A senator in the house: Bennet makes appearance at South Jeffco house party

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By AJ Vicens

Wine and beer. Cheese. Mini pizza rolls.

Standard fare at many house parties, but the gathering at Paula Noonan’s house Feb. 27 had a little something extra that went a long way in explaining why her South Jeffco home was packed that night: Michael Bennet, Colorado’s newest U.S. senator.

Bennet, a Democrat from Denver, was selected by Gov. Bill Ritter on Jan. 3 to fill the void left when Sen. Ken Salazar was named secretary of the interior. The appointment became official Jan. 20.

Bennet has been traveling throughout Colorado since he became a senator, introducing himself to people who knew him as the four-year superintendent of Denver Public Schools. Prior to that, Bennet was chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (2003-2005) after leaving a job with Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, for whom he managed corporate turnarounds. Bennet has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and a law degree from Yale University Law School.

“When I went to see the governor, he was interviewing a lot of people, a lot of really qualified people that would have been wonderful senators. One of the things I said was, ‘Of all the people that you’re talking to about this job, I’m the one guy that if you don’t pick him, no one’s going to be mad at you — including me and (wife) Susan.’

“I think he saw an opportunity to put someone in this office who’s spent half his career in the private sector, half his career in the public sector.”

Bennet isn’t the only one who was surprised by his selection as Salazar’s replacement.

“I thought it was unusual,” Jeannie Spears of Green Mountain said as she sipped a drink while waiting for Bennet to arrive at the party. “I’m hoping maybe Ritter knew something I didn’t.”

Spears was expecting the governor to appoint former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff, whom she called a “logical choice,” or state Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Adams County.

Questions have been raised in political circles since the appointment as to whether Bennet can win a statewide election when he runs in 2010.

“If he works hard, maybe he can,” Spears said. It will depend on Obama and Congress’ accomplishments over the next two years.”

Alicia Johansson, a Swedish woman in her 60s who moved to the U.S. 20 years ago, hoped to enlist Bennet’s support in allowing her to keep her Swedish social security payment along with her American Social Security payments. Bennet told her he would “look into it.”

Eileen Ellis of Columbine Knolls said she’d have to trust Ritter’s judgment in appointing Bennet but said the new senator shouldn’t get a free pass from voters.

“The Democrats are going to make sure he’s accountable,” Ellis said. “That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

When Bennet arrived, late, he stood near the home’s fireplace and people crammed into the room to hear him speak.

On education: “We are failing kids all over this country in these large urban districts — so much so that we need to stop figuring out who’s to blame for it and get on about the business of actually fixing it and addressing it.”

On the economy: “We are in serious trouble right now. It’s hard to overstate where we are. (Some) 3.6 million jobs have been lost since beginning of the recession in December 2007, with 1.1 million between December 2008 and January 2009.” He bashed former president George Bush’s record on job creation, increased health care costs, higher education’s increasing costs, and Americans’ decreasing savings rate.

“We financed the differences between the lack of wage increase and all these expensive costs with credit cards, with mortgage loans. And now we’re reaping the whirlwind for that.”

“One of the things I could not believe on the Senate floor when we were trying to get the recovery package passed is that we kept getting accused of generational theft,” Bennet said. “This from the same people that managed to create $2 trillion in debt by cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans in this country and paying for it by borrowing from my children and your children,” he added, as boos erupted in the packed living room.

“Regrettably they’ve left us with no choice but to add to that to get us out of the jam.”

Speaking on the politically sensitive Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bennet said he’s traveled in the Mideast extensively, and that a two-state solution is the only possible strategy.

“It’s very much in our interests that there is an enduring peace, that there are two states and there’s real security for those states, and that ain’t going to happen unless we take a leadership role in the conversation and commit ourselves to it.”

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.