Andrew Romanoff's cynical fratricide

Sunday, June 13, 2010

When I worked on the college paper as a freshman, the editor was a talented but prickly junior by the name of Andrew Romanoff. He clashed so fiercely with the newspaper's business staff that he and the publisher communicated only through memos. Instead of putting all effort into the newspaper, energy was wasted on internal squabbles.

I recalled that long-ago episode while watching this year's Colorado Senate race, in which my old editor Romanoff is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet for the Democratic nomination. The dynamic is much the same: Rather than furthering the causes they agree on -- there isn't a dime's worth of difference in their ideologies -- Romanoff is provoking a Democratic family feud.

He's painting Bennet, a former Denver schools superintendent appointed to the vacant Senate seat last year, as a Washington insider on the take from corporate donors. "The nation's biggest insurance firms, drug makers, oil companies and Wall Street banks are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into my opponents' campaign coffers," Romanoff alleged at a rally this year. "Why?" he asked. "What have they already gotten" for their money?

Having accused his opponent of corruption, Romanoff announced that "our campaign does not accept money from political action committees."

He didn't tell the crowd that a mere four days earlier he quietly shut down his own PAC, the Romanoff Leadership Fund, which freely accepted corporate PAC money. In his eight years in the state legislature, including a stint as House speaker before term limits forced him out in 2008, Romanoff accepted money from those evil "insurance firms, drug makers, oil companies and Wall Street banks."

The man Romanoff accuses of being corrupt, meanwhile, is the very opposite: an earnest education policy wonk who has never held elected office and who, appalled at the way he has seen the Senate operate, has authored a radical plan for a lifetime ban on lobbying by former lawmakers and a six-year ban for congressional staffers. He was chosen for the Senate job by Gov. Bill Ritter for the right reason: Because he would make a good senator, not because he was a good politician.

That's why I'm troubled by what my old editor is doing in Colorado. Americans are disgusted enough with politics. Is it really necessary to portray one of the good guys as a crook?

I've been following this race with more than the usual interest. I've never met Bennet, but for years I've known his brother, James, who is editor of the Atlantic and was a classmate of Romanoff's at Yale in the late '80s. I've also admired Romanoff's success in Colorado politics, where he was by all accounts a model legislator, a centrist Democrat who built consensus with Republicans on thorny issues such as immigration.

But now he has hired Howard Dean's former strategist, Joe Trippi, and he's practicing the Dean style of Democratic fratricide, even as he acknowledges being an "imperfect messenger" for an anti-establishment uprising. The clearest instance of that was his recent release of e-mails from the White House, which dangled the possibility of jobs at the U.S. Agency for International Development if he didn't challenge Bennet.

It was clearly aimed at embarrassing President Obama for backing Bennet. But Romanoff neglected to mention that he had sought a job at USAID, part of a long and public job search that, according to state records and Colorado media, included an application to be Colorado secretary of state and attempts to position himself for governor, lieutenant governor, head of a child advocacy group, and, of course, senator.

It's understandable that Romanoff would be angry that he didn't get the Senate appointment last year, but that doesn't change the fact that Bennet was an excellent choice. In addition to his anti-lobbying legislation, Bennet has taken a lead role in education policy and voiced support for institutional changes such as electing committee chairs rather than awarding them on seniority. If more Mr. Bennets came to Washington, the Senate wouldn't be the mess that it is.

That's what makes Romanoff's anti-incumbent message so disturbing. He describes Bennet and his supposed Washington masters as "an incumbent protection racket" and urges supporters to defy "the power brokers and the party bosses" and "send a seismic shock to the U.S. Senate, which needs one."

Romanoff's right. The Senate needs a shock. But accusing one of the few good ones in the chamber of insider dealing and corruption isn't a shock -- it's politics at its most cynical.

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