Denver schools chief named to fill Senate vacancy |

Denver schools chief named to fill Senate vacancy

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
U.S. Senate-designate Michael Bennet speaks during a news conference to announce his selection at the State Capitol in Denver on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER ” Acknowledging a split in the party, Democrats moved swiftly to shore up support for Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet as Gov. Bill Ritter’s choice to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy, despite his lack of political or legislative experience.

State Democratic Party chair Pat Waak said many county and party chairs were hoping for a candidate with statewide name recognition.

“They would have liked someone who had run statewide or that were known statewide, but the fact is there were no candidates out there who had really won statewide,” Waak said.

Many Democrats were surprised by the decision, including Senate President Peter Groff, who was considered for the post. The Denver lawmaker said Bennet was a good choice because Bennet is known for thinking “outside-the-box” and he could provide fresh solutions for the nation’s problems.

Other Democrats who competed for the vacancy were term-limited state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and Rep. Ed Perlmutter. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper also asked to be considered.

Instead, Ritter on Saturday named Denver’s public schools superintendent as his choice to fill a Senate vacancy that will be created by the promotion of Sen. Ken Salazar to interior secretary in the Obama administration. Salazar must still be confirmed for the Cabinet job by the Senate following Obama’s inauguration and he will stay in his seat until then.

The selection of Bennet surprised many Republicans and Democrats. The 44-year-old Democrat has never campaigned for or held public office.

Salazar said before the decision was announced, he shared with Bennet his plans for the state and advised Bennet to tour the state and introduce himself to voters.

“There are some, including some of you who are in this audience, who have put a question mark on whether or not Michael Bennet can be elected in 2010. When you look at who Michael Bennet is and what his values are, let the message go out loud and clear across the state that Michael Bennet will be a great senator and he will win the election in 2010,” Salazar told a crowded news conference at the state Capitol.

Ritter said he was looking for someone who could provide the new ideas the President-elect Barack Obama is seeking.

“This is a critical time in history. The economic challenges facing America and Colorado are unprecedented. Our challenges are so serious that it will take a new generation of leaders, a new way of thinking and a bold new approach to problem-solving to steer us through this,” Ritter said.

Bennet publicly acknowledged his lack of legislative and political experience and promised to be a fast learner. He said he plans to travel the state and educate voters on his views on major issues, and he promised to run for the seat in the 2010 general election.

“I feel like I come to this job knowing a lot about what a senator needs to do but nowhere near what I’m going to need to know,” he told a packed crowd at a news conference in the foyer of the state Capitol.

Asked about his views on the tough issues facing lawmakers in the coming year, Bennet demurred and said he’ll discuss those issues in the coming weeks.

Bennet said there are many paths to the U.S. Senate and not all of them involve politics.

Republicans quickly seized on his lack of political experience and lack of a voting record and promised a bruising fight for the seat in two years.

“He had an opportunity today to come out and tell the people of Colorado where he stands on many tough issues he’ll be voting on in the U.S. Senate and he wouldn’t do it. You cannot vote present in the United States Senate, you have to vote and we’ll know at some point,” said Colorado Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams, who also attended the announcement.

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