Denver superintendent Michael Bennet headed to Senate

Rocky Mountain News: Ritter selection to be named Saturday


— Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet will be named Saturday as the future U.S. Senate replacement for Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar, according to two Democratic sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Gov. Bill Ritter is expected to name his U.S. Senate replacement pick on Saturday, ending a brief but frenzied period of speculation about who will take the seat of Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar.

Though he's never run for office of any kind, Bennet, 44, has strong connections to Colorado's power base: He's been the school superintendent for 31/2 years and was Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff. He also was managing director of Anschutz Investment Co from 1997-2003.

Bennet was educated in private schools and graduated from Wesleyan University. He went to law school at Yale University. He has strong Washington, D.C. connections. His father is Douglas Bennet, a diplomat.

Michael Bennet worked for the Justice Department in the Clinton Administration. He and his wife, Susan Daggett, have three girls.

Since Salazar's nomination by President-elect Barack Obama, speculation has swirled about potential replacements .

The selection would be preliminary, since Salazar is not expected to resign his U.S. Senate seat until sometime after Jan. 15, when he faces a confirmation hearing - and later vote - to become President-elect Barack Obama's first Interior Secretary.

Salazar is expected to be confirmed relatively easily, due to the deference Senators usually give to their colleagues when facing such nominations. But by announcing a potential replacement early, there is at least a theoretical risk of an embarrassment for the governor if Salazar's cabinet nomination is derailed and he needs to keep his current job.

Still, various analysts and political insiders said in recent days that Ritter was trying to put the decision behind him before the start of the new state legislative session - and before the already long list of would-be replacements grows even further.

An early announcement also could help Colorado avoid the sort of protracted replacement dramas taking place in Illinois and New York state, where jockeying for the seats of Obama and Secretary of State nominee Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has proven to be a major distraction - to put it mildly.

The list of potential replacements grew rapidly after Salazar's nomination last month. Some early contenders, like former Denver Mayor Federico Peña and Rep. Diana DeGette, withdrew their names from consideration. But other names have been joining the list of those interested, including past U.S. Senate candidates Tom Strickland and Mike Miles, among others.

Reaction to the pick came in quickly.

Senate President Peter Groff, a Denver Democrat who has made education reform one of his signature legislative issues, said he is pleased with the pick.

"I like Michael . . .I think what he's done with DPS is just short of remarkable," Groff said. "And I think it's an interesting pick. I think it's a pick that goes with the changing times in Congress."

Like President-elect Barack Obama, Bennet is from a younger generation than many in the Senate, has not taken the usual path to his political position and is not beholden to interests in Washington D.C., Groff said.

"I think he's going to kind of come in with a clean slate, not having worked in Washington," Groff said.

This is not the first time a Colorado governor has shocked the political world by naming a dark-horse candidate to a prominent seat over a host of seasoned politicians. The last time was in 1993, when then-Gov. Roy Romer picked a 36-year-old career prosecutor with few political allies to fill the open Denver District Attorney's office. That newcomer was Bill Ritter.

Asked Friday whether he felt that appointment had an impact on Ritter's decision on the Senate seat, Romer said he hadn't discussed the office with the governor and didn't know what he was thinking. But he remembered that Ritter was very pleased when Romer told him that he was picked because he had the best qualifications of all the applicants.

Romer's son, state Sen. Chris Romer, was shocked when told of Bennet's selection Friday. But he noted that Bennet had made the short list to be Obama's education secretary despite a non-existent national profile and predicted that he will have the president's ear right away and will be a strong voice for Colorado.

"Obama took very seriously picking Michael Bennet to be the number-one policymaker in America on education . . . so it's not surprising that he made Ritter's list," the Denver Democrat said. "Michael is one of the best intellectuals I know. He'll be an extraordinary lion of the Senate for the next 40 years. Colorado will have a great senator."


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