Michael Bennet ’87, the new junior Democratic senator for Colorado, may currently be the University’s busiest alumnus. On January 21 he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Ken Salazar, the new Secretary of the Interior, and since then he has been hurrying back and forth between Washington D.C. and Colorado, trying to meet his constituents while accustoming himself to the legislative process. According to the Washington Post, the senator always carries a legal pad on which he furiously tries to jot down important facts, figures and names. Even his family has a hard time keeping track of him.
“I tried to call him and his answering was blocked because he had too many messages,” said Doug Bennet ’59, Michael’s father and former University president. “I called his children and suggested they try to get their father’s attention for me.”
The younger Bennet’s turbulent transition to office is understandable. Only 44 years old and having never run for, let alone served in, an elected office, the former Denver School Superintendent was a surprise choice for U.S. senator. A month ago he was largely unknown outside of Colorado’s capital.
Bennet gained some national attention in recent years for his controversial reform policies, which were profiled in a 2007 issue of the New Yorker. Bennet created a merit-pay system for teachers and closed some of Denver’s most dysfunctional schools while allowing students to choose their new school from among the city’s better institutions. Some leaders in poor communities accused Bennet of carelessly disrupting the education of underprivileged students of color. But the graduation rates rose in Denver high schools (though some credit this to declining enrollment rates), and an apparently vindicated Bennet became one of the Obama campaign’s top educational advisors.
Despite his successes, Bennet’s appointment is highly contentious in Colorado. Republican leaders, hoping to reverse recent Democratic gains in the state, are promising a highly competitive election in 2010. Bennet is already seeking endorsements from prominent state politicians and recognition from voters. Meanwhile, a recent article in The Nation decried the undemocratic nature of the appointment process that brought four new senators, including Bennet, to Washington this year without the approval of voters.
“A lot of critics say ‘what does he know about politics?'” said the elder Bennet. “I think the answer is that he’s part of this fresh start. He’s got different kinds of experience.”
It would be hard to deny that Senator Bennet has a wide variety of experience. He was born in India while Doug Bennet was serving as an aid to the US Ambassador there, and grew up in Washington D.C. while his father worked in several presidential administrations. He served as editor of the Yale Law Journal, and then worked for the Department of Justice during the Clinton Administration. Bennet transitioned to the private sector, where he helped resuscitate failing businesses for an investment group. In 2002, he moved back into the public sector to serve as Chief of Staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper ’74 (another graduate of the University who was also considered for the Senate seat), before becoming School Superintendent.
“There are things he knows about as an educator, but he says there are lots of things he doesn’t know,” said President Bennet. “But he would also say that you can always learn.”
Indeed, most articles written about Bennet highlight his eagerness to learn new things and try out new ideas. He is already trying to position himself as a pragmatic problem solver in the mode of President Obama. The elder Bennet believes his son is participating in a major change in the culture of the federal government.
“The old political structures weren’t serving,” he says. “There’s been a long dry spell in terms of people’s commitment to and expectations of public goods. We need to start working for more viable, intellectually sustainable solutions.”
Former President Bennet sees recent political developments as a vindication of the traditional mission of liberal arts education.
“We have a tradition to ask questions, take risks, and apply our education not narrowly, but as broadly as possible,” he said.
President Roth certainly seems to agree with Bennet’s view. He thinks that attitudes long held by Wesleyan students are finally becoming mainstream.
“Using ideas to further progressive social change is something we’ve been doing at Wesleyan (at least students have been doing it for 50, 60, maybe 100 years, maybe more),” he said in a recent conversation with the Argus. “Now people in the government talk that way.”
Now Senator Bennet will need to see if he can use ideas to defeat Colorado Republicans who, after his first vote – a yea on a bill to expand federal healthcare coverage for low-income children – are condemning him as a “big-spending, big-taxing, liberal Democrat who falls in line with the Democratic leadership.”