Colorado Democrats Bennet and Romanoff wage nasty, personal Senate battle

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010

Internal party battles have been a hallmark mostly of Republican primaries this year. But for sheer nastiness and personal ill will, few of those can match what Democrats are doing in Colorado.

Tuesday's Senate primary will pit appointed Sen. Michael Bennet against former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff. When the race was joined, Bennet was the overwhelming favorite to win. Today he is fighting to avoid becoming the latest in a string of incumbents to fall in this year's midterm elections.

Bennet has the support of President Obama, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Obama's Organizing for America operation, and he has a hefty financial advantage. Romanoff won the endorsement of -- but received no appearances from -- former president Bill Clinton and has rallied progressive groups and his party's left flank. To scrape together money for his final television ads, he recently mortgaged his house.

The contest has fast become a spectacle of negative ads and charges and counter-charges. Romanoff has been the aggressor. He has cast Bennet, a former investment banker, as a tool of Wall Street and a collector of campaign contributions from corporate interests. Bennet, once he engaged his opponent, accused him of falsehoods and hypocrisy.

The latest twist occurred Friday, when the New York Times published an article questioning the wisdom of a complex financial deal Bennet helped put together when he was superintendent of schools in Denver. The arrangement was designed to restore the financial health to the system's pension program. The Times said Denver ended up paying more than it expected because of the terms Bennet helped negotiate.

Bennet said the article misrepresented the deal. In a statement, he said: "They just got it wrong. . . . The New York Times got caught up in a heated political primary where my opponent and his supporters have repeatedly tried to score points at the expense of kids and have once again disregarded the facts."

"The timing of the story had nothing to do with the primary race in Colorado," Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said in a statement. "We make news judgments on their journalistic merit, not on the impact they might or might not have on an election. The story highlights the creative financing many municipalities and public entities have used that is now adding to their financial burden. Of course if the principals provide evidence that warrants a correction we will do so, as we always do."

Romanoff said the article undermines Bennet's credentials as a financial expert. "These are the kinds of deals that got us into the [economic] mess in the first place," he said in a telephone interview. Asked about the Bennet campaign's contention that Romanoff was briefed on the deal while still in the Colorado legislature, he replied, "That's a red herring."

Romanoff helped steer legislation through the House to merge the school pension program with the state pension system. But he said that had nothing to do with the financing deal that came under fire Friday.

"No doubt by the time the day is done, they will try to paint me as the Wall Street wizard who worked all this out," he said.

Romanoff's campaign quickly put together a new ad trumpeting the article. "Wall Street made millions and now they're betting on Bennet," the ad states.

Bennet was appointed to fill the vacancy created when Obama nominated then-Sen. Ken Salazar as interior secretary in his new Cabinet. Bennet was the surprise choice, having never run for office before. Romanoff, who had won high marks as Colorado speaker, was deeply disappointed that Gov. Bill Ritter passed him over for the job.

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