DENVER - Michael who?
It's Michael Bennet - soon-to-be Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Gov. Bill Ritter shocked the state Saturday by appointing Bennet, Denver's school superintendent, to be the state's next U.S. senator.
The position will open sometime after Jan. 20, when the current senator, Ken Salazar, is expected to be confirmed as secretary of the Interior.
Bennet said he would model himself on Salazar by being a nonpartisan senator.
"This is a path I intend to follow closely. The enormous challenges we face today are so serious, partisan differences must be abandoned to govern well," Bennet said. "Like Senator Salazar, I will be a senator for every corner of Colorado."
Bennet served as chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper - his most prominent rival for the Senate seat. He currently is superintendent of Denver Public Schools. During his time at the helm, test scores, graduation and enrollment all rose. He also oversaw the shutdown and relaunch of the troubled Manual High School.
Ritter said Bennet will bring a fresh approach to solving tough problems such as the economic crisis.
"My overriding principle was who could best serve all of Colorado at this critical point in our history," Ritter said. "Our challenges, our opportunities are so serious that they take a new generation of leadership and I believe a new way of thinking and a bold new approach to problem-solving."
Salazar symbolically anointed Bennet as his successor with a blessing that Salazar's mother gave to her children. He invited Bennet and his family to the podium and laid his hand on Bennet's head while giving the blessing in Spanish.
"May Our Lady of Guada-lupe cover you with her mantle of protection and love and with all of her faith. God be with you," Salazar said.
Bennet's wife, Susan Daggett, and three daughters, Caroline, 9, Halina, 7, and Anne, 4, stood behind him during the 45-minute announcement at the state Capitol. The older two daughters smiled and clapped, while Anne fidgeted on the floor or in her mother's arms.
Reeves Brown, executive director of the Western Slope advocacy group Club 20, was surprised at Ritter's choice.
"I have a lot of respect for Michael, and he's certainly proven himself very capable in the education arena," Brown said in a phone interview.
However, the Western Slope's main issues - water, gas and oil, and public lands - are complicated.
"I don't know what kind of experience, if any, he has in natural resources management, and of course, the Western Slope world revolves around natural resources management," Brown said.
Bennet did not answer questions on where he stands on most major issues, but he promised to lay out his principles in the coming days.
Unlike most other senators, Bennet has never held elective office, and he's virtually unknown outside Denver.
The first hint that Bennet might be destined for higher office came when his name surfaced as a possible secretary of education for President-elect Barack Obama.
"I congratulate Michael Bennet on his appointment as Colorado's next United States Senator, and Governor Bill Ritter for making a splendid choice," Obama said. "Michael Bennet perfectly reflects the qualities of the ruggedly independent state he has been chosen to serve. An innovator in the public and private sectors, he has shown himself willing to challenge old thinking and stale policies. .... He will be a breath of fresh air in Washington."
Bennet will have just two years to raise money for a 2010 Senate race. This year's race cost the winner, Democrat Mark Udall, $12.8 million.
"I absolutely intend to seek re-election. And I absolutely intend to win," Bennet said.
Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said Bennet will have to cast hundreds of votes before 2010 that will establish his record. But today, he's an unknown.
"I don't think we know anything more today than we did yesterday," Wadhams said after the announcement. "I kind of felt like I was more in an update session on Denver Public Schools than I was at the announcement of a U.S. senator."
Hickenlooper would have made a formidable opponent, Wadhams said. Attorney General John Suthers and perhaps radio host Dan Caplis are possible GOP candidates against Bennet, Wadhams said.
Ritter interviewed 15 candidates before settling on Bennet on New Year's Eve, he said, calling it "an extremely difficult choice." Ritter consulted Sen. Salazar, former Democratic senators Gary Hart and Tim Wirth and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the appointment, as well as hundreds of other people, he said.
It's unknown exactly when Bennet will be sworn in.
Salazar's confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 15. The earliest he could formally take the Interior post is Jan. 20 - Inauguration Day. But there is no fixed timetable, Salazar said.
"If somebody wants to beat up on us, it could be a few months. I don't know," Salazar said.