He Says He Wants A Revolution
Michael Bennet wants to save democracy - and he's going to start with the Denver Public Schools system.
A normal conversation with the Bennets feels like a brief foray into Who's Who in America. For the Bennet children—Michael, James, and Holly—the broader world was never a far-off place. "Conversation in our household would be on public issues," says James Bennet, Michael's younger brother, currently the editor of The Atlantic. "We talked more about the Panama Canal than sports or the next family vacation."
Not that many aspects of Bennet's childhood weren't completely typical. They were. His mother, Suzanne, was even the kids' school librarian. But the "givens" in Bennet's life were what separated him from most Americans. It was taken for granted that education was important, that one graduated high school and went on to higher education. It was assumed that a man works hard for a living. It was ingrained in him that individuals are connected to history and are in turn responsible for it. And it was assumed that if you are successful, you give back.
Bennet's choice to go into the private sector with Anschutz was a departure from his father's guiding-light career. But Bennet liked the job—it was fast-paced, exciting, and he was gaining shrewd business skills. Not to mention that the experience at Anschutz, which lasted more than six years, made Bennet a rich man at 38. But the job had little intrinsic value to him. "Michael is a compulsive worker," says his brother James, "but it's gotta be for something a lot more meaningful than money."
When the opportunity arose to work in a job where he could make a contribution to the common good, Bennet proved his brother right. Leaving millions of dollars in stock on the table at Anschutz, Bennet quit his job to become Mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff. It was an easy decision. The money Bennet had earned at Anschutz meant he could buy a nice house, easily send his daughters to college, and work how and where he wanted for the rest of his life. "What I concluded was you don't know when these opportunities will arise," says Bennet. "If you miss them when they come they might not be there later."
For two years Bennet addressed Denver's $70 million budget crisis, helped negotiate the fallout from a rash of police shootings, and dealt with the DIA gate wars between Frontier and United airlines. "Michael is very even-tempered; no matter how chaotic, he's always in control," says Hickenlooper. "He also has good judgment in that he can anticipate, three or four years down the road, the consequences of doing something now. And most important, he's able to correct something that people are doing without criticizing them—they realize there's a better way to do something without feeling diminished."
The chief of staff job was a good fit for Bennet—it appealed to his sense of civic duty and was challenging enough to keep his mind engaged. The substance of the job was ever-changing and wide-ranging, the mayor and his staff worked hard and believed in what they were doing, and goals were being met. "If you go back to what the mayor said he was going to do if he was elected and to what we did over that two-year period, there was an awful lot of consistency there," says Bennet. "Which I think is important—that part of the mission is to restore people's faith in their public institutions."
But other Denver public institutions weren't so successful. The ailing public school system was floundering, and when DPS Superintendent Jerry Wartgow announced he would be stepping down, a new public-service option opened up for Bennet. This opportunity was different, however. It would test Bennet unlike his two previous jobs. A highly educated, highly privileged white male without any educational background was going to educate teachers, empower principals, and save a generation of inner-city students. It was either going to be a daring rescue or career suicide.
To anyone who didn't know Michael Bennet, accepting the job of superintendent seemed like a lose-lose situation, if not outright insanity. After all, the public education system is universally thought to be intractable. Jerry Wartgow, Bennet's predecessor, likens the education system to the human immune system: "When anything new comes in, everything runs to kill it."
Hickenlooper, however, scoffs at any naysayers. "I think people who say it's a lose-lose situation are delirious," he says. "Michael is so talented—it's not whether he'll succeed but the level of success. And that success will always open windows."
In fact, according to Hickenlooper, he suggested that Bennet, with his private- and public-sector experience, would make a fine superintendent. Bennet says he received the suggestion from more than one person, but that his initial response to everyone was an emphatic "no." "My first reaction was I've only been with the city for two years and we've got a lot to do," says Bennet. "And when you look at the landscape of urban school reform over the last few years in this country, there's not an awful lot to give you confidence—that even if you knew what you were doing, which I didn't, that you'd succeed."