02 January 2009

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat, has selected Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, a dark horse candidate for the seat vacated by incumbent U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, whom President-Elect Obama has tapped to be Secretary of Interior, as Colorado's next Senator.

Bennet will have to hit the ground running. The 111th Congress holds it first session on January 6, 2009, half a week from now, so he must establish a residence in Washington D.C., get to work choosing staff members, and coming up with policy preferences and committee wish lists, in addition to learning the practical ropes of serving as a U.S. Senator in a matter of days.

Bennet's biography on the DPS website states:

Prior to his superintendency, Bennet served for two years as the Chief of Staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Highlights of his accomplishment at the city include: closing an initial 10 percent budget gap in the first two months of office; balancing two consecutive budgets in Denver's worst recession in history while preserving city services and avoiding layoffs almost entirely; conducting five collective bargaining negotiations; devising strategies to pass five ballot initiatives; and assembling a very diverse widely-acknowledged leadership team for the city.

He worked for six years prior to his tenure at the City of Denver as Managing Director for the Anschutz Investment Company in Denver, where he had direct responsibility for the investment of over $500 million. He led the reorganizations of four distressed companies including Forcenergy (which later merged with Denver-based Forest Oil), Regal Cinemas, United Artists and Edwards Theaters, which together required the restructuring of over $3 billion in debt. Bennet also managed, on behalf of Anschutz, the consolidation of the three theater chains into Regal Entertainment Group, the largest motion picture exhibitor in the world. Prior to moving to Denver, Bennet served as Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton Administration.

Bennet earned his bachelor's degree in history with honors from Wesleyan University and his law degree from Yale Law School, where he was the Editor-in-Chief of The Yale Law Journal.

Reputedly, Denver Mayor Hickenlooper (the most popular politician in the state), how shares a great deal with Bennet from a political perspective as an appointee, had been the runner up to get the nod from the Governor.

Bennet is widely respected as a good leader for the Denver Public Schools who has received national recognition from figures including President-Elect Obama for his work, and as an effective manager generally, but the appointment is surprising on many counts.

Bennet has never run for public office (although he has campaigned in support of some ballot issues), has no campaign organization to speak of, and has taken no public positions on a variety of partisan public policy issues. He is a Democrat according to a recent Denver Post profile of him, and is reputedly quite liberal, despite a background in big business. Bennet's reputation is for innovative, but not particularly partisan ideas. He has a mixed record with the DPS teacher's union, drawing a no confidence vote on one occasion, and receiving an endorsement as a Secretary of Education in the Obama administration on another. Still, Bennet can be expected to be a more reliable vote for Obama's agenda than Ken Salazar would had been, particularly in the area of civil liberties.

Bennet has less name recognition within Colorado than most of the other candidates discussed for the post, such as Mayor Hickenlooper, and outgoing Colorado House of Representatives Speaker Andrew Romanoff, despite being a well known figure in Denver and in national education circles.

Bennet is not in any way a "diversity" appointment, something particularly notable as he is replacing the state's first Hispanic U.S. Senator. His roots are classic East Coast WASP establishment and he is a Denver resident. He is, however, stunningly smart. The only man in high public office in the same league of Bennet intellectually is the President himself.

Bennet adds another name to a long slate of Denver residents holding statewide office in Colorado. Democrat Bernie Buescher, recently appointed as Colorado Secretary of State to replace Republican Mike Coffman who was elected to replace 6th Congressional District Representative Republican Tom Tancredo, is the only exception.

All this adds up to one big question. Is Bennet a placeholder, or is the expectation that he will run for re-election in 2010?

While no one would doubt that Bennet is a competent man and he has the benefit of starting out with a largely blank political slate, he isn't an appointee chosen to maximize the odds of the Democrats re-electing him. He would have been a much more obvious fit for the Secretary of Education post, than a U.S. Senate appointment, given his strong managerial experience.

Indeed, one wonders if Bennet's higher visibility won't place him on the fast track to a senior cabinet appointment if one of Obama's original appointments leaves the administration. Very few Presidents leave office with more than a few of the cabinet members that they started out with, so such openings are likely to come up, and a demonstration of political savy in his work as a U.S. Senator would make him more viable as a national political actor.

The Bennet appointment does largely allow Governor Ritter to avoid taking sides between factions within the Democratic party which had already started to mobilize around various candidates. If indeed, Bennet is only interested in serving out his vacancy appointment and does not run for re-election, Ritter has effectively dodged taking sides in a big intraparty fight, by leaving that decision for the caucus process and primary voters in the next election.

The fact that Bennet is not currently an elected official also minimizes the amount of political shakeup that will follow his appointment. The Denver School Board will have the daunting job of appointing a worthy successor to him, but no elected offices will be left vacant as a result of his appointment.

The nation and Colorado, in particular, will have an interesting time getting to know Michael Bennet, as he decides for himself what kind of Senator he would like to be.


Dave Barnes said...

"Hickenlooper...[n]ow shares a great deal with Bennet"

I'll say: they both graduated from http://www.wesleyan.edu/

Anonymous said...

"He is, however, stunningly smart. The only man in high public office in the same league of Bennet intellectually is the President himself"

Your hyperbole is laughable and serves to discredit your writing.

Anonymous said...

You said of U.S. Senator-to-be Michael Bennett: "He is, however, stunningly smart. The only man in high public office in the same league of Bennet intellectually is the President himself." You posted this on Jan. 2. Ranking Michael Bennett's intellect right up there with that of the incumbent, George Bush, is faint praise, indeed. Is your readers paying attention?

Anonymous said...

ex Governor Owens must be licking his chops. I'll wager you will see him in the next Senate race.

Anonymous said...

Please vote against the approval of Timothy Guitener as Secretary of the Treasury. Thank you.
Marilyn Bregitzer
Morrison, Co. 80465

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

According to a subsequent profile Bennet is Jewish rather than Protestant.