Add DPS Superintendent Bennet to list of state’s possible cabinet nominees

Are there any prominent Colorado Democrats not under consideration for Obama administration appointments these days? The state might not have been “ground zero” for the presidential election — Ohio, Virginia and Florida took over that role after Colorado started leaning solidly Blue in mid-October — but to hear the chattering class chatter, the state has lately become an epicenter for second-tier cabinet picks.

On Monday night, a Newsweek columnist floated Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet as a likely nominee for secretary of education, with generic backing from none other than Bill Gates. That’s on top of rumors 3rd District Rep. John Salazar is emerging as the leading contender to be the next secretary of agriculture — or, do I hear interior! — and Gov. Bill Ritter’s appearance on a pundit’s list of possibilities to helm the Department of Energy.

“I have my money on Bennet,” columnist Jonathan Alter writes in next week’s Newsweek, the Rocky Mountain News reported Monday night.

The full line from Alter’s column reads: “(I have my money on Bennet, whose new compensation system is popular with Denver teachers, if not the union.)” Alter states his preference for Bennet after detailing the case for a secretary of education chosen “from today’s exciting collection of hard-charging, china-breaking school superintendents,” based on recommendations to the Obama transition team by none other than billionaire and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. After knocking down other possibilities, Alter zeroes in on Bennet:

One of those (Gates) likes a lot is Joel Klein of New York City, which is ironic considering that, as a Justice Department lawyer in the 1990s, Klein almost succeeded in breaking up Microsoft.

Klein probably won’t get the job. He has strained relations with Randi Weingarten, the new head of the American Federation of Teachers, and Obama has made it clear he doesn’t want to pick a fight with the unions. But Obama also knows that if he chooses a union-backed candidate such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor active in the transition, he’ll have a revolt on his hands from the swelling ranks of reformers. That’s why it’s more likely he’ll settle on a superintendent like Arne Duncan of Chicago, Michael Bennet of Denver or Paul Vallas of New Orleans, any of whom would suit Gates and other reform-minded philanthropists just fine.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has high praise for Bennet, who served as Hick’s chief of staff before taking over the DPS post in 2005: “He’s the best superintendent of schools in America so I think it’s obvious that he should be someone being considered,” Hizzoner tells the Rocky. “If there is someone who has a better set of skills and experience to run a large critical agency like that, I don’t know who they are.”

Bennet himself declined to comment to the Rocky, but a DPS spokesman said, “He told me he imagined his mom would probably renew her Newsweek subscription.”

Also Monday, the Delta Farm Press reported that Salazar, one of the few farmers serving in Congress, “appears to have moved to the top of the list” for agriculture secretary, PolitickerCO noted.

“His (Salazar’s) stock has risen in the last week,” said (agricultural columnist Jim) Wiesemeyer, a speaker at the 2008 USA Rice Outlook Conference in Little Rock, Ark. “He is a moderate to conservative Democrat. He was born and raised on a cattle operation and is a seed potato farmer. And he is Latino.”

Salazar’s stock has been on the rise for days, since former West Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm — himself a top contender for USDA head — told a gathering of Kansas ranchers “he thinks Colorado Rep. John Salazar is probably the top name on President-elect Barack Obama’s list,” the Associated Press reported Saturday.

Salazar also earned mention in a Politico story on Monday as a possible nominee to lead the Department of — wait for it — Interior, in a story discussing dark horse candidate Kevin Gover, a member of the Pawnee Tribe and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “Another candidate reported to be on the shortlist for interior secretary is Rep. John T. Salazar (D-Colo.),” Politico’s Erika Lovely wrote. “Traditionally, the interior secretary has been a Westerner.”

Leaving no elected Coloradan unturned, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote on Saturday that Ritter, who turned Barack Obama on to his catch-phrase “the new energy economy,” could be in line to take charge at the Department of Energy, though the governor’s name was presented in a lengthy list of possibilities:

The names still in the mix for Energy Secretary, according to well informed senior Democrats include: Govs. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kans.), Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.), Bill Rittter (D-Colo.) and Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M), Google’s Dan Reicher, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, former Edison International CEO John Bryson, Federal Express Chairman Fred Smith and Steve Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Cillizza, who pens the Post’s daily The Fix blog, added an observation that could cool Salazar’s chances: “Obama and his team have been careful in their Cabinet picks so far not to hand seats to Republicans,” noting that only Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano’s selection as secretary of Homeland Security loses a seat for Democrats. A rumored Salazar vacancy in the 3rd District has Republicans and Democrats circling for the possibility to run in a potential special election, reminding observers the seat was held for six terms by Republican Scott McInnis before Salazar took over in 2004.

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Ernest Luning

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