Senate Seat Is Latest Stop On Bennet's Unlikely Ride

Former Denver Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet became Colorado's junior senator on Thursday, Jan. 22.
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009

Michael Bennet has been sleeping in his mother's Woodley Park house and taking the Metro to a borrowed conference room in the Hart Senate Office Building to meet with staff members, who are also on loan.

He carries a white legal pad on which he has scribbled names, phone numbers and bits of advice, and he panics when he can't locate it.

He doesn't remember which day he is flying back to his young family in Denver, or the name of the Metro station he uses to get to work, only that it has an extraordinarily long escalator. Life has been that kind of blur lately.

The 44-year-old Democrat, who has never even run for elected office, was sworn in Thursday as the youngest, greenest and least well-known member of the Senate. In the span of three weeks, he went from Denver schools superintendent to U.S. senator, a dizzying ascent for a man whose life has been marked by unusual turns.

Bennet was appointed by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) to fill the seat vacated by Ken Salazar (D), President Obama's choice for interior secretary. Ritter chose him over 14 other candidates, most of them better known, including two congressmen and John W. Hickenlooper, the popular Denver mayor who was Bennet's onetime boss and mentor.

Bennet's appointment stunned the Colorado political establishment, prompting the Web site to ask: "What the hell?!?"

It was an unconventional choice, but he is a surprising man.

He gave up $5 million in unvested stock and a job in finance for the low-paying, high-stress position of chief of staff to Hickenlooper. He left that post to take the helm of an urban school district. Throughout his working life, Bennet has zigged and zagged between seemingly unrelated jobs for which he had no prior experience. And in each case, he left with a measure of success.

Ritter said that he was most impressed by Bennet's intellectual depth, geniality and political savvy and that he recognized similarities to his own start in politics. "I became a district attorney in 1993 by appointment," Ritter said. "I was a total dark horse. The governor saw potential in me, and it worked out."

Bennet says he will run for election in 2010. That gives him 22 months to raise at least $12.5 million, get to know voters across Colorado and learn how to be effective in the Senate, all while handling constituent services and advancing the state's interests in Washington. He intends to keep most of Salazar's staff and is seeking a seat on the agriculture committee. He doesn't know much about farming, but he knows that he had better learn fast.

He's been shuttling between Washington and Colorado on a manic mission to introduce himself to voters and power brokers.

"He's young, vibrant, he's really smart," said Wally Stealey, a legend in Colorado Democratic politics who was recently courted by Bennet over dinner. "He can carry on a conversation about most everything. I found him delightful, but I'm not endorsing him yet. He's got a tremendous learning curve both in Colorado and in Washington."

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