The list of would-be replacements for Sen. Ken Salazar, President-elect Barack Obama's pick to be secretary of the interior, was lengthy and distinguished, with U.S. representatives, current and former elected state officials all contending for the Democrat's seat. There was no shortage of qualifications on the list of presumed finalists, so it was somewhat surprising when Gov. Bill Ritter announced his choice: Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet. A look into Bennet's background, however, reveals a record of success along an unlikely and meandering path, suggesting he is well-suited to fill Salazar's shoes.
Bennet grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father had a lengthy political career and was head of National Public Radio. After attending Wesleyan University and earning a law degree from Yale, where he was editor of the Yale Law Journal, Bennet began his unlikely career trajectory that took him from the D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering to the Anschutz Investment Co., a company owned by Denver billionaire and longtime Republican Philip Anschutz. Bennet's lack of credentials as an investment manager gave Anschutz pause in hiring him, but Bennet quickly proved himself and, before long, climbed the company ladder to become managing director.
The same intuition and tenacity appeared when Bennet left the company - and the associated significant salary - to become chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a longtime friend. Bennet's sense of the political realm served him well in that position and made him Hickenlooper's recommendation for DPS superintendent when the position became vacant for the fifth time in twice as many years. Though he lacked a background in education, Bennet's unfailing energy and commitment to tackling difficult problems - of which there is no shortage in Denver's public schools - has brought him and his district success where it was previously difficult to come by. This wide range of experience will serve Bennet and Colorado well in the U.S. Senate.
Working in government, business and education - all in relatively short succession - as well as being married to a prominent environmental attorney, Susan Daggett, from Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, have brought Bennet into close contact with some of the issues he will face as a senator. With a working knowledge of the private and public sectors, and their associated bureaucracies, as well as what appears to be a natural affinity for problem-solving and new challenges, Bennet's is the sort of background poised to inform good decisions made soundly. His record suggests that will be his approach to Senate votes.
At the helm of the Denver Public Schools, Bennet has faced the unhappy challenge of fixing or closing some failing schools, most publicly Manual High School, in northeast Denver. The conundrum of addressing the school's shortcomings while also serving its struggling students eventually produced a political-style campaign of door-knocking, community organizing and mentoring that aimed to connect the lost students with new school options. That kind of creative thinking - and the political sense it demonstrated - produced the best results possible for a bad situation. It bodes well for Bennet's success as a senator, and suggests he will at least be a viable and savvy candidate in 2010. Ritter's choice of Bennet was surprising, but there is reason to believe it may be pleasantly so.