May 14, 2009 News » Cover Story

The accidental senator 

Michael Bennet has made a habit of turning unexpected moves into master strokes

Dressed in a gray sweater and jeans, with hair that appears to have been smoothed with a wet comb, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet blends in with the Sunday morning crowd at a Denver breakfast spot.

Between bites of an onion bagel, he talks casually about the months since he took over the Senate seat left vacant when Ken Salazar became Barack Obama's secretary of the Interior. Somehow, the presence of a spokesman makes the gathering seem even less formal. Michael Amodeo, who used to work for Salazar, arrived at the interview by bus and taxi, and Bennet takes the chance to gently rib him.

"What's up, Multi-Modal?" Bennet asks in the jeering tone of a brainy teenager. "Mr. Multi-Modal."

"It's what I do, reducing my carbon footprint," Amodeo replies, laughing.

Bennet and Amodeo have only worked together since January, but they project an easy chumminess cultivated during road trips to town hall meetings across Colorado. Bennet, formerly superintendent of Denver Public Schools, was unknown to most of the state when Gov. Bill Ritter named him as Salazar's replacement. The town hall meetings are part of an introductory tour to convince voters they should elect him to a full six-year term in 2010.

Bennet and Amodeo try to remember highlights from their trips.

"Maybe Cortez," Amodeo suggests. "Remember that lady?"

Bennet describes a "spirited" conversation with residents in the southwestern Colorado town about the federal recovery package. A 90-something woman stood up in the front row and turned her back to Bennet. ("Which is perfect," he says.)

"She said, 'I'm the only one here that lived through the Great Depression,'" Bennet recalls. "'If we do what my father said, which was that we all pull together, we'll all get through this.'"

As he tells the story, Bennet stops blending in with other customers at Moe's Broadway Bagels. Rising from his seat to act out the scene, he forces a bulge in a nearby line and draws stares from a curious few, who seem to be wondering, "Who is this guy?"

I imagine, for a moment, how they would react if they knew the answer.

Despite a political culture that favors the scripted over the spontaneous, the boyish and sometimes clownish Bennet has vaulted into the nation's most elite political club. At 44, he already has an unlikely career history and a track record of surprising people. And as senator, he very well may do the same thing again.

Money man

When Ritter announced he'd picked Bennet in early January, Democrats outside of Denver were dazed, if not dismayed. Said John Morris, then chair of the party in El Paso County: "As good as Michael Bennet is personally, he's totally unknown to the state and to this county."

Unlike Salazar and Sen. Mark Udall, the Boulder-area Democrat who was just elected, Bennet is fairly new to the West. He grew up in Washington, D.C., attended an elite private school in the city, then studied history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After graduating, he worked as an aide for Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste, a family friend who is now president of Colorado College.

Though he went on to get a law degree from Yale University, Bennet's first job after moving to Colorado in 1997 was handling investments for Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. He then pirouetted from high finance to politics, becoming chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and then debuted in education as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

After his Senate appointment was announced, Bennet joked that he gave Ritter a good reason to pick someone else.

"If you don't pick me," he said, "nobody's going to be mad at you."

Republicans immediately speculated that Bennet's lack of political experience would open the floodgates to national GOP money for the 2010 Senate race. But in the first three months of 2009, Bennet amassed a dazzling $1.4 million, a record for any Colorado Senate candidate in an off-year. (Udall, by comparison, raised $324,000 the first quarter of 2007; Bob Schaffer, his eventual Republican opponent, had not yet entered the race.)

Two relative unknowns have announced they will challenge him on the Republican side, but despite all kinds of talk about former House speaker Andrew Romanoff giving him a primary run, Bennet does not yet face any competition among Democrats. With Bennet's fundraising and the time that's passed, some say he's all but sealed up the Democratic nomination.

"I think it's too late for Romanoff to get in," says state Sen. John Morse, who will soon become Democratic majority leader. And Morse can't think of another challenger who could get in the race. "The party is starting to coalesce around Bennet."

Candid camera

A Republican videographer named Matthew follows Bennet to all his Colorado events.

"I keep asking him for his videotape," Bennet says with mock earnestness, "because we're not taking [any]."

Republicans probably won't give him the video, but they've already started using it. An ad posted at cologop.org bashes him for not taking a position on controversial legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize.

"It's an issue that I've not taken a position on," Bennet is shown saying in the video. "Every time I describe it, I get into trouble."

The ad, with an ominous voice-over, recycles these two short sentences repeatedly.

It's not flattering footage, but Bennet says he doesn't worry about it. Actually, he seems to delight in keeping Matthew busy. At a stop in Fort Garland, he says, he informed Matthew that he was adding two more meetings to an already busy schedule.

Matthew groaned, Bennet says, protesting, "Senator, I've got to see my wife."

If Bennet avoids a primary, he should also be able to avoid the kind of outreach to hardcore Democrats that could give Matthew and the Republicans fodder for the general election. For now, he claims such political maneuvering is not in the cards, and he invokes Obama as a model for the campaign he wants to run.

"I hope to run a race that's as consistent as that one," he says.

Close to 400 El Paso County residents got to meet Bennet on Jan. 10, when he passed through Colorado Springs with Ritter on an introductory tour. During a short speech, he showed a command of policy and an often-self-deprecating sense of humor. But with little time for one-on-one interaction, many left the meeting with doubts intact.

Bennet seems to make a deeper impression at more intimate town hall meetings. Many gave him credit just for making it to Leadville on a snowy Friday in April. Wes Duran, a retired Air Force officer, arrived at that meeting without even knowing what Bennet looked like. He says Bennet listened to residents and gave thoughtful comments on the economy, health care and federal bailout efforts.

"I was enormously impressed with Senator Bennet," Duran says. "I absolutely love the guy."

Impressing a few political junkies at town hall meetings is different, of course, from winning over the masses with campaign ads and television appearances. And sitting at Moe's, it's apparent he has a long way to go.

During the interview, two of the three people who stop to talk to Bennet already know him. One is a friend, and Bennet vanishes outside for a few minutes to visit with his family. Jessica Newman, an educator at Denver Public Schools, also passes through, updating him on her efforts to open a new charter school for girls in the district.

A third interruption comes as more of a surprise, when a woman breaks up Bennet's discussion of how to improve the quality of instruction at public schools with a request for an autograph.

Bennet pauses only a moment before jumping up to sign his name. In talking to the woman, he learns that she works in an alternative licensure program to get professionals from other fields into classrooms. Having just lamented the burnout-inducing standard teaching trajectory — work 25 years for a minimal salary so you can get a decent retirement — Bennet lights up as the woman speaks.

Turning toward me triumphantly, he says, "That's what I'm talking about."

'No glitz or glamour'

Bennet's tendency toward self-deprecation gives him an unpolished edge that could appeal to voters. Or confuse them.

Upon meeting locals at Penrose Library back in January, he told them he had failed second grade. (He was held back because of struggles with dyslexia.)

And after earning his law degree from Yale, he joked, he wasn't proving to be much of a lawyer, so he decided to try something else. (He was actually editor of the Yale Law Journal before becoming a law clerk for a U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals judge and working in the attorney general's office for President Clinton.)

Bennet and his wife, Susan Daggett, also a lawyer, moved to Colorado in 1997 for her job with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. Bennet took that opportunity to get out of law. Despite a nonexistent business background and left-leaning tendencies, he impressed Anschutz, a Denver conservative whom Forbes magazine ranks the 36th wealthiest person in the United States.

As managing director of investments for Anschutz Investment Co., Bennet led the reorganization of an oil company and helped consolidate three movie theater chains into the behemoth Regal Entertainment Group, which operates nearly 7,000 screens nation-wide.

Though officials for Anschutz declined to be interviewed, Cannon Harvey, the company's president, writes glowingly of Bennet in an e-mail.

"Not only is Michael Bennet one of the brightest and most insightful individuals I have known, he also is one of the most effective," Harvey writes. "He is a good listener and has a great talent for bringing people together."

In Denver, Bennet became friends with John Hickenlooper, a business owner and fellow Wesleyan grad. He helped out with Hickenlooper's 2003 mayoral campaign, and then surprised everyone — including Hickenlooper himself — by leaving behind his lucrative job with Anschutz to become Hickenlooper's chief of staff.

Two years passed before Hickenlooper urged Bennet to apply for the superintendent's job in Denver's troubled school district. A January 2009 Rocky Mountain News story quoted Bennet as telling a Pueblo audience, "I didn't think there was much that I could bring to that job. But the more I read about it, the more compelling I thought it was and the more important I thought it was."

According to that story, by the time Bennet landed an interview, he'd researched education reform tirelessly. When he was asked a question about improving Denver's graduation rate, the guy who'd never worked in education replied by sketching out a detailed plan.

After a controversial start punctuated by his decision to close the city's struggling Manual High School, Bennet won praise for working with teachers to implement a pay-for-performance plan, and for spurring an increase in students' test scores. A July 2008 editorial in the Denver Post was headlined "DPS moving in right direction," and Bennet's reputation as a reformer won him consideration for Obama's secretary of Education post.

Bennet comes from a family accustomed to high-profile positions. His father, Douglas Bennet, served as aide to the ambassador to India and president of National Public Radio before becoming president of Wesleyan (years after his son graduated). His younger brother, James, was a reporter at the New York Times for 15 years before becoming editor in 2006 of The Atlantic, a prominent national monthly magazine.

Jessica Newman, speaking after her surprise encounter with Bennet at Moe's, was a teacher at Manual the last year before it closed. (It has since reopened.) She remembers being impressed with Bennet during meetings he held with her and other Manual teachers.

"He just comes off as such a normal guy," she says. "There's no glitz or glamour about him."

Newman later got to know Bennet through a DPS training program for future administrators. She says she's been struck by his commitment to the students and his leadership.

"I think he created a vision for the district," she says.

The 'conservadem' label

The question for many Democrats has become whether Bennet will stand with the vision laid out by progressive members of his party. In March, MSNBC darling Rachel Maddow labeled Bennet and other senators who'd formed a working group of moderate Democrats the "conservadems" and mocked them for bowing to conservatives and standing in the way of Obama's legislative agenda.

"I see it as exactly the opposite," he says, crediting the group for helping to pass Obama's budget. And he notes repeatedly during our interview his admiration and support for Obama.

"I believe there is a progressive agenda that's been established for this country, and for my party, and for anybody else that wants to participate in it, and that's the agenda that Barack Obama ran on, and that's the agenda that he's trying to implement, and it's the one that I support," he says.

After my interview with Bennet, progressive grassroots organization MoveOn.org sends an e-mail blast calling on members to tell Bennet they are disappointed in him for voting against an amendment that would have let bankruptcy judges force banks to renegotiate more mortgages. It states, "Sen. Bennet did exactly what the banks wanted."

In a press release, Bennet explains, "I voted against this amendment for three simple reasons — it was not tailored narrowly enough to those who need it most, it would have raised interest rates, and it would have slowed down the housing recovery."

He could be right, but nuance loses out against the compelling storyline of banks against the people.

Any quantitative discussion of Bennet's popularity in his first 100 days — he was sworn in two days after Obama was — will include one automated poll released by a North Carolina polling firm. It said 41 percent of Coloradans disapprove of the job he's doing, compared to 34 percent approving.

"To have an approval rating that low is very scary," Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, says in a phone interview.

The poll, released April 22, was widely cited, inspiring a minor torrent of critical news, including a Denver Post story headlined, "Bennet not wowing voters."

Bennet seems to view it as an annoyance.

"I haven't spent three minutes thinking about that poll," he says, dismissing it as a "robo-call" effort. "I'm much more interested in hearing what the people in town halls are saying."

Perhaps the most surprising number is that 75 percent of Coloradans actually have formed an opinion of the job Bennet is doing. Apart from his party affiliation, it's hard to know what they could be assessing at this early stage in his Senate tenure.

In the months ahead, there'll be more to consider. Bennet talks intently about health care reform, and he's just taken his first steps into that national debate by unveiling legislation called the Medicare Care Transitions Act of 2009. While nothing as racy as a national health care plan, the bill aims to contain health care costs by developing a network of special coaches to help Medicare patients avoid being readmitted to hospitals.

An extended tryout

Across town from Bennet's Denver office on a late April afternoon, a small but cheerful crowd gathers to watch as Andrew Romanoff accepts an award for his work getting legislative deliberations televised. A few audience members speculate privately whether he will still get in the 2010 Senate race.

"Tick, tick, tick," one says.

After the ceremony, Romanoff smiles stiffly when asked about his intentions.

"I'm here to accept this award," he says. He won't talk about Bennet's performance in office so far.

"When Michael was appointed, I called to congratulate him and wish him the best of luck in representing the state," he says. "That remains my wish."

Bennet, for his part, says he's still out to prove himself and sees his appointment as an extended tryout.

"I don't see myself as an incumbent senator," he says. "I think of myself as having been given the chance to represent the state for the rest of Ken Salazar's term."

Making the most of that chance has turned into a full-time family project. Bennet has three daughters, ages 9, 8 and 4, and his wife has for now given up her job as an environmental attorney to care for them.

"Somebody's got to make sure our kids aren't raised by wolves," he says.

The kids are apparently accustomed to their parents staying busy. One day, Anne, the 4-year-old, asked her mom, "What's your job?" Bennet says he turned the question back on his daughter, and she fired back with a ready answer: "Going to school and coming to your events."

Bennet now splits his time between D.C. and Colorado. Fridays and Saturdays are generally filled with meetings. Sundays are supposed to be family days, so Daggett and the three girls show up at Moe's just as our interview is ending. Bennet greets Anne with an affectionate fist bump, then a hug.

The girls cluster around their father as I click a few photos, and then I walk away to grab a napkin for my now-cold bagel. Returning, I overhear as Newman, the public school educator, stops by to wish Bennet well. She asks him his impressions of Obama.

"He's a rare, rare politician because there's no pretense in him at all," Bennet says.

"Because he's so real?" Newman asks. "Well, you're a little bit like that as well, Michael. It takes one to know one."



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