Bennet pick for Senate ‘surprising,’ ‘perplexing’ to pols and pundits alike

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet at a 2008 press conference with the teachers' union. (Photo/Ed in '08, Flickr)
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet at a 2008 press conference with the teachers

Reactions ranged from dumbfounded to laudatory to the news Gov. Bill Ritter plans to name Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to fill the U.S. Senate term of Democrat Ken Salazar, who is stepping down to head the Department of the Interior later this month.

While Ritter’s office hasn’t confirmed Bennet is his choice for the Senate vacancy, numerous news outlets citing anonymous sources guarantee the 44-year-old Denver resident is the pick. Ritter has scheduled an announcement at 2 p.m. Saturday at the state Capitol.

While few expressed surprise or dismay when Bennet’s name emerged among finalists to head the Department of Education in President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet weeks ago, the news the DPS chief would be elevated to the Senate caught virtually everyone off guard Friday.

State GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, who ran Republican Bob Schaffer’s losing campaign for the Senate this year, called news of Ritter’s selection “perplexing.” Here’s what he told the Associated Press:

“There are some admirable things Bennet did with Denver Public Schools, but he’ll be judged by what he does in the Senate. There are major issues coming up this year, and he’ll have to vote on tax increases and bailouts. Those votes will define Michael Bennet,” Wadhams said.

Pollster Floyd Ciruli told the AP Bennet was a “risky choice for Democrats,” in part because the Denver lawyer is a neophyte to elective politics:

“He’s the one candidate on the list who has the least political experience. I don’t think anyone knows his views on anything except education. This is surprising,” Ciruli said.

Politicial blog Colorado Pols initially greeted the news with a stunned “What the hell?”

Governor Bill Ritter surely (hopefully) has a good reason for choosing Bennet to replace Ken Salazar, but from where we’re sitting it’s damn near impossible to see what that reason might be. By all accounts Bennet is brilliant guy who also happens to be fabulously wealthy from his days working with super-rich dude Phil Anschutz, but being smart and rich doesn’t make this a wise choice. …

The obvious question is “why?” And there is no obvious answer. Bennet is well-liked in the business community, and Ritter has an almost pathological fear of angering the business community, so this may have played a role. Or perhaps Ritter wanted someone on the ticket in 2010 who wouldn’t overshadow him in his own re-election bid. We could speculate for days on why Ritter chose Bennet, but unless there is some polling data that shows Bennet to be wildly popular around the state, this will go down as another uninspired and baffling move by Ritter.

But hours later, after it became clear Bennet really was bound for the Senate, Colorado Pols floated an alternate theory, comparing the Bennet pick to Sen. John McCain’s selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate (no, seriously, but only in part):

The chief pushback we’re hearing to criticism of Bennet’s selection is that his admitted brilliance and ability to rise to major new challenges are being underestimated. This comes to us from sources who know and have worked closely with Bennet, and who insist there is something to be seen in him that hasn’t been able to shine given the positions he’s held so far. …

But consider this: when Sarah Palin exploded onto the national stage, she went from photogenic nobody to immensely popular superstar in a matter of days–until they let her talk without a script. Can the similarly photogenic and novel Bennet do the same, succeeding where she tanked by not colossally blundering through his first interviews?

Ritter’s allies, including some who had been mentioned as possible Senate nominees, were either fulsome with praise for the selection or circumspect, since it isn’t official yet.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, said by the Denver Post to have been the other finalist for the appointment until Thursday, and Bennet’s former boss, took a wait-and-see approach in a statement Friday afternoon:

“Governor Ritter has yet to announce his U.S. Senate appointment, so we will respect his timeline and not comment on current media reports beforehand. It is clearly a testament to Colorado that there were so many qualified and talented candidates from which to choose, a fact that will serve our state well for many years to come.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, also topping many lists as a likely choice for Ritter, acknowledged that he’d been passed over for the Senate and thanked supporters who’d encouraged his nomination, also in a statement Friday:

“It’s an honor and privilege serving the people of the 7th CD and I look forward to continuing to do so. I’m very grateful for the outpouring of support I received from people across the state as I was being considered to fill Sen. Salazar’s seat, to those I owe a great debt of gratitude. Our country is facing very tough times, and I’m ready to head back to Washington to work on these issues on behalf of the hard working people of the 7th.”

U.S. Rep.-elect Jared Polis — filing a blog post “From Oklahoma City, OK, en route to DC (driving out with a car full of boxes)” — said he was “thrilled” with the choice:

I have known Michael through our work in education for several years. He brings extensive business experience to the job, which is what we need more of in the US Congress, and particularly in our Democratic party as we work to get the economy going again. I’ve never been one to say that we need a Congress of businesspeople, but if you look at the Democratic caucus, business people are under-represented relative to attorneys and career politicians. He also has extensive hands on experience in public education. I do believe he is ideally prepared to serve our state and nation, and it’s not just because I’m partial to business and education experience in our delegation ;-)

Senate President Peter Groff, himself mentioned as a dark-horse candidate for the appointment last week, told the Rocky Mountain News he was happy with Ritter’s choice of Bennet, another dark horse:

“I like Michael . . .I think what he’s done with DPS is just short of remarkable,” Groff said. “And I think it’s an interesting pick. I think it’s a pick that goes with the changing times in Congress.”

Like President-elect Barack Obama, Bennet is from a younger generation than many in the Senate, has not taken the usual path to his political position and is not beholden to interests in Washington D.C., Groff said.

“I think he’s going to kind of come in with a clean slate, not having worked in Washington,” Groff said.

A former DPS school board member, who had a hand in Bennet’s unanimous selection as superintendent in 2005, extolled Bennet’s virtues to the Denver Post. “He’s like how Barack Obama has been depicted — constant and confident,” said Lucia Guzman. “He’s a visionary, able to look far and wide and very deep into the issues at hand.”

Noting that Ritter himself bypassed a strong field of seasoned politicians when Gov. Roy Romer shocked observers by appointing Ritter to be Denver’s district attorney, the Rocky elicited similar praise for the Bennet pick from Romer’s son, state Sen. Chris Romer:

“Obama took very seriously picking Michael Bennet to be the number-one policymaker in America on education . . . so it’s not surprising that he made Ritter’s list,” the Denver Democrat said. “Michael is one of the best intellectuals I know. He’ll be an extraordinary lion of the Senate for the next 40 years. Colorado will have a great senator.”

ProgressNowAction’s executive director, Michael Huttner, also weighed in with the praise in a statement:

“Michael Bennet is an outstanding choice to fill the seat vacated by Senator Salazar. I have known Michael for many years as someone who has tremendous integrity and epitomizes Colorado values. He has distinguished himself as a talented and dedicated public servant who can work with people across the political spectrum.”

Citing Bennet’s reputation for reining in the city of Denver’s and DPS’s budgets, a diarist on the liberal Square State blog suggested Bennet could be a wise pick who fits the Ritter model for statewide victory at the ballot box:

“[It] will certainly be an out-of-the-box choice by Ritter. An intriguing selection, and — as Gov. Ritter undoubtedly knows — effective public servants who aren’t politically polarizing are immensely attractive to Colorado voters in general. Especially one with a record as a budget hawk.”

The folks at the conservative Rocky Mountain Right blog see it differently, saying Bennet’s lack of name identification outside Denver and lack of a fund-raising track record could lead to national Democrats asking him to step aside before the 2010 election. Barring that scenario, the blog wonders “what was Bill Ritter thinking?”

… By some twisted logic, Ritter thinks that appointing a candidate with no name I.D. and no fundraising base will “take the Republicans by surprise” and sweep Bennet to victory in the 2010 general election. After all, if a relatively unknown Denver District Attorney could avoid a primary and win by 17-points in the gubernatorial race, why can’t a relatively unknown Denver Public Schools Superintendent do the same in the senate race?

… Ritter is using Bennet as bait. By appointing someone who looks incredibly easy to pick off to the senate seat, Ritter might be hoping to push any serious Republican challengers out of the governor race and into the senate race.

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