U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, in Durango on Sunday on the first stop of a Western Slope listening tour, praised the stimulus package he helped pass but gave a grim analysis of the near future.
"It's only the first step," he told about 175 people gathered for a town hall-style meeting at the Durango Public Library. "It's not even close to being the final step."
For about 45 minutes, he talked about his work before being appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter to replace Sen. Ken Salazar, who was tapped by the new administration to head the Interior Department.
Bennet had been the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, making him something of a dark horse for the position because of his lack of political experience. But he said his experience reforming a dysfunctional institution made him well-qualified for the job.
Opening the floor for questions, he was asked about everything from creating green jobs to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
He received kudos for the recovery bill from Harry Bruell, head of the Southwest Conservation Corps, who said it would allow the organization to hire 1,000 young people.
After the meeting, Bruell said the new jobs would put 18- to 25-year-olds to work not only maintaining public lands but also doing green jobs such as conducting energy audits.
"We're very excited about it. This is a huge thing," Bruell said.
To a question about an apparent lack of emphasis on alternative energy in the stimulus package, Bennet said, "Don't give up to soon."
He said developing a new energy economy remains a priority in Washington.
"This is a great opportunity for our country to create jobs that can't be shipped overseas," he said.
With the country hemorrhaging jobs and every sign pointing to continued recession, Bennet took pains to emphasize the limitations of what even a $787 billion stimulus bill can accomplish.
"Maybe the best we can actually hope for is that it slows the decline," he told an Editorial Board meeting at The Durango Herald.
At the community meeting, Bennet, a boyish-looking 44 and dressed casually in a blazer and jeans, was confronted with a case in point of how pervasive the effects of the downturn have been.
Glenn Sears, a 74-year-old retired university professor, talked about seeing his retirement fund dwindle from $720,000 - an amount that would allow him and his wife to live comfortably for the rest of their lives - to $220,000. On top of that, he said the taxes they are faced with as they take money from the fund for living expenses, when combined with Social Security, exceeds 30 percent.
Sears complained that the stimulus bill does nothing to help people in a predicament such as theirs.
"I don't know what the answer is," Bennet said in response.
He said his hope is that as the economy recovers, so will depleted retirement funds. But he acknowledged they were unlikely to be fully restored in current retirees' lifetimes. He promised to look into the tax issue.
Dick Dahl told Bennet about the challenge Medicare recipients here face in finding a primary-care doctor because of low reimbursement rates. Bennet, who will sit on the banking, agriculture and homeland security committees, responded with a commitment to fight for the health of the entitlement.
On education, Bennet told the Editorial Board that the current accountability system measures "apples to oranges," and he wants to move to a model that compares students' improvement with their previous year's performance.
He said higher education has become prohibitively expensive for many, which equates to "rolling up the carpet on the people who come after us." He said he wants to see teaching made more attractive as a profession and believes the federal government should offer incentives. Though many school districts face cuts, he said the stimulus bill should help make those less deep.
He said he, too, was somewhat disappointed with the lack of specifics in the financial plan put forward last week by the administration but said the problem is too overwhelming for simple solutions. In tackling the ailing sector, he said regulators should keep in mind the differing situations between investment banks in New York and community banks like those in Durango.
Bennet, who will be up for election in 2010, told the crowd at the library that two years ago, he came to Durango with his wife and three daughters on vacation. Notwithstanding, Bennet, who holds a law degree from Yale University, comes with a presumptive Front Range bias that raised questions about his understanding of Western Slope issues.
He pledged to make up for this by listening to residents on this side of the divide.
"I'll be back, and I'll be back, and I'll be back," he said. "I intend to be a senator for all of Colorado."
Bennet is scheduled to make stops in Cortez, Rico, Ridgeway, Delta and Grand Junction before returning to Denver, where he will join President Barack Obama on Tuesday in Denver for the signing of the stimulus bill.