InnerView with Michael Bennet - Colorado Politics

InnerView with Michael Bennet

Author: - July 16, 2010 - Updated: July 16, 2010

By Jody Hope Strogoff & Ernest Luning

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet — who was appointed to fill Ken Salazar’s seat in January 2009 by Gov. Bill Ritter when Salazar took over at the Department of Interior — is facing a primary challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Prior to serving in the Senate, Bennet was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and a corporate turnaround specialist for Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Michael Bennet

Illustration by Matt Milner for The Colorado Statesman

Bennet sat down for a half hour interview with The Colorado Statesman on July 3 on a patio outside a Boulder café after a rally with Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Jared Polis at a nearby park. Romanoff and Republican candidates Jane Norton and Ken Buck joined The Statesman for hour-long interviews over the previous weeks, and their interviews have appeared in the last three editions of The Statesman. Read archived InnerViews, online at

Campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid accompanied Bennet to the interview and joined in the discussion a few times.

Below is the full transcript of the conversation with Bennet. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Colorado Statesman (CS): (You’ll be on your) bus tour, all week?
Michael Bennet (MB): This is sort of the kick off to the last five weeks or so of the primary season, and then hopefully going into the general. It’s really a continuation of what I’ve been doing since I was put in my job, which is that most Fridays and Saturdays I’m back (in Colorado) and I’m out doing this all over the state. There are almost 25,000 miles — event after event after event. And this isn’t going to be a lot different, except the family gets to come this week because it’s July Fourth.

CS: Your brother’s (James Bennet, editor of the Atlantic Monthly) here too?
MB: My brother just happens to be here because he’s on his way to Aspen for the Ideas (Festival at the Aspen Institute). No, he’s not here for this. Did you see him over there?

CS: Yeah. I was listening to you speak over there. It seems like, having watched you from the beginning, you were a little more quiet back then, I think intentionally, to listen more. But you seem to have readily hit your stride in terms of public speaking. Do you feel more comfortable?
MB: Well, I don’t think anybody’s ever accused me of being a great public speaker.

CS: Well, you’ve gotten — like you feel more comfortable with it.
MB: Yeah, no, I do. I think it’s like anything else you do over time, you get more comfortable with it. I am extremely glad that we spent the last 18 months or so — and I may have that date directionally wrong, but I think it’s been about 18 months — listening as much, or more, as talking. Because I feel very confident that the message that we’re feeding back to people now is what they’ve said to me, and that it’s not just a Democratic message. It’s a Democratic message, and a message that I hear from unaffiliated voters and Republicans as well.

CS: Do you find that in different parts of the state, people want to talk about very different issues, or are they pretty much similar on the West Slope and the Eastern Plains?
MB: At least what they want to talk about with me — it may be different with the gubernatorial candidates, but as they think about the role of the federal government and they think about the policy issues that relate to the work that I do. Actually there’s much more similarity than there is difference. That is not necessarily true in terms of perspective, but in terms of the topics that people want to cover, there’s an awful lot of similarity.

CS: Traveling the state the last 18 months, are there some issues that you’ve heard about and really substantially changed your mind on after hearing from people?
MB: I would say that after — changed my mind based on what I’ve heard people say? I wouldn’t say changed my mind, so much as — but I feel much more emphatic today than when I took this job about the energy issues in this state. Because that is something that I’ve heard about in all parts of the state and I think that there is an awful lot of common ground that we can reach here. Both in terms of the development of renewables and biofuels and tapping into the entrepreneurial horsepower of a community like this (Boulder). And the fact that we’ve got abundant natural gas, which, if we extract it correctly and in an environmentally sensitive way, provides an enormous potential both as a bridge fuel but also as a fuel for fleets, if we could build such an infrastructure in this country.

So I would say I started this job with a very strong sense of the economy was what was going to be the focus, and I believe that’s been the focus. But energy has certainly been something that’s elevated as a result of what I’ve heard across the state.

CS: One of your Republican opponents, Jane Norton, lists the war on terror as one of the top issues. Are you finding that people are really concerned with that as an issue, or is it perhaps lower down on the list?
MB: If we define it as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan — can we do that?

CS: Okay.
MB: It really doesn’t come up as much as I would think, and I’m a little surprised by that. I think it’s because economic and domestic issues have sort of pushed it to the side. But it does come up, and I think mostly in the contexts of people wondering when we’re going to be out of Iraq, and wondering when we’re going to be out of Afghanistan. I don’t detect people — I don’t think people really share Jane’s view that this is a partisan issue, or that somehow the fact that the president has sent 60,000 more troops to he Afghan border suggests a lack of resolve on his part. In fact, if anything, the concern is in the other direction, which is how much longer is this war going to go on.

CS: What does winning in Afghanistan look like?
MB: To me it looks like two things. One is, using the time that we have remaining there to do whatever we can to stamp out the remnants of al Qaeda that are in the border region. And the other, to see if the Pakistani military can use this as an opportunity to secure the nuclear weapons in Pakistan. There’s no one else that can secure those weapons, and that is a piece of what’s going on now, is that we are backstopping them as they do that. And I think those are two important outcomes for us. I think the president has said that he believes that we ought to start drawing down our troops July 2011, and I think directionally that’s absolutely the right way to go.

CS: General Petraeus has a new take on things. Still moving in that direction?
MB: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I think so.

CS: You voted for him to be confirmed (to his appointment as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan)?
MB: Yeah, yeah.

CS: Are you in favor of the general stepping down?
MB: Well, it wasn’t my decision to make. But I think that the president, all things considered, did the right thing. And I think that he did it in a way that overcame the daily political chatter about this or that or the other thing.

Let me give you an example of that. You can’t almost turn on the TV without hearing somebody on cable saying they think the president’s not angry enough about the oil spill, or the president’s too angry about BP. No one in a town meeting that I’ve been to has raised that as an issue. What they are saying is: shut the well off, make sure the taxpayers don’t have to pay for it, and let’s figure out how not to cause this problem again, right? And there is, I think, an increasing disconnect between what I am hearing in my town halls, and what the national media — loosely understood as the cable television talk shows — is spending their time on.

And I think you saw that with the decision on McChrystal versus Petraeus, was people weren’t asking themselves, does this guy seem mad enough at this guy? What he said was, he shot his mouth off in a way he shouldn’t have done in Rolling Stone, and we’ve got somebody who’s a tremendous asset that we can put there and we’re just going to do it to make sure that our allies and others have confidence in what we’re doing.

CS: Do you think the president is misunderstood?
MB: Well, I sure wouldn’t want his job right now. When you think about what he was handed, which was the worst economy since the Great Depression, two wars, an economy even before — and (your reporter) has heard me talk about this before — but an economy even before we were in the worst recession since the Great Depression, where we saw economic growth but where middle class family income declined; an economy where we were earning fewer real dollars at the end than at the beginning, where middle class families or working class families are struggling to make ends meet. This is even before this disaster. Then we were in the disaster, which was far greater than anybody would have comprehended, and (Obama) is left first holding the bag for decisions that were made even before he got there, like whether to do the financial bailout or whether to intervene in AIG, and then of course he made subsequent decisions as well.

And then you have things like oil spills and other kinds of — and one television network devoted entirely to his failure as a president, and another television network devoted to torture him for not being left enough, right? So I think that compared to the average person back there (in Washington), I think he has a longer term view. It’s not just about what the next election cycle brings, it’s not just what the next cable television cycle brings. And I think to the extent that he’s been misunderstood, which was your question, it may be that they haven’t been successful enough, the White House — because it’s not the American people’s fault — that the White House hasn’t been successful enough accounting for the change in the media environment that we’re all in. Which is ironic, in view of how they ran their campaign.

CS: Are there any of his positions that you do disagree with?
MB: Well, I disagreed, obviously, with the decision that they made on the Orion Space Program. I was an original co-sponsor of the PAYGO Act in the Senate, and our version didn’t have the loopholes that were contained in the version that the administration put forward. I strongly believe that we have to deal with the fact that we’ve got a $13 trillion debt and a $1.4 trillion deficit. It’s very hard to fix those problems when you’re in this recession, but as we come out, we need to think about it. I wouldn’t describe that piece so much as a disagreement as an ordering of priorities. But I think in the main, he’s trying hard to try to help us create a path out of this morass that he didn’t create, but that he’s carrying the weight for. And you know what, that’s part of being president of the United States.

CS: Is he going to come in again (to campaign in the state) for you, do you think?
MB: I don’t know, I don’t know.

CS: Would you like him to?
MB: If we think it’ll be helpful, we’ll ask him to come in. If it won’t be helpful, we’ll ask him not to. But I’m very proud to have his endorsement.

CS: What did you think of former President Clinton’s endorsement (of Bennet’s primary opponent, Andrew Romanoff)? I mean I know you’ve said that you understand that it’s a debt of loyalty, or something, but does that play much of a factor?
MB: I actually don’t think endorsements generally play much of a factor in political campaigns. I think that’s becoming less and less true every single cycle. So I would say, as a general matter, it is unlikely to make a difference, and in the specific I don’t think it’s going to make a difference. I think this had nothing to do with me or my performance in the job. What it had to do with was that Andrew (Romanoff) supported Hillary Clinton when she ran for president, and I supported Barack Obama. And you know what? The chips have to fall where they fall, and I think that’s what it was about.

CS: (The Clinton endorsement of Romanoff) came right at the end of the fundraising quarter (which ended June 30). Did you have a good quarter?
MB: Yeah, we had a good quarter.
Trevor Kincaid (TK): We’ll release our numbers later.
MB: (Directed to Kincaid) I wasn’t going to let them tell me — Yeah, it was good, it was good. It was a tough quarter, I mean it was tough for everybody.

CS: Do you find it hard to ask people for money? Do you feel uncomfortable, or is it something that you just sort of accept as part of the necessity of a campaign?
MB: I don’t think it’s a necessity of the campaign. If we could ever reform our campaign finance laws, which would be a welcome thing, because the amount of time that’s spent raising money and the amount of effort that’s spent raising money — the amount of money that’s spent raising money — there’s got to be a better way than what we’ve got in the system that’s designed now.

It’s really been okay. I had never raised money for my own campaign before, obviously. I’d raised money for things like the Denver Public Schools and it’s a lot easier to raise money for that effort than it is for yourself. But it is part of the work, and in order to wage a successful campaign that’s statewide, you need to have the financial resources to do it. We have — I just learned this the other day. I’ll tell you — (directed to Kincaid) Can I say this — the number of donors?
TK: Yes.
MB: We have now over 20,000 donors to this campaign. When you think about it, when we’re in this economic cycle that we’re in, when you’ve got a headwind, everybody says, against Democrats, I think it’s a tremendous accomplishment, a real testament to the finance staff on my campaign, among other things. This has been a lot of hard work over a long period of months and being willing to do the work. Sometimes you just have to do it.

CS: Do you spend a lot of time making (fundraising) calls?
MB: Yeah.

CS: Mark Udall had what, 16,000 donors, is that correct?
MB: It’s a little unclear. I thought it was 19,000, but I heard the other day that after the campaign was over there were some other donors that came in, so we’re checking that. But it was roughly in the — we’re in that zone.

CS: Roughly what you’ve got already?
MB: Yeah.

CS: Will this race be more expensive than (the 2008 Colorado Senate race, which saw spending of) $20 million from both candidates and then, what did they say, two or three times that from outside groups?
MB: Yeah, I think it’ll be, unfortunately, I think it’s going to be roughly the same. Coloradans are going to have to endure a lot more political advertising than anybody should ever have to endure.

CS: Your Democratic opponent has made a big deal about the fact that he’s not taking PAC money. Do you find that the electorate is really engaged in that issue?
MB: No.

CS: We don’t hear much talk about it. I was wondering, from your perspective?
MB: No. I’m almost never asked that question except by somebody saying, “Please tell me how you respond to the question so I can respond to the question.” You know what I mean? You see what I’m saying?

CS: Yeah.
MB: But it occasionally comes up. But very, very rarely.

CS: About the economy — are (Congressional) Republicans blocking fixes to the economy intentionally to put themselves in a better position at the mid-term (election)?
MB: I hope not, I hope not. And I don’t know what their motivation is. What I do know is that there’s not enough constructive conversation going on across the aisle about these issues. A lot of them are not, by definition, partisan issues. But there are debates even within the Democratic Party, right, about spending versus fiscal restraint. And I think that — this is going to sound —
TK: — It’s an area where politics interferes —
MB: It does. Well, and it also — this is going to sound sort of self evident, but it just seems to me, looking at it, that it is a false choice. We had an economy that was in free fall, we had to do something to deal with that. Had we not passed the Recovery Act the cuts to state and local governments would be far worse — we actually have some numbers, I’ve got some slides I can show you on this if you’re interested — far worse, and our economy would be in much worse shape. Even the front page of the Wall Street Journal quotes economists from both sides from time to time saying that the Recovery Act generated somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 3 percent (Gross Domestic Product) growth on top of what we would have otherwise had. But you are seeing, I think, concern, that I share, that $13 trillion of debt is a lot of debt, and at one a $1.4 trillion deficit is a lot — is a big deficit.

And the appetite for stimulus funding that’s not directly related to things like infrastructure is diminished. And I think that what you’re seeing is people hearing from their constituents that enough is enough. Now, we don’t want to be foolish and choke this recover off prematurely. And I would say even more than that — even more than that, we need a theory about how we’re going to replace the jobs we lost during this recession. Because if you look at the period of — if you look at this recession and you see month after month after month of job loss, every single one of those months — or virtually every single one — showed productivity gains in the productivity index. So what was happening was, enterprises were finding ways of doing the work they were doing with fewer people. Which means there’s a structural issue, which is why the percentage of people unemployed in the country still remains so high.

My own view — and other people might have other views that I’d love to hear — my own view of that is that setting a goal that says we’re going to break our reliance on foreign oil by some date, setting a goal that says we’re going to produce as much of our energy here as we can, and committing to a clean energy economy, a new energy economy, would be a very significant way of rebuilding the jobs that we’re having. You heard about the grant that was —

CS: Today, yes (Obama that morning announced a $400 million grant directed at a solar energy company in Colorado and Indiana).
MB: Yeah, that’s thousands of jobs. The fact that China’s export of solar panels now represents almost half of our export of aircraft, in terms of revenue, that’s non-trivial.

CS: You mentioned collegiality, or lack of, in the Senate. What have you learned from, for instance, Senator (John) McCain (Republican of Arizona), one of your Senate mentors?
MB: Yeah, one of my mentors. (The Senate mentor program has veteran senators helping guide rookie senators in the ways of the institution.)

CS: And then similarly, what have you learned from Sen. (Chuck) Schumer (Democrat) of New York?
MB: Actually, a similar thing from both people, and they both have long experience on the Hill, which is that — and both of them would say this — is that nothing gets accomplished overnight. And that the political alignments that exist in the moment are not necessarily the ones that are going to be there by the time a decision is actually made about something. Which I think is a very important idea.

And I would say, just my own perspective on this — because I’ve not been in the legislature before, right? I’ve only been in jobs — my last job was an executive job — one of the real differences is that if you’re running a company, or you’re running a school district, or you’re trying to restructure — maybe that’s a better way of putting it — a company or a school district, it is really important to understand the nature of the problem first, and to figure out what problem it is you’re trying to solve, then try to get a shared understanding of the facts to address the problem, and then bring the policy choices to people to choose.
I have noticed that that is not the inclination of people serving in this legislature. What they want to do is jump to the policy prescription or jump to answer the question, “Yes or no, are you co-sponsoring X, Y or Z?” Rather than saying, “You know what, here is the nature of the issue that we face.” So one of the things that I hoped to be able to bring to the Chuck Schumers of the world and the John McCains of the world and some of these other people, is a perspective that’s actually rooted in a reality outside of that political torture chamber and actually in everyday life.

CS: What’s the response of other senators been? Do they say that’s a great way or that’s not the way (we do things)?
MB: I have been amazed by the willingness of people, even quite senior people, to reach out on education issues, for example. Lamar Alexander, who serves on the (Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee (where Bennet also sits), and is one of the ranking members on the HELP Committee, and was of course secretary of Education himself — we had almost two hours together one day just sort of comparing notes on what he was trying to do, what I was trying to do. So there are people back there that don’t have any particular interest in this stuff, I mean, it’s all politics for them and that’s what they do. But there are other people that really can see that there are consequences, both intentional and unintentional, to what we do and that we’ve got to account for those in our decision-making in a way that we haven’t been for a really long period of time.

CS: And kind of on the fly in the middle of a series of crises, that’s —
MB: It’s hard to do, right. And I think that, going back to your question earlier about, is the president misunderstood. I guess I would say this: You know, 18 months seems like an awfully short timeline on which to judge anybody in that job. Particularly under the set of conditions that he inherited.

CS: Right.
MB: So I think time will tell.

CS: Do you feel that you’re misunderstood much, here in the state?
MB: Not really. (Laughs) No, do you? Or what do you mean (laughs)?

CS: Well, I guess you’d naturally expect some Republicans to automatically not be along the same lines you are. But in terms of Democrats, are you surprised that there’s a primary, number one, that people have not uniformly flocked to your side?
MB: No, I’m not surprised, I’m not surprised. First of all, because these seats are — no one’s entitled to any, to this seat, for sure. I was very happy in the job that I was in when I was asked to talk about whether I might be interested in this seat, and I feel very grateful to the governor for appointing me to the job, but no one’s entitled to it. And I guess if you would have asked me whether I would have expected a primary, yeah, I would have expected a primary. Then if you look at what’s going on all over the country, where you’ve got contested primaries and contested caucuses all over the place just because it seems to be the thing to do — you add that into the mix as well and it becomes even less surprising.

CS: Does it make you nervous, looking at different races around the country and some of the anti-incumbent — even though you’re not a (longterm) incumbent —?
TK: Very different circumstances, I think, here.
MB: Yeah. I would say also unique circumstances here, because, unlike a number of these folks who have been long-serving incumbents, have been there for a long time, have a very long political history, that’s just not my case. No matter what anybody wants to say about it, I’ve been there for 18 months and I wasn’t a career politician when I got appointed. In fact, that was the knock on me from a lot of people was, “Well, you’ve never run for office before, you’ve not done this —” And now some people want to say, “Well, you’re the incumbent, why haven’t you fixed Washington in 18 months?” And I’m happy to have that debate. When I’m in town halls, again, that’s not really the discussion that we’re having.
But, obviously it’s not lost on me that, even if it’s sort of nuts that I would be viewed as an incumbent, because — well, I’m in the job, even though it’s only been 18 months. But I think that we can make a credible case that I really am an outsider to this — not in a cheaper rhetorical sense but in the actual sense — because I was busily minding my business being superintendent of public schools in Denver, a job by the way, that everybody that I asked about it said was a career-ender, when I ended up coming to do this job.
TK: Probably two more questions.

CS: Okay.
MB: I’ll make my answers short (laughs).

CS: Is it safe to assume that should Andrew —
MB: Can I say one other thing about your last question?

CS: Sure.
MB: Which is this: I am incredibly proud of my campaign team. This is no different than any other enterprise, which is, if you’re not working with a bunch of people that are better at their job than you would be at their job, your life is going to be a misery and you’re going to do a lousy job. And we have an exceptional campaign team that wasn’t engaged in a whole bunch of drama, either behind the scenes or publicly, over the last 18 months, but was just doing the work and executing the plan. And that plan really has not changed very much from the very beginning to now, which I think makes this race different in some respects than some of the other national examples you’re talking about, where people didn’t dig in, where they were caught by surprise. We were always preparing for stormy weather from day one, because that’s the way I’ve approached all the work that I’ve done.

CS: Is it safe to assume that, if Andrew Romanoff wins the primary, that you will support him?
MB: Of course.

CS: Okay, that’s what I assumed, but I just wanted to double check on that. Do you feel pretty confident?
MB: Look, here’s the only thing I’ll say that I’m confident about. I’m confident that if we do everything we possibly can do, and we do the work we’re supposed to do, and we engage our volunteers and engage our staff and engage the voters in the way that we should have to do, if we’re going to win, I think good things will happen.

CS: You’ve had a number of different jobs over the last decade, very different kinds of jobs. Which one did you enjoy the most, and which one was most challenging?
MB: I think that the one I enjoyed the most and the one that was most challenging was the superintendency, but I can see the potential in this job. And so I would say that I’m not ready to make my final conclusion about that, but up to this point, that’s what I would say.

CS: Do you have any downtime after that you can enjoy?
MB: Tomorrow, actually, I’m doing one event and then we’re hanging out with the family on July Fourth. And then we’ve got a tour that we’re doing.
TK: And then we’re going to be exhausted (laughs).

CS: Do the kids travel okay?
MB: They’re great, they’re great. And they’re hilarious. I mean they just are.

CS: Well, they’re at that age.
TK: Did you guys see Anne poking through the window of the bus?
MB: It’s the best collective age they’ve been, I think. And they have fun with each other, they have fun with their friends. That bus is full of kids that are their friends. And they love torturing their father more than anything else —
TK: — and campaign staff.
MB: And campaign staff (laughs).

CS: And how’s this guy doing? (points to Kincaid)
MB: He’s doing a phenomenal — he’s doing a great job.

You guys are nice to take so much time.

CS: We know you’ve been busy, so thank you so much for doing this.
MB: Not at all. I appreciate it so much.


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