Election 2010: U.S. Senate candidate Michael Bennet

The following is a transcript of a video interview conducted with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who is running to retain his appointed seat, on May 7. Watch video segments from the interview on ColoradoBiz TV.

ColoradoBiz: What have you learned over the last year and a half in Washington?

Michael Bennet: Most of what I’ve learned is that politicians in Washington are either incapable or unwilling to confront the facts as they are. And they’re playing a lot of political games back there on both the Democratic and the Republican side. That is really not what we need to move the country forward.

Even before we were driven to the worst recession since the Great Depression, 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. That’s never happened before. In Colorado, it fell by $800 dollars 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 is the same the same at the end of the decade as it is 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. And 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. We haven’t even maintained the assets and the infrastructure that our grandparents built much less build what we need to build.

That’s a very profound set of issues that we need to address as a country if we’re going to lead in the 21st century. What I’ve mostly learned is that there is an awful lot of people back in Washington who are either not interested in what I just said to you or don’t understand what I just said to you. Which I think leads them into a political conversation that’s incredibly detached from the facts we need to confront.

ColoradoBiz: You’re literally on the hot seat — competing to retain a seat that USA Today recently named one of the four most hotly contested in the country. What’s at stake here?

Bennet: It is going to be a very competitive cycle, not just in Colorado but across the country. We’re going through a lot of changes, too, because of the changes I talked about before. They’re big questions, not small questions, that are in front of the American people right now. And change is really hard to do. It’s hard to do politically. It’s hard to do without creating unintended consequences that nobody foresaw or would have wanted.

My approach to this has been to spend my time traveling the state of Colorado. I’ve got day job in Washington four days a week. But every day that I’m here I’m traveling the state, having town hall meetings, not giving long speeches, talking at five minutes at the beginning, mostly asking for that hour to just forget what cable television station they watch.
Forget whether they watch Fox or they watch MSNBC and instead let’s have a conversation and let me here their questions and their criticism.

My view is that at the end of the day, I think what Colorado is going to say is, ‘Is this person, this candidate, more or less likely to contribute to the idiotic conversation that’s going on in Washington or less likely to try to address the issues that we have so we can fulfill the aspirations that we’ve got for our kids and our grandkids. I think that’s going to be the question.

Now, what do I know about that? I’ve never run for office before, and I’m learning as I go as well. But my sense of it is when people are willing to put aside their preconceived views that are based on what they saw on cable last night you can actually have a pretty rich conversation in every part of the state.

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 major difference is not a policy difference. I don’t think we have a material policy difference. I would answer the question the same way whether Andrews was in the room or not. 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 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. And I don’t denigrate that, but I think we needed 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.

So a lot of what my job has been on the banking committee, for example, or on the health, education and labor committee has been to say to people, let’s remember what problem it is we’re trying to solve, and let’s think about the unintended consequences that might flow from what we do. So far it seems to be a perspective that, first, is in short supply, but second, that people are actually beginning to listen to.

ColoradoBiz: Explain your decision to use the petition process to secure a spot on the Democratic primary ballot.

Bennet: I think that one difference is that I’m also going through the caucus process so I’m continuing to do that in view of the fact that we started last January with really no political base in the traditional sense. I’m really pleased with caucus process has gone, and we’ll continue to go through the caucus process.

The petition process just allows us to talk to more voters, and it allows us to reach out more broadly and continue build that base that we were talking about. Our view was why not take advantage of both processes as a way of putting ourselves in the strongest position possible going into the fall.

ColoradoBiz: You grew up in Washington, and your father spent part of 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, just as most parents have either for good or for ill, mostly in my case I think for good. My mom immigrated here from Warsaw, Poland. She and her parents with the only members of her family except for an aunt who survived the Holocaust in Warsaw.

After the war was over, they lived in Warsaw for a couple of years behind the Iron Curtain, they were actually able to get out. Not to the United States first; first they went to Sweden, then Mexico City and then finally they were able to come to New York and rebuild lives that had been shattered by the experience in World War II.

My grandparents and my mom believed — my grandparents believed, my mom still believes – that there’s not another place in the world where they would have been able to do that. They treasured this democracy, and they treasured as a place that they could come from someplace else and rebuild. And that is a big part of what I think about. I think about that generation, like generations before it, of Americans who said that part of our job as Americans is to provide more opportunities not less to our kids and our grandkids.

Now as the father of three little girls that are 10, 9 and 5 and as somebody who thinks a lot about the over 800,000 kids going to the schools in Colorado as we’re sitting here today, I’m deeply worried about the risk of our being the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity not more to our kids and our grandkids for some of the reasons that I said at the outset of this interview.

That’s really what’s at stake. And 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 and so I carry both of their lessons around with me.

ColoradoBiz: You don’t have to go too far back in your family to get to someone who immigrated here. How do we handle immigration reform in this country?

Bennet: One of the things we really need out of our elected officials on this question and also out of everybody because this is a responsibility for all of us. It’s not just people who happen to hold office. It’s everybody. These generational questions that I was talking about a minute ago. This is our legacy. Partly it’s about our legacy of leaving opportunity to our kids and our grandkids. Partly it’s about honoring who have fought to provide us with this opportunity.

And I think we should look at the immigration discussion in that context. We need a lot less heat around this issue and a lot more light around this issue I think there is a way to construct comprehensive immigration reform that makes sure we secure our borders, to make 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 the George Bush had when he was president of the United States.

This doesn’t need to be as a partisan issue. In fact, it needs to be bipartisan because we can’t pass anything out of this Senate that is not on a bipartisan basis. The votes aren’t there to do it just from one party. What I think we need to do is construct as broad a coalition as possible across the country and across the state.

And I think we need to make sure that Republicans and Democrats working together fashion something that makes sure that the rule of law endures in the United States because it’s a big issue that we have right now, that we continue to be, as we always have been, a nation of immigrants.

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. I’ve said many times that it’s far from a perfect bill. I wish that it hadn’t been so partisan. There was no reason for it to be. 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.

If a Republican president had proposed it, I bet you almost every Republican senator would have supported it and some of the Democrats probably would have opposed it because they would have said, “You’re cutting Medicare.” 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 we should learn from that, and I think we have learned from it already.

Because you see the debate on Wall Street reform that is happening in a much more transparent, much more open way on the floor of the Senate, which is where it should happen. Where should we go from here on health care? There’s much more that we need to do in terms of cost because we’re going to continue to see an increase in costs. Our working families and small businesses and local and state governments and federal government can’t afford this anymore.

The biggest drivers of our deficits are rising Medicare and Medicaid costs. We’ve got to continue to work on the incentive structure I was talking about earlier. We’ve got to continue to make sure that consumers and doctors and other providers of medical care have access to real information about what things actually cost.

I had some amendments related to this that actually did pass, but we need to do more so, for example, you really know what a knee replacement costs so you can really compare what it costs somewhere across town or we can detect, for example, colonoscopies in a city like ours can range in price from $800 to $8,000. What’s going on? And the reason we haven’t been able to sort through all of that over the years is that it’s all so obscure. We need to make it transparent for the consumer, make it more transparent for medical providers.

I believe we need to give people more choice in their efforts to get insurance. For example, I was a strong proponent of a public option, which wasn’t in the bill originally. I’m a strong proponent of nonprofit insurance as well. And also, we need to have to have the for-profit insurance market thrive. 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. They want to be able to have the maximum number of choices on behalf of their family. And as the father of those three little girls, I certainly feel the same way. I want to be empowered to make those choices.

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: First, let me go back to the beginning of our conversation. Remember when I talked about how our economy before we were in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Our GDP grew, gross domestic product grew, but median family income fell. So for our middle-class families in our country, they’re recovering not just from the one recession, the Great Recession, they’re recovering from the last period of economic growth, which for them was effectively a recession – If you’re making $800 less at the end of the decade than the beginning, that is a recession.
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. The credit markets have essentially been frozen since the beginning of this recession until now for small business. For other parts of the economy credit is just flowing just fine, but small business is having a tough time. And even businesses that can pay on their loans and performing loans aren’t able to get loans. One of the reasons is there’s still a lot of imbalance in the commercial real estate part of our economy. And the bid-ask spread on these bank balance sheets is still like this (Bennet made a motion with his hand at this point.) It’s making it hard for the banks to write down the value of the loans. It’s making it hard for people to sell the properties, and it’s tying up capital.
One of the things that I’ve been trying to stress to the people at the FDIC and the people at Treasury is that time is a variable here, and we should be using time to our advantage. Just because we say that you need to value an asset a certain way, mark to market at this moment in time; we say that, but we may be making a bad situation worse. If we gave people time to see their value improve somewhat or give them time to be able to modify their loan or work out it, what we might find is we don’t drive down in this case the value of commercial real estate even more. I’m open to everybody’s ideas on this, but the way we have approached it so far has not helped particularly.
ColoradoBiz: What did you learn in your role as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools about what the federal government needs to do to improve education?

Bennet: Being superintendent of Denver public schools was really my favorite job that I’ve ever had in many ways because the work is so compelling, and there’s so much we need to do. Across this country, if you look at cities from Los Angles to Denver to Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., everywhere where children in poverty go to school, roughly nine in 100 of them who are ninth graders today are going to graduate from a four-year college, which was the same odds their older brothers and sisters faced and the same odds their parents faced.

Same group of kids, eighth graders in this country, only 15 out of 100 are proficient mathematicians. We can’t hope to compete with the rest of the world, and we can’t hope to have a democracy that we’re all proud of if those facts are true. And one of the things that we really need to do is acknowledge that we no longer live in a labor market that discriminates against women and says you got two professional choices, one is being a teacher and one is being a nurse.

Our entire system about how we think about compensation and training and retaining and inspiring people to want to be teachers belongs to that labor market, which no longer exists. A lot of people who would have been willing to teach “Julius Caesar” for 30 years because no one was ever going to ask them to do anything else – they’re not willing to do that anymore. Or if the conditions are adverse enough, they say “I love teaching, but I’m not being supported well.” We lose about 50 percent in the first five years of the profession. It’s unreasonable to expect we’re going to hold huge numbers 30. Nobody is going to do anything in this labor market for 30 years.

But if we could keep our teachers for seven years, and nine years, if we could build a career ladder that was really meaningful to teachers so they could stay in the profession even when they became exhausted. And by the way it is the hardest job that anybody can do, even when the circumstances are relatively good. But if you’re at a place where you’ve got kids that are coming from a wide array of backgrounds, a wide array of starting points, it’s enormously difficult job to do.

What the federal government can do is limited because it’s only 9 percent of what we spend on K-12 education that comes from the federal government. We should be using as much of that money as we can to support innovation and to support change and to help this country develop a 21st century theory for how to attract and retain people to the teaching profession. Right now we’re repelling teachers from the teaching profession. It’s not rocket science to figure out to get people and keep people.

But just like everybody who works in your magazine and reads your magazine, any human enterprise, your company, your school district, your nonprofit, is only as good as the people that you’ve got, and the people that you’ve got need to feel valued, they need to feel rewarded, they need to feel challenged by the work. And if you’ve got a bunch of people working on an enterprise together, whether it’s a school or whether it’s a small business or whether it’s a nonprofit, that’s where you get success. And I think if we change our incentives and disincentives in this system, what we’ll see is we’ll scale success relatively quickly, and our kids need us to.

If you’re in the fourth grade today, this is your shot to be in the fourth grade. You don’t get a do-over. I guess I got a do-over. I flunked the second grade so I did that twice. But generally speaking this is your one shot.

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: I really appreciate the way you posed the question. 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. Guess what, you no longer have to buy your oil from places that are really dangerous around the world. The second thing that people also agree with no matter what their political stripe is, is that there’s a huge opportunity to create high-paying jobs in entirely new industries that are dedicated to clean-tech and energy independence.
Unlike the health-care debate, that became more idiotic the longer it went, I think the debate around energy and climate has actually become more thoughtful as it’s gone on. What we need to do is adopt an energy policy that doesn’t pick winners and losers but makes sure we’re relying on all sources of energy that we have to create independence, that makes sure that we’re burning on average things that are cleaner rather than things that are dirtier because that’s better for our environment, that’s better for our climate.
And that we’re building leadership here at home on new energy, investing in renewables and biofuels and other technology so that we don’t cede the leadership in those industries to other countries. This is the moment when this getting decided around the world. The Chinese aren’t waiting around for us to figure it out. They’ve gone from manufacturing 1 percent of the solar panels in the world to within the last decade to manufacturing 33 percent of the solar panels in the world.
Our largest manufacturing industry as a country is airplanes, and that market was roughly only twice what this solar panel market was. I choose to believe that as Americans we continue to want to be competitive. We continue to want to lead as a global economy. And the country that figures out how to create energy independence for itself while at the same time investing in clean-tech and the new energy company may very well be the country that leads in the 21st century. I want that to be the United States, not somebody else. And Colorado, among all the 50 states, is in many ways is the most perfectly positioned to lead on this question because we have abundant win, abundant sun and natural gas. The opportunity to produce and refine biofuels and incredible entrepreneurial horsepower in this state — I’ve just been struck over the last 15 months by the people I’ve met who are working on the next generation of energy and energy efficiency, conservation.
They remind me so much of when I was in the private sector, and it was sort of the beginning of the telecommunications revolution. And you go in and see somebody who had a vision for online retail or some online communication, which to me seemed like it could have been out of an episode of “Star Trek.” For my kids, that’s not “Star Trek.” That’s how they’re living their lives. And I think we’re going to look back after this period of time in a decade or so and say that we really have changed the way that we consume energy and the way we produce energy in this country.
ColoradoBiz: The state is pushing our largest utility to phase out some older coal plants and replace them with natural gas. What do you think of that decision?
Bennet: I think we should be converting some of our oldest power plants to natural gas. Natural gas burns twice as clean as coal. I’m all for investing in clean coal technology, of continuing to do the science and engineering necessary to try to create a fuel out of coal that can burn as clean or cleaner than other fuels. But we have an abundance of is natural gas, and we know it burns cleaner.
If there are ways we can do that that are economically principled and thoughtful way, we ought to do it What this bill does among other things is allow natural gas producers and consumers of natural gas to think about longer-term contracts than they historically have, which takes some of the price volatility out of the equation, which is a good thing, which is a positive, not just for our state but for the nation as a whole because we know now that we’ve got abundant natural gas.
We didn’t know how abundant it was seven years ago. We have different technology now to extract that natural gas and by the way we always need to be very careful in our extraction of any natural resource including natural gas to make sure we protect our land, our water and our air and our way of life. But if we can come together on this question I think we will see it is a big part of our energy future both in terms of power plants, which you asked me, and I also think the potential for retrofitting automobile fleets and truck fleets to burn on natural gas is not a pipe dream.
ColoradoBiz: You mentioned water. How are we going to get the water we need to meet the demands of agriculture and municipalities?
Bennet: Not only do we not have enough of it; they’re not making any more of it the last time I checked. What we have got to do – and 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 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 of where the water comes from. 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. I’ve been very impressed as I’ve traveled around the state. I think were up to 19,000 miles or a little more than that in the last 15 months, how willing people are to see their mutual self-interests to in making sure we preserve this resource, water, for communities for all across our state.
ColoradoBiz: What is your position on the U.S. government’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Bennet: They are two very different wars. In Iraq, we withdrew from the cities within two months of the commitment President Obama made when he was on the campaign trail. We will be effectively out of there by the end of 2011 with combat troops. I don’t see that changing. There are other issues in the region, Iran, that we need to be extremely worried about, but I’ll leave that for another time.

In Afghanistan, I think the president was left with a number of bad choices from which to choose, largely because we took our eye of the ball in 2003 to go into Iraq, which I don’t think we should have done. And I support the surge of troops that he has committed right now, with two objectives in mind. One is stamping out the remnants of Al Qaeda that can still be stamped out on the Pakistani-Afghan border, we’re there, the Pakistani army, the pressure was removed from them in ’03.

It’s been put back on them, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing in South Waziristan and the Swat valley. There’s even a suggestion that they’re beginning to move in North Waziristan. These are the places where the terrorists are. Between what they’re doing and the support from our troops on the border, we’ve been having some success and decapitating Al Qaeda. You’re never going to get everybody, and they’ll move to Yemen and other places as well. But I think if we can use this as an opportunity to dramatically reduce how lethal they can be to this country and the rest of the world, that would be an important objective.

The second objective, or another objective, is to make sure the Pakastani military has the chance to secure the nuclear weapons in Pakistan because the Pakastini government could fail some day and isn’t particularly capable of doing that. We want to make sure those nukes do not become loose. That’s another piece that has to happen. But the president has made a commitment that beginning n the middle of the next year that he is going to begin drawing back troops from Afghanistan.

And I think it’s an appropriate place for us to be. We’ve been fighting there nine years. We have a lot of things we need to be doing at home. We’ve got to be vigilant. We’ve got to protect our national security, and we’ve got to find a way to do our own domestic work that we’ve put off for too long that’s got to get done. I think we’re making progress and I think we want to get our guys home.
ColoradoBiz: Any other issues that we haven’t talked about that you want to mention?

Bennet: I might mention Wall Street reform if that’s of any interest; it was just on the floor this week. I think we’ve got a good bill that ends too big too fail, that makes sure taxpayers don’t have to come out of pocket again to rescue some financial institution because someone else made some really horrible, I won’t even call them business decisions, terrible decisions. If the readers of the magazine want to read something more, too big too fail and the big short are both very interesting accounts of what we just went through.

And they demonstrate quite well that it wasn’t inevitable that we ended up here. People made some very, very risky bets, and the American people got stuck with the tab. I think this bill does a lot to make sure that won’t happen again. It also makes the derivatives market much more transparent, which I think is good for everybody in business, except for the people who were charging spreads in an opaque market.

And finally there are important consumer protections in here as well. I believe it’s a good bill, and I also believe it’s going to pass with broad bipartisan support, which is what I think the American people expect and what the people of Colorado want is for us not to be having the political food fight that we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation but to be engaged in a constructive debate and discussion about these sets of issues and when acting whenever possible in a constructive way.
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