By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009
In a surprise choice, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) appointed Denver schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to fill the Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar, who is slated to become interior secretary in Barack Obama's administration.
Bennet, 44, who has never run for elected office, emerged from a field that included his former boss, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, as well as former U.S. attorney Tom Strickland, outgoing state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, state Senate President Peter Groff, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and U.S. Rep. John Salazar, brother of the current officeholder.
Despite earning high marks in education circles, Bennet is not regarded as a political meteor, and Obama passed him over for the education secretary job last month. Bennet has also worked as managing director of Anschutz Investment in Denver, as a lawyer in the Clinton Justice Department and as Hickenlooper's chief of staff.
Colorado political observers were shocked by the pick, noting that Bennet's low statewide profile and untested fundraising skills could put a hard-won seat in jeopardy in two years, when Salazar's term expires. Bennet intends to run for a full term in 2010 and has launched an election Web site.
"What the hell?" exclaimed the popular site ColoradoPols.com. ". . . By all accounts Bennet is a 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."
Ritter said he focused as much on Bennet's potential as on his résumé. "He has an impressive record of bringing people together to find common ground and common-sense solutions to complex problems, and of turning around troubled public and private enterprises and leaving them far stronger than he found them," Ritter said in a statement.
"This is a critical time in history," he added. "The economic challenges facing America and Colorado are unprecedented. . . . Our challenges are so serious that it will take a new generation of leaders, a new way of thinking and a bold new approach to problem-solving to steer us through this."
The president-elect called Bennet "an excellent choice," an innovator in the public and private sectors who "has shown himself willing to challenge old thinking and stale policies."
For Obama, Bennet is a potentially valuable ally, the Senate's only firsthand expert in urban education reform. Like Obama, he is a proponent of merit pay for teachers. His 3 1/2 years on the front lines of Denver's troubled system have given him insights into the difficulties of educating disadvantaged youths -- insights that Obama will need to challenge the status quo in public education, as he pledged during his campaign.
"He will be a breath of fresh air in Washington," Obama said of Bennet in a statement.
The Bennet announcement was the latest in a series of Senate appointment scenarios created as lawmakers move to the executive branch.
The most prominent vacancy has been created by Obama, and the Illinois succession battle has become at once a soap opera and a criminal case. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), under investigation on suspicion of trying to sell a Senate appointment, last week named veteran lawmaker Roland W. Burris to replace Obama. A showdown looms, with Burris expected to arrive in Washington this week to claim the seat, despite warnings from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that the appointment will be rejected.
In Delaware, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the vice president-elect, will hand his seat over to longtime aide Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman. He will serve as a placeholder until Biden's son, Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the state attorney general, completes a National Guard tour in Iraq and can run to succeed his father in a special election.
And in New York, Gov. David A. Paterson (D) is agonizing over a successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state nominee. Caroline Kennedy is generally viewed as the front-runner. Despite her celebrity appeal, she has received, at best, a mixed reception.