Sen. Michael Bennet (D)
Elected: Appointed Jan. 2009, term expires 2010, 1st full term.
Born: Nov. 28, 1964, New Delhi, India .
Education: Wesleyan U., B.A. 1987; Yale U., J.D. 1993..
Religion: No religious affiliation.
Family: Married (Susan Daggett); 3 children.
Professional Career: Dep. atty. gen., U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1995-97; Managing dir., Anschutz Investment Co., 1997-2003; Chief of staff, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, 2003-05; Superintendent, Denver Public Schl., 2005-09.
Colorado’s junior senator is Michael Bennet, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter in January 2009 to succeed Ken Salazar, who’d been named Interior secretary by President Barack Obama. Bennet was born in New Delhi, India, where his father, Douglas Bennet, was an aide to Amb. Chester Bowles. His mother and her family were Jews who’d emigrated from Poland after World War II. Michael grew up and attended private schools in Washington, D.C., while his father pursued his career in public service. Douglas Bennet was a staffer for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration and later president of National Public Radio. The younger Bennet graduated from Wesleyan University, then was a staffer for Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste of Ohio, a family friend. In 1990, Bennet entered Yale Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal (the equivalent of Barack Obama’s presidency of the Harvard Law Review). He then worked as a law clerk for a federal judge in Baltimore, where he met his wife, Susan Daggett, then joined Lloyd Cutler’s law firm in Washington. In 1995 he was named counsel to Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick in the Clinton administration and wrote speeches for Attorney General Janet Reno. In 1997, he moved to Denver, where his wife, a natural resources lawyer, went to work for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. Bennett took a job with the investment company headed by billionaire Philip Anschutz, a political conservative. Bennet had never read a balance sheet, and Anschutz told him to attend accounting school at night at his own expense. Eventually, Bennet got such assignments as restructuring $3 billion in debt for several companies, including Forcenergy, Regal Cinemas, United Artists and Edwards Theaters. He also oversaw the consolidation of the three theater chains into Regal Entertainment Group, the world’s largest movie-theater company.
|Ken Salazar (D)||1,081,188||(51%)||($9,886,551)|
|Pete Coors (R)||980,668||(47%)||($7,858,598)|
|Ken Salazar (D)||173,167||(73%)|
|Mike Miles (D)||63,973||(27%)|
In 2003, an old friend from Wesleyan, John Hickenlooper, was elected Denver mayor and asked Bennet to be his chief of staff. Bennet says he gave up millions in stock options to accept “an opportunity that wouldn’t come around again.” He worked on balancing the budget, mediating a dispute between United and Frontier airlines at Denver International Airport and brokering agreements with public-employee unions. “I have referred to him as the second mayor, the hidden mayor,” Hickenlooper told the Denver Post. In 2005, the position of Denver Public Schools superintendent came open, and among the 14 top candidates was Bennet—even though he had no experience in education, had himself attended private schools, and was sending his daughter to a private kindergarten. But he had had no relevant experience for his previous two jobs either and said he was passionately committed to helping children learn. In 2005, the board picked him to head a system of 73,000 students, three-quarters of them Latino or African-American and two-thirds of them eligible for the school lunch program. When he closed the predominately minority Manual High School in 2006, black community leaders protested and called Bennet a “dictator.” But the school reopened in 2008 with a new emphasis on student achievement, and Bennet had mended fences with the community leaders. He instituted a “Denver Plan,” which boosted performance standards in the schools and created workshops to teach principals how to lead schools to reform. An early-childhood education program was put in place, and more than 90% of five-year-olds got full-day kindergarten. By 2008, metrics showed positive results. Enrollment was at its highest point since 1976, in contrast to falling enrollment in many central-city school systems. Test scores rose faster than or at the state average in 140 of 164 schools. Still, Denver schools performed below statewide levels: Only 46% of Denver students showed proficiency in reading and 35% in math, compared to the statewide averages of 68% and 53%, respectively.
When Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, Bennet co-hosted a fundraiser for him, and Bennet was included in the Democratic candidate’s weekly education conference calls with innovative big-city school heads. After Obama was elected, Bennet was on the short list for secretary of Education, although Obama ultimately chose Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan. But Bennet was not even considered a long shot for U.S. senator after Obama named Ken Salazar his Interior secretary. That left it up to Democratic Gov. Ritter to appoint a replacement to serve until Salazar’s Senate seat came up for re-election in 2010. Bennet had taken on national politics just once, in 2004, when he made a speech before a group of business leaders denouncing the Iraq War and President Bush. In Colorado political circles, Bennet was on exactly no one’s radar.
The name most often mentioned was outgoing state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who had ties to Democratic politicians and activists across the state. Another possibility was Hickenlooper, Bennet’s mentor, who was well-known and popular throughout the state. On the list were other seasoned pols, including Democratic Reps. Ed Perlmutter and John Salazar, the new Interior secretary’s brother. Latino leaders let it be known they would like another Latino to take Salazar’s place. Others called for the appointment of a woman, like former state Senate President Joan FitzGerald. On Jan. 2, 2009, Ritter astonished just about everyone by naming Bennet, saying he was impressed with his record of bringing diverse interests together to solve problems and by his pragmatic approach to turning around troubled public and private enterprises. Republican leaders relished the prospect of taking on a candidate far less formidable electorally than Hickenlooper or Romanoff in 2010. “What the hell?!?” wrote a blogger on ColoradoPols.com.
Bennet flew to Washington to set up a transition with Salazar’s staff, then embarked on a four-city tour of Colorado with Ritter, during which he expressed a willingness to listen and an eagerness to learn. He noted that he had before taken on difficult jobs for which he did not have obvious credentials, with Anschutz’s investment company, with Hickenlooper’s mayoral administration, and with the Denver public schools. On January 22, he was sworn in as a senator. The other Colorado senator, Democrat Mark Udall, had been elected in November 2008, and so, after just 16 days on the job, Udall became the senior senator from Colorado and Bennet the junior senator. (Vice President Joe Biden, who swore Bennet in, served 28 years before he became the senior senator from Delaware). For five days, Bennet, 44, was the Senate’s youngest member, until Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another appointee, was sworn in.
In several media interviews, Bennet called for a phased withdrawal from Iraq and said that although he would not support repealing the Bush tax cuts because of the potential harm to the shaky economy, he would vote to allow them to expire as stated in the enacting legislation. He also said he would advocate putting in their place tax cuts targeted at the middle class. He voted for the February 2009 economic-stimulus bill, even after the Senate version cut almost half the spending for Colorado’s state government. On an important state issue, Bennet said he would follow Ritter’s and Udall’s go-slow approach on oil-shale leasing in western Colorado.
In his early days as senator, Bennet also began setting up a campaign organization heavy with veterans of the Obama campaign, who had helped the new president carry previously Republican Colorado by 54%-45%. Bennet promised to visit all 64 counties. In early 2009, there was speculation that more prominent Colorado Democrats would challenge him in the 2010 primary. And Republican state Chairman Dick Wadhams said he expected several serious Republicans would run.