14 January 2009: Bennet’s appointment to Senate is a blunder

Appointing Bennet to Senate a key blunder by Gov. Ritter

“We make money the old fashioned way. We earn it.” So intoned George C. Scott in ads for Smith Barney back in the days of George Bush the Elder.

That idea gets at a fundamental truism of our culture: One deserves, not on the basis of privilege or reputation, but because of the hard work he/she has put into an endeavor.

While we know that is not always the case, it is, nonetheless, an ideal we hold to.

That ideal took a big hit recently with Gov. Bill Ritter’s appointment of Michael Bennet, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, to be our senator, replacing soon-to-be Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Bennet’s claim to fame—the myth of Bennet—is that he turned the Denver schools around. What is more accurate is that Bennet is what the Germans call a wunderkind, “a child prodigy or one who succeeds in a competitive or highly difficult field or profession at an early age” (Merriam-Webster).

While Bennet seems to be a nice guy, the line attributed to Tallulah Bankhead comes to mind: “There’s less there than what meets the eye.” According to news accounts, besides his being named superintendent without him having any prior experience in public education either as a student or as a professional, he was once chief of staff for Mayor Hickenlooper of Denver and helped make billionaire Philip Anschutz even richer.

Big deal. So the question remains: What has he really done in life to warrant an appointment to the world’s most select deliberative body?

Being thoughtful, curious, and critical as a thinker, as I wrote recently in my column on Barack Obama, is an incredible asset. But being really smart by itself does not mean one has the skills to be successful in all ventures, and it certainly does not entitle one to be a U.S. senator.

The legislative branch of government differentiates from the executive and judicial branches in that it serves as the voice of the people. It makes the laws, while the other two either enforces or interprets them.

To have credibility, a legislator must go through the rigors of a campaign, oftentimes like here in Colorado of late, a rough and tumble affair.

That’s good. It shows moxie and grace, coolness, and strength under fire. It serves as an indicator of how a lawmaker works to bring disparate groups together, first to get elected and then afterwards to collaborate with even those who opposed his/her election.

We don’t have that advantage with Bennet. He’s never run for office. He’s never been ripped in the press—until now—and thus, he hasn’t shown, what the Duke might call, true grit.

Some argue one asset Bennet brings to the table is that he is not a politician. That is true for now. At the moment of his swearing in however, he will be one. Every public official occupying an elected office is a de facto politician, even those of us like Hickenlooper who hold non-partisan offices, and me who was appointed to the Board of Education. It comes with the territory.

The irony is Ritter chose Bennet over a stalwart bench of Democrats including former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, former Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, Hickenlooper, and several others. So, it is not as if Ritter was in the role of Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle and looking at putting in Elmer Fudd at third base.

By appointing Bennet, Ritter has not only sold the people of Colorado short by knighting someone whom few know and who has zero elected-office and legislative experience, he has also set up the seat for a Republican takeaway in 2010. In so doing, he has weakened his own chances of re-election.

Ritter is no shoe in for re-election. Let’s face it: the Broncos have had a couple of stellar seasons in comparison to Ritter’s first two years in office. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, on the whole he has been good for Colorado, but that is based in large part that he is not Bob Beauprez.

Ritter and I share a commonality in terms of our upbringings: blue collar, large Catholic families, hard working, and putting himself through college. It seems he, though, has forgotten his past. Perhaps the rarified air of the governor’s mansion has gone to his head.

In about 22 months, Bennet, alongside Ritter, will be facing election, and the goo you see on state Republican Party Chair Dick Wadham’s face is saliva. Ritter has given him a gift that will keep giving, one that might prove to be a double coupon by including the governorship as well.

Now is the time for a courageous Democrat or two to take on Bennet and perhaps even Ritter in the 2010 primary. The latter is not likely, but Bennet is fair game. He has to prove his salt in the bloody arena of political warfare. So, until he sports a few scars and bruises and perhaps a festering wound from such engagement, he has no right to expect the respect due those who have earned their place the old fashioned way.

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