor. That lasted until Bennet left for DPS in 2005.
Bennet's political birth, announced Jan. 3, shows signs of haste. His Web site, bennetforcolorado.com, bears an "under construction" note. The media kit comes with a brief account of Bennet's experiences and just two stories: One is a glowing Denver Post editorial about his performance as DPS superintendent; the other is a longer, more complicated New Yorker story about Bennet's DPS tenure, detailing his controversial decision to close and then reorganize the struggling urban Manual High School.
"To Bennet, who aspired to public office, running an urban school district seemed more likely to end a political career than to launch it," says the article, published in January 2007.
The article seems out of place as political literature. But the take-home message for Democrats worried about whether Bennet can handle ground-level campaigning may come near the end of the story. That's when Bennet, worried that closing Manual could induce an epidemic of drop-outs, goes door-to-door in an effort to drag them to other schools.
Later on Saturday, Bennet faces a more reserved, conservative crowd of civic leaders at a Colorado Springs Conservatory gathering. Among nearly 200 people is Suthers, who has said he will announce his own Senate plans by the end of January.
Bennet, on the whole, is well received. An obvious applause line about ending the war in Iraq falls flat. Later, Bennet remarks that the solutions to many problems are neither Democratic nor Republican, but instead require "pragmatic problem-solving."
The mainly Republican crowd gives perhaps its strongest applause of the afternoon.