Bennet, Romanoff supporters clash over ads, voting records

Democratic camps collided over the weekend when supporters of U.S. Senate candidates Andrew Romanoff and incumbent Michael Bennet traded chants and jibes as Bennet challenged a Romanoff attack ad that condemns Bennet for looting a movie chain and costing thousands of jobs. Bennet said the ad casts aspersions; Romanoff’s campaign said Bennet was a hypocrite.

Michael Bennet surrounded by supporters Saturday. Photo by Joe Boven
Romanoff supporters, alerted by campaign officials of a Bennet press conference on Saturday, crowded an area filled with Bennet supporters where the senator planned to speak. Dueling chants of “Bennet for Senate” and “Better off with Romanoff” escalated in volume and intensity until calmed by campaign officials, who were told the police would be called if the crowd was not tamed.

“I want to thank all of the Bennet supporters that are here today. I want to thank all the Romanoff supporters who are here today, because that will give me the chance to set the record straight,” Bennet said after the crowd showed some respect for a sitting U.S. senator by quieting down.

Bennet was referring to the latest advertisement from the Romanoff campaign, which accuses Bennet of having “looted $1 billion” from Regal Entertainment Group and stripping employees of jobs by pushing small theater companies into bankruptcy, all the while earning more than $10 million in profits for himself.

“Everything in this add is completely false. On no planet is anything in it true, in fact the reverse is true. We saved a company and thousands of jobs,” Bennet said, going on to say it was sad Romanoff was spending every penny he had on negative campaigning.

Romanoff’s deputy campaign manager, Berrick Abramson, told the Colorado Independent Bennet was a hypocrite. He said the Bennet campaign had only days before put out a flier that falsely claiming Romanoff supported the privatizing of Social Security to bolster Wall Street in 2004. Romanoff’s camp has said that accusation was false.

Bennet told the Colorado Independent on a telephone press conference Thursday that the flier was fair because it questioned votes Romanoff made while a Colorado legislator.

“There is some irony there,” Abramson said.

During the conference call Thursday, Bennet said that far from pushing Regal Cinemas, United Artists, and Edwards Theaters into bankruptcy, those companies had been bought by private equity firms that had built numerous new stadium seating theaters across the state that they thought would drive new business. Instead, they were rendered moribund by debt they had acquired in the construction and were unable to pay back.

Anschutz Investments bought the debt for pennies on the dollar in order to acquire ownership when the company exited bankruptcy. Anschutz operated and then consolidated them under Regal Entertainment Group in hopes of creating a single profitable company, which according to Bennet, they did.

“This was a case of the prior owners completely mismanaging the balance sheets of this company. We restructured them into what is an incredible success,” Bennet told reporters Thursday. Bennet noted his work along with Anschutz saved more than 25,000 jobs and created a few hundred in Colorado, despite considerable losses at the time.

As to whether an extraordinary dividend payout to investors of $1 billion was excessive, Bennet said, “No.” Bennet added the company was over-capitalized and had already invested profits where it could when it paid out $750 million to investors. He said that the smart thing was a return of investment to shareholders.

After Bennet’s departure, the company chose to acquire debt in order to pay out another $710 million in dividends in 2004. The move led Moodys and Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the company as well as to file a lawsuit that was later thrown out of court as frivolous. The company is currently on stable ground.

Bennet told the crowd Saturday that his votes had nothing to do with money coming from special interests. Pointing to his votes, he said that natural gas jobs would have suffered and U.S. banks would have had to sell off assets to foreign countries had he voted for some of the bills – such as slashing tax breaks for big oil – that he was being criticized by the Romanoff camp for rejecting. He said he knew when he voted no that he would be attacked for doing so, but said his job was not to be concerned about being reelected.

“My Job is not to worry about my job; my job is to worry about the jobs of the people in Colorado, the jobs they have and the jobs they don’t have. That is my job,” Bennet said.

Abramson said the press conference, recent ads and the debate held the same day represented a campaign in “free fall. I think they are grasping for straws.”