Denver educator eyed for Salazar’s Senate seat

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DENVER | Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. stunned the state’s political establishment Friday after word leaked that he planned to name Denver’s little-known schools chief to succeed Sen. Ken Salazar, the Interior secretary nominee.

Mr. Ritter, a Democrat, is expected to announce Saturday the selection of Michael Bennet, the Denver Public Schools superintendent, to fill the anticipated Senate vacancy. Two sources in Colorado state government confirmed to The Washington Times on Friday that Mr. Bennet was the governor’s choice.

Mr. Bennet, 44, boasts an impressive resume that includes a stint at the Justice Department, the Anschutz Investment Co., and recently, three years at the helm of a large, urban school district.

There’s just one omission: He’s never run for public office, and whoever succeeds Mr. Salazar will have to face an immediate re-election campaign when the term expires in 2010.

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli called the selection “risky,” especially given that Mr. Ritter passed over at least a half-dozen Colorado Democrats with more statewide name recognition, fundraising experience and political savvy.

“I was surprised. It’s improbable,” Mr. Ciruli said. “I think he’s ambitious and he could be a good senator, but this is not an appointed job - it’s an elected job, and he has never shown any interest in partisan politics.”

The selection also came as something of a slap in the face to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who had publicly stated that he would be interested in the seat and was widely viewed as the top choice for the job.

The popular Mr. Hickenlooper, who just had a successful turn as host of the Democratic National Convention, was also seen as the Democratic Party’s strongest candidate in 2010, leading to heated speculation about a possible rift between the governor and mayor.

“I’m totally perplexed by Governor Ritter’s decision,” Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams said. “The fact is that Mayor Hickenlooper would have been a very formidable candidate. I can only assume that Governor Ritter didn’t want to be overshadowed by Senator Hickenlooper.”

The two Democrats crossed political paths briefly when Mr. Ritter announced that he would run for governor in 2006. Mr. Ritter, the former Denver district attorney, then had to wait for months while Democratic bigwigs waited to see whether Mr. Hickenlooper would run before committing themselves to the Ritter campaign.

Mr. Hickenlooper decided against entering the race, and Mr. Ritter defeated former Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez in November 2006.

“The general assumption among the observant class is that there’s tremendous bad blood between Ritter and Hickenlooper,” Mr. Ciruli said.

At the same time, Mr. Hickenlooper is likely to throw his support behind Mr. Bennet because the two are friends — Mr. Bennet served for two years as the mayor’s chief of staff, and Mr. Hickenlooper enthusiastically backed him for the schools post.

Mr. Hickenlooper declined Friday to comment on the selection, noting that the governor had not yet made the announcement official.

“[W]e will respect his timeline and not comment on current media reports beforehand,” the mayor said in a statement.

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