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Posted: June 01, 2010

Election 2010: Michael Bennet

Former Denver Public Schools chief faces competition in Democratic primary

Mike Cote

Election_Bennet.jpg

Michael Bennet didn't have to campaign to secure the U.S. Senate seat he's held for the past year and half after Gov. Bill Ritter appointed him to fill out the term vacated by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Now the 45-year-old former Denver Public Schools superintendent is campaigning in one of the most hotly contested races in the country and faces competition in his own party from former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff (featured in our April issue), who bested him in state caucuses.

We recently talked with Bennet about the campaign in Denver. Watch video highlights from the interview and read the complete transcript at www.cobizmag.com.
The following was edited for space and clarity.

ColoradoBiz: What have you learned over the last year and a half in Washington?
Michael Bennet: If you look at the last period of economic growth in this country and in our state, it's the first time our economy grew and median family income fell. In Colorado, it fell by $800 while the cost of health insurance rose by 97 percent; the cost of higher education rose by 50. We've created no net new jobs in the United States since 1998, and the household wealth was the same at the end of the decade as it was at the beginning of the decade.
We led the world in college graduates when the last administration went to Washington. Today, we're 15th in the world and falling. We've got $12 trillion of debt on our balance sheet, and in my view nothing to show for it. It's not as though we invested in our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, our sewer systems, our wastewater systems. What I've mostly learned is that there are an awful lot of people back in Washington who are either not interested in what I just said or don't understand what I just said.

ColoradoBiz: During the televised debate with Andrew Romanoff that Aaron Harber moderated one of the common themes was there wasn't a lot of difference between you. What sets you apart?
Bennet: I think the major difference is not a policy difference. I have not spent my career in politics. I haven't run for office before. I'm bringing a lifetime of experience outside of politics in business, restructuring very distressed companies and bringing them through bankruptcy; in local government, at the Denver Public Schools, which also needed and continues to need very profound restructuring.
It's a very different perspective than most of the people in Washington have. The people there have spent their lifetimes in politics. I don't denigrate that, but I think we need people who have other experience back there as well, people who have actually worked in business, people who have been on the receiving end of somebody's usually well-intentioned idea from Washington that by the time it gets to a classroom in our state makes absolutely no sense to the teacher who's teaching or the kid trying to learn.

ColoradoBiz: You grew up in Washington, and your father spent part of his career working for the U.S. Consulate. How did that shape your life and what you learned?
Bennet: Both of my parents had a big effect on shaping me. My mom immigrated here from Warsaw, Poland. She and her parents were the only members of her family except for an aunt who survived the Holocaust in Warsaw. My dad's commitment to public service also was a model to me. His view of the world was that you had an obligation to contribute something to the broader good of the country and of the world.

ColoradoBiz: How do we handle immigration reform in this country?
Bennet: I think there is a way to construct comprehensive immigration reform that makes sure we secure our borders, that makes sure that we require people here that are undocumented to pass through a series of requirements to get citizenship in this country. A great starting place would be the proposals that George Bush had when he was president of the United States.

ColoradoBiz: Republicans want to repeal the health-care bill that President Obama signed. How would you rate the bill?
Bennet: I probably rate it around a "B" or so. You look at a bill that had as its centerpiece saving $500 million in Medicare by redesigning the Medicare incentive structure to move it from a fee-for-services system to more of an outcome-based, performance-based system, to extend the life of Medicare by 10 years by saving the amount of money we spend by reducing the rate of rise of Medicare costs. It doesn't sound like a really partisan idea to me.
I do think what we should learn from a debate where the American people looked at it at the end - and I share this view - said, "What are you doing in these back rooms? What deals are you cutting back there?" And they, to use a technical word, threw up all over the process. I don't think the process can be defended.
I think what we're going to see going forward is that people are going to be demanding that they have more choice rather than less. Ultimately, they don't want the government telling them what insurance they have to buy.

ColoradoBiz: The recession supposedly ended sometime last year, but we have 10 percent unemployment, very anemic job growth, a lot of uncertainty, access to capital is tough. What needs to happen to change that?
Bennet: I think that small business is the key to the economic recovery here. I've worked hard on a number of bills that have to do with trying to get small business more attractive tax benefits so that they can invest in their business and grow, to try to relieve them at a time when their cash flow is thin, relieve them of the burden of certain tax treatments that I think aren't necessarily unfair but unhelpful at this time in our economy. The access to credit is a huge thing for small business right now.
One of the things that I've been trying to stress to the people at the FDIC and the people at the Treasury is that time is a variable here, and we should be using time to our advantage. If we gave people time to see their values improve somewhat or give them time to be able to modify their loan or work it out, what we might find is we don't drive down in this case the value of commercial real estate even more.

ColoradoBiz: A cap-and-trade policy seems to have faded from view for now. How do you think the United States can balance its energy policy so that we're not dependent on foreign fuels? And how much support should the government give to renewable energy projects?
Bennet: There's not a consensus in our state that climate change is real. I believe it's real, and I believe the burning of fossil fuels has contributed to it. There are people that don't, and I recognize that. But one of the things I say when I'm in a place where people don't believe it or they feel unpersuaded by it, I say, look, you don't need to believe what I believe to believe this country needs an energy policy, and to believe it would be a really good idea to diminish and ultimately end our reliance on foreign oil. That's a natural security imperative for us. And it's one of the great legacies we can leave our kids and our grandkids.

ColoradoBiz: How is Colorado going to get the water we need to meet the demands of agriculture and municipalities?
Bennet: Colorado has had a long, colorful and sometimes painful and always vigorous history around water. I think the key is to make sure that we're conserving what we have as much as we possibly can because we're not making any more of it. And I think we need to look at it as a statewide issue, respecting the basins of origin. I don't think there's much of a federal role here. I don't think this is something the federal government should be playing a role in. I think this is Colorado's issue, and we have well-established compacts with the states that surround us.

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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