It’s official: Ritter taps Bennet to follow in Salazar’s ‘very large bootsteps’

Michael Bennet, left, gestures during a press conference announcing his nomination to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Bill Ritter (Photo/State of Colorado)
Michael Bennet, left, gestures during a press conference announcing his nomination to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Bill Ritter (Photo/State of Colorado)

Flanked by Democratic heavyweights, Gov. Bill Ritter made it official Saturday afternoon at the state Capitol: Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet is his choice to fill out Ken Salazar’s U.S. Senate term. Calling Bennet “one of the deepest and most innovative thinkers that I know,” Ritter cited Bennet’s “unique set of personal and professional experiences that make him the right choice for Colorado.” Salazar is leaving the Senate to become secretary of the interior in the Obama administration.

“My experiences, not only in public service but also in business, have taught me that when people come together, put aside partisan differences, and focus on pragmatic problem-solving, we can accomplish great things,” said Bennet, 44, who worked as a turnaround expert for billionaire Phil Anschutz in Denver before serving as incoming Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff and then chief of Denver schools.

“I will be privileged to follow in the very large bootsteps of Sen. Salazar,” Bennet said before a cavalcade of elected officials took to the lectern to sing the nominee’s praises.

“Let the message go out loud and clear across the state that Michael Bennet will be a great senator and he will win re-election in 2010 no matter who his opposition is,” Salazar said before pausing to bestow the blessing of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Bennet and his family.

As the press conference began, the governor’s spokesman sent a link to a Web site devoted to Bennet’s 2010 campaign, including an endorsement from President-elect Barack Obama, who said Bennet’s “breakthrough work at the helm of Denver’s schools has reflected that commitment, and established Michael as one of the nation’s leading education reformers.”

Bennet had reportedly been one of three finalists to become Obama’s secretary of education. Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan was nominated to that position.

Calling him the “best mayor in America,” Ritter introduced Hickenlooper and noted the mayor had been among the applicants for the Senate vacancy.

Ritter later said he interviewed “15 different candidates” for the Senate vacancy and finally made his decision on New Year’s Eve.

“My overriding principle was, ‘Who can best serve Colorado at this critical point in our history?'” Ritter said. “Our challenges, our opportunities are so serious that they take a new generation of leadership and I believe a new way of thinking and a bold new approach to problem solving.”

Other contenders for the nomination included U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, John Salazar (the outgoing senator’s older brother) and Ed Perlmutter, as well as outgoing state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, state Senate President Peter Groff, former state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, former U.S. Senate candidates Tom Strickland and Mike Miles, former state Sen. Polly Baca, former U.S. Attorney Henry Solano and former Ambassador Swanee Hunt. Two other potential candidates, state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, withdrew their names from consideration early in the process.

Here’s the video of the 45-minute press conference announcing Bennet’s nomination from Denver’s KUSA-TV, Channel 9: