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Posted: April 01, 2010

Election 2010: Romanoff takes aim at U.S. Senate seat

Former Colorado speaker of the House rattles Democratic party leadership by challenging incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet

Mike Cote

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Former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff didn't get the nod when Gov. Bill Ritter filled the Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar, whom President Barack Obama appointed as his interior secretary. Now Romanoff has mounted a campaign to win his party's nomination in the Democratic primary against incumbent Michael Bennet.

We recently talked with Romanoff about the campaign in his law office in downtown Denver. The following transcript was edited for space and clarity. Watch the complete interview and read the complete transcript at cobizmag.com. In the months ahead, we will feature interviews with the remaining Senate candidates as well as the gubernatorial candidates.

ColoradoBiz: You're competing for the chance to run for a Senate seat in what USA Today recently named one of the four most hotly contested races in the country. And first you have to knock off the incumbent. What's driving you to mount this race?

Andrew Romanoff: No one has been elected to this seat yet. The governor filled a vacancy when Ken Salazar left the Senate to join the Cabinet. But it's been six years since Ken himself was elected to this seat. I think I have the best record of legislative leadership, the best ability to bring Republicans and Democrats together to solve some of our toughest problems, the deepest knowledge of Colorado and the only candidate willing to stand up to the special interests.

ColoradoBiz: During the first televised debate with Michael Bennet, you talked about how Washington is dysfunctional. What can you do to change that culture?

Romanoff: I led 64 fairly cantankerous characters in the state House for four years. Some of the rules we put in place and enforced in this state I think Congress would do well to follow. We don't talk bills to death in the Legislature. We don't employ a filibuster to delay progress on important issues. Our business gets conducted in the open.

ColoradoBiz: President Obama's latest version of the health-care plan leaves out the public option. You're in favor of one. Tell me why that's important to you.

Romanoff: The model we've used in America for the last 70 years is flawed. We tie insurance to employment. The system made sense at some point in the distant past, when people kept the same jobs for life. We change jobs, and sometimes we lose them. I don't think we should have to lose our coverage, too. If you're going to require 30 million more Americans to buy insurance in the private market, you ought to at least provide them with some alternative. You ought to make sure the insurance industry is held accountable, and I think the public option provides that mechanism.

ColoradoBiz: When he announced he would not seek another term, Indiana Sen. Evan Baye said he was frustrated by the inability of Congress to create jobs and that he was going to go in the private sector and try to create jobs there. Can government really kick-start the job process?

Romanoff: Government can and should do a few things. One, it should make the environment more conducive to private sector growth. I think the economic engine in place in this country, the capitalist system, is the best ever invented. And what we tried to do when I was speaker of the House was work with employers around the state to ask them what sorts of conditions they needed to generate the jobs that we needed as Coloradans.

This is what they told us: One, you need to educate your work force. Colorado has slipped to 49th in the nation in public support for higher education. That's a bad economic development strategy. We're seeing our state lose good jobs to other states and other countries that more effectively educate their people. Two, you've got to repair your infrastructure. You can put Americans back to work that way, too, by the way, repairing roads, water systems, dams, building a smart energy grid that can transmit and distribute energy more efficiently or an information grid, the information highway that represents in some ways what the railroad or the interstate highway used to in respect to economic opportunity.

ColoradoBiz: You're not accepting contributions from corporations and corporate cash. Tell me about that strategy and how you're going to be able to generate enough cash to run what's going to be an expensive campaign.

Romanoff: I respect the right to lobby the government for redress of grievances. That's not just a good idea; it's a constitutional law. I respect certainly the right of corporations to make money. But I don't think democracy ought to be sold to the highest bidder. Too often, I think, members of Congress get too easily seduced by the special interests that subsidize their campaigns. Our campaign, in contrast, is fueled by and funded by and focused on the people of Colorado.

ColoradoBiz: We have a new energy economy that Gov. Ritter has pushed forward the last few years. But cap and trade nationally has not been popular. What needs to happen in place of cap and trade?

Romanoff: I think a better approach than the cap-and-trade proposal, is to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax. That means you reduce the income tax so people can keep more of what they earn and you increase in turn the tax on pollution so folks pay more for what they burn. I've talked to a lot of executives at energy companies who tell me that approach in their view would be more transparent, more effective, more efficient, and less susceptible to the kind of gaming that I think cap and trade invites.

ColoradoBiz: Another issue that has been put on the backburner is immigration. What needs to happen to have a sensible immigration policy?

Romanoff: I wouldn't be here, not just in Colorado but in America, if this country had not opened its doors to all four of my grandparents and my mom. They were all born outside the U.S. I think this country is richer economically, intellectually and culturally because it has welcomed people from other lands to contribute their talents to America. In the Legislature in 2006 we passed a resolution by a vote of 95 to 2. We told Congress we needed border security, clear rules for employers and employees, the enforcement of those rules by which people who are willing to obey the law, pay taxes and play by the rules actually might achieve a legal spot in a society that, after all, benefits from their labor.

ColoradoBiz: Small businesses are struggling right now with the lack of access to capital and a whole host of other problems. What would you do to help small business in Colorado?

Romanoff: Easy access to credit and capital is essential to small employers who are trying to start or grow their operations. Unfortunately, most of the businesses we see in this state are not considered too big too fail - they don't qualify for a bailout - but they deserve a loan. We should have attached some of those conditions to the money that we offered to the biggest financial institutions in America when we bailed them out to stabilize the financial sector a year and a half ago.

ColoradoBiz: You've had no less than the president of the United States essentially tell you to stand down and get with the program, and he came down to Denver to support your opponent. If I were a gambling man, why would I bet on you?

Romanoff: As much as I respect the president ... this decision will be made, as it should, by the people of Colorado. There are 3 million registered voters in this state, and only one of them has cast a ballot so far; the governor filled a vacancy. But under our law, governors don't get to crown senators. It's voters who get to pick senators for six-year terms. If the Senate of the United States were doing a bang-up job on health reform or financial reform, on energy policy - on anything, really - then I could understand their desire to circle the wagons and protect their own. But they're not, and I think we can do better.

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

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