- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

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.

But at an afternoon news conference, several of the state’s top Democratic lawmakers took for granted that Mr. Bennet was the pick and freely offered their reaction. They called the Bennet pick surprising, but offered their support.

“Michael Bennet’s name was not a name that figured prominently, so he was a bit of a dark horse,” state House Speaker Terrance Carroll said. “But Michael Bennet is very talented, politically savvy, and one of the smartest people I know.”

Mr. Carroll acknowledged that picking a political neophyte two years away from a major national election posed a risk, particularly in a state that has been trending Democratic in recent statewide elections.

“Politics is like poker, and there’s risk in poker games all the time. But the risk here is acceptable,” Mr. Carroll said.

Senate President Peter Groff, who also was interviewed by Mr. Ritter for the job, praised Mr. Bennet’s work as schools superintendent and called his selection “interesting.”

“I think he [Mr. Ritter] was looking for an out-of-the-box pick,” Mr. Groff said. “Michael is unique in that he goes into this with a clean slate and without the political baggage of a lot of politicians.”

Mr. Bennet, who was educated at Wesleyan University and Yale Law School, also had been mentioned as a potential choice for Education secretary in President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet. He served in the Justice Department as counsel to the deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, and later spent six years as managing director of the Anschutz Investment Co., owned by billionaire Colorado businessman and philanthropist Philip Anschutz.

Mr. Salazar, a first-term senator, is expected to win Senate confirmation as Interior secretary easily, given the courtesy that senators normally extend to their own.

Mr. Salazar’s successor in the Senate is one in a flurry of successions and contested seats in the upper chamber, including openings created by the exit of Mr. Obama, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The disputed Senate race in Minnesota drew fresh venom Friday when a top Republican threatened to block an attempt to seat Democrat Al Franken, who holds a 49-vote lead in a fiercely contested recount battle with incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

“I can assure you that there will be no way that people on our side of the aisle will agree to seat any senator without a valid certificate,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

Minnesota law prevents certification of an election until legal challenges are resolved, and an anticipated lawsuit by Mr. Coleman will take weeks if not months.

Minnesota’s other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, called for Mr. Franken to be seated temporarily while the legal battle runs its course.

Mr. Franken did not respond to inquiries Friday about his next move.

“I think it is very clear that the people of Minnesota and the courts in Minnesota should make the decision about who won the Minnesota Senate election, and not political leaders in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Cornyn said. “That process is ongoing and will not be resolved, in all likelihood, for weeks and maybe longer.”

S.A. Miller contributed to this report from Washington.

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