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Whose office is this? 

Salazar's operations continue without interruption as Colorado's newest U.S. senator takes over

Appearances to the contrary, this is now Sen. Michael Bennet's local office. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Appearances to the contrary, this is now Sen. Michael Bennet's local office.

Calling staff members that Sen. Michael Bennet just inherited, it's not uncommon to hear voicemail greetings bearing the name of his predecessor.

On the faade of Bennet's regional office in Colorado Springs, where constituents can go for help with federal benefits, Ken Salazar's name still looms above "U.S. Senate," all spelled out in prominent black letters.

You might say those are minor details in the rapid transition following Salazar's elevation Jan. 20 to head the Department of the Interior. But they could also portend something more significant as Coloradans adjust to their new Senate delegation.

Bennet, most recently Denver Public Schools superintendent, is a legislative newbie, especially as compared to longtime congressman Mark Udall. But Bennet is having the easier time getting his statewide office operation up to speed. According to Michael Amodeo, who went from being half of Salazar's communications office to all of Bennet's, about 35 members of Salazar's 44-person staff remain.

In Bennet's Springs office, Annie Oatman-Gardner, appointed Salazar's regional director a year ago, is still working the phones with a colleague. Oatman-Gardner and others like her in seven offices across the state serve as Bennet's eyes and ears; they attend local meetings and walk constituents through the bureaucracy when they have problems with Medicaid or veterans' benefits. The office at 409 N. Tejon St. is now about the best place for locals to go for that kind of help. (U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn's Colorado Springs office, at 1271 Kelly Johnson Blvd., #110, is another choice.)

Udall plans to offer a local option, but it's not clear when it will open or where it will be.

"He's still deciding where to place all the offices," says spokeswoman Tara Trujillo.

The Boulder-area Democrat has had to start over, since he inherited the seat of Wayne Allard, a Republican. (For now, locals can call Udall's Westminster office, 303/650-7822.)

Udall, of course, has time to work out staffing issues as he begins his six-year term in the Senate. And he comes in with that decade of House experience, which should make the political terrain more familiar.

In 2010, Bennet will have to defend the seat to which he was appointed. His prospects may have improved this week as Attorney General John Suthers, the only Republican in statewide office, said he will not compete for the Senate seat in 2010. But Bennet still faces a challenge introducing himself to Colorado voters.

Richard Celeste, Colorado College's president, employed Bennet as a special assistant when Celeste was governor of Ohio and is a family friend. Celeste doesn't underestimate the challenge facing the 44-year-old, who is godfather to one of Celeste's grandchildren.

"Anyone who's appointed to the Senate has a very steep road ahead," Celeste says, noting that he told Bennet he has known three Senate appointees, all of whom went on to lose come election time.

Winning an election after being appointed requires a combination of success in Washington, D.C., and familiarity back at home, Celeste suggests.

Bennet appears to have accepted that dual challenge as he darts between the capital and Colorado each week. He may come to be very thankful he has Salazar's staff already in place.

lane@csindy.com

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