Feature

The Spoiler

Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the state House and a once rising political star, wants to be a U.S. senator. And there’s nothing Governor Ritter, the state Democratic Party establishment, or the White House can do about it. If he costs his party the big one and torpedoes his career along the way, well, that’s democracy.

August 2010

As far as parties at the Capitol building go, this is about as raucous as it's ever going to get. Techno music thumps from speakers at the base of the West Steps as dozens of people bounce to the pulsing beat. There's a man in his 30s, his face battered beyond his years, grooving at the center of the asphalt dance floor, waving imaginary glow sticks. A group of bikers stands off to the side. They're all leather and beards, looking like Hells Angels, but they're members of Sober Souls (mottos on their jackets read: "Let Go, Let God.") Dotting the perimeter are tables and tents advertising services like free massages, the Hep C Connection, and Narcotics Anonymous. It's the annual gathering for local sobriety groups: The Recovery at the Capitol is in full swing. At the center of the party is a pale blue tent, faded from the sunshine, advertising Andrew Romanoff's campaign for the U.S. Senate. It is staffed by several young volunteers who seem confused by the bazaar, as if they're wondering just what, exactly, they've gotten themselves into.

Just before 12:30 p.m., Romanoff arrives. Six feet tall and lanky, the 43-year-old has what's become a famously still-boyish face and a helmet of dark hair that's starting to recede. His smile is the first thing you notice: A big grin—a little cocky, a little awkward—loaded with bright Chiclet teeth and bookended by dimples. He quickly sheds his dark jacket and starts shaking hands. Followed by a small entourage of aides and supporters, he slides through the crowd, looking like a student council president trying to drum up votes in the corner of the schoolyard. The music cuts out. A man in a Hawaiian shirt, fedora, and wraparound shades ascends the West Steps to a lonely podium. "It's an honor for me to stand up here on the steps of the state Capitol, sober, with my family," says Hawaiian-shirt guy. Propped behind him is a green sign for Surrounded by Recovery. "We've asked governors and mayors to come speak to us, but they never seem to have time. But I have a gentleman here who was the speaker of the House."

The crowd is quiet and looks puzzled. "Andrew," Hawaiian-shirt guy shouts, "is running for the state Senate!"

He pauses. Awkward silence.

Immediately, he senses what he'd said was not right. "The U.S. state Senate!" he yells. "And he's got a good chance of getting there!"

Romanoff jolts up the steps, and Hawaiian-shirt guy awards him a plaque for his support of Colorado recovery groups. The candidate turns to the crowd and says hello. He doesn't bother to acknowledge the fact that he's actually running for the United States Senate, the hallowed chamber where 100 representatives make laws and determine, to a large extent, the future of America and the world. Getting dissed and discounted is par for the course these days for the once rising political star: "A good chance of getting there." Good chance?! He ignores the unintended slight and tosses out a joke. "I'm in recovery too," Romanoff says. "From eight years in the building behind me! Getting things done and getting people to cooperate isn't easy!"

No one laughs.

Candidate Romanoff has been scampering around the state, speaking to organizations like Neck-Lace-4-Life, a crocheting group in Lafayette; Grounds to Ground, a coffee-roasting business; Odell Brewing Company; Monroe Organic Farms; and at events like the Furry Scurry walk in Washington Park and the Juneteenth Caribbean American Heritage Festival in Colorado Springs. Short a speaker for a luncheon? Office birthday party? Bar mitzvah? Romanoff might be your guy.

He campaigns endlessly not because he loves speaking to crowds—although he does—but out of necessity. His opponent in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate is Michael Bennet, a man well-connected in business, education, and Washington, D.C. He ran Denver Public Schools and the mayor's office, helped direct business turnaround efforts for Phil Anschutz's Regal Entertainment Group, and worked in the Clinton administration. He's been endorsed by pretty much Colorado's entire Democratic establishment: Governor Bill Ritter; Mayor John Hickenlooper; U.S. Senator Mark Udall; U.S. Representatives Jared Polis, John Salazar, and Betsy Markey. Oh, and President Barack Obama. Romanoff has the support of the majority of Democrats in the state Legislature and many mayors across the state. The only local boldface-name endorsement he's earned is from Cary Kennedy, the state treasurer—and she used to work for him. Nationally, Romanoff's got Bill Clinton's endorsement. Then there's the money: Bennet has raised nearly $7.4 million for the August 10 primary and the general election in November. After running ads for a couple of months, Bennet increased his lead among Democratic voters from a tight six points to a considerable cushion of 15 points.

If Romanoff's got a chance, he has to ignore the establishment, forget about money, bang on more doors, make more phone calls, and speak to anyone who will listen. Which isn't really a problem. This is a guy who ran for the Democratic National Committee—the party's governing body—before his 30th birthday, at a time when his peers were doing beer bongs and taking off weekdays to get first dibs on fresh powder. Romanoff's spent the past 15 years getting to know Democrats in every town between Kansas and Utah. "If you could run for the U.S. Senate by knocking on doors, the people who would run and win—they'd make different decisions in office," he says. "A lot of people never take a look at a race for the Senate because they don't have the connections or the resources." He's a natural. On stage, Romanoff is Obama to Bennet's Ben Stein—charismatic, practiced, and moving. But even the most talented speaker can't always connect with a crowd.

The Recovery at the Capitol audience isn't much interested in politics. Romanoff wraps up, as he often does, with a reference to Robert F. Kennedy's groundbreaking speech on South Africa's apartheid: "He said, 'Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.'" Romanoff's voice builds to a crescendo, like he genuinely believes he is that ripple of hope. "We've lost a bit of the spark that Robert F. Kennedy had, but we can bring it back. Those ripples start here and now!"

The crowd applauds politely. Nearly everyone in the audience is marked with a number. On upper arms, they have written in black marker: 403 days. 23 days. 6,056 days. 248 days. Each signifies a stretch of sobriety, consecutive days free of whatever addiction—drugs, alcohol. Romanoff waves to the crowd, descends the West Steps, and starts shaking more hands, campaigning like he can't help himself. Andrew Romanoff, political junkie: 0 days.

A little more than 500 days earlier, above the Capitol's West Steps, Romanoff cleaned out his speaker of the House office. It was a tiny room with just enough space for a desk and a small conference table. Books were piled, ready to be boxed with his RFK photograph and a Yoda poster. Romanoff looked lost. After eight years at the Statehouse, including four as the speaker, he had to leave office, forced out by term limits. Packing his belongings, he began to unpack the question: Now what?

The rising whiz kid was now a 42-year-old unemployed politician. By way of comparison: Four years earlier, an ambitious 43-year-old Illinois state senator was elected to the U.S. Senate. That former state senator, Barack Obama, was about to be sworn into the White House.

Every political slot that a striver like Romanoff might have wanted—governor, congressman, senator—was occupied. He had been a finalist for the Colorado secretary of state position, but no dice. He had applied for a job with the Obama administration's U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) but hadn't received an offer. In his downtime, Romanoff wrapped up his law degree at the University of Denver. He didn't want to practice law; the cerebral politician just wanted to understand the law.

Then, in late December, President-elect Obama announced that he'd be appointing U.S. Senator Ken Salazar as the secretary of the interior. One of the most plum political jobs in the state was now ripe for the taking.

Romanoff certainly had the right CV, which was padded not just with dual Ivy League degrees and a law degree, but also loaded with political accomplishments. During his four terms, he built a broad statewide coalition, helped engineer a Democratic takeover of the Statehouse, and oversaw waves of legislation. He authored arguably the most important Colorado law of the past decade, 2005's Referendum C, which was passed by voters to help balance the state budget. Of particular note, Romanoff helped elect and worked alongside the man who'd be making the unexpected senatorial appointment: Governor Bill Ritter.

Many respected names were bandied about for the job, including U.S. Representatives Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette, and John Salazar (Ken's older brother), and Mayor John Hickenlooper. But all those folks had jobs—good, secure jobs. Romanoff, who was chosen by Governing magazine as the top public official in the country just the year before, was out of work. The former speaker rallied support quickly, earning endorsements from 61 of the 64 Democratic county chairs. The field promptly cleared, and the only men left standing were Romanoff and Hickenlooper. Either would be popular with both the party's base and the establishment.

Ritter didn't care much about pleasing the base or the establishment. On the morning of January 3, a Saturday, the governor appointed Michael Bennet to the U.S. Senate seat. Bennet, the whip-smart superintendent of Denver Public Schools, had, despite his many accomplishments, never served in public office. Standing at Bennet's side were his wife and three young daughters, the picture of a happy, young political family. You could almost see the Christmas card shot on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington.

Nobody was more stunned than Romanoff. He was absent from the Bennet press conference—off visiting family in California—but he did release a statement: "I called Michael Bennet to offer my warmest congratulations on his appointment to the United States Senate. Michael has been a friend for many years, and I wish him great success representing our state in Washington."

Romanoff's public affection for Bennet—and for that matter, his admiration of the Obama administration—has dissipated. "The national party put out the word that no one should help us," Romanoff tells me. "They had their chosen candidate." National involvement in a local race is standard, but the Obama administration's clunky dabbling has caused a virulent backlash this year; certainly, that's how Romanoff feels. "It's ludicrous and insulting to people here," he says during a recent lunch at Bruno's, a small, bright Italian restaurant next door to his campaign headquarters. "It doesn't sit well with most folks. And it might turn out to be a disservice to my opponent, because the more Washington tells us what to do, the more people want to do the opposite."

The former speaker is eminently approachable. Anger doesn't really suit the candidate, who, turning 44 this month, still earns youthful nicknames like Mr. Goody Two-Shoes, House Eagle Scout, and the Golden Boy. He doesn't drink alcohol or caffeine; during his "Coffee with the Candidate" events, he usually sips water. He likes playing tennis and catching movies—he's tickled that Scarlett Johansson was named "Romanoff" in Iron Man 2. And though he's long been considered one of the most eligible bachelors in the state, he's never had the time to settle down. He's got a dog, though, a border collie mix named Zorro. Romanoff's now on the road so much campaigning that even Zorro's often left behind in Denver, in the care of friends.

Despite his brutal travel schedule, fund-raising dollars remain scarce. "The problem of the campaign is that we have more organizational support than paid infrastructure," Romanoff says. "It's a happy problem." He pauses. "Our problem is how to corral hundreds of people and take advantage of them." Romanoff compares his predicament to It's a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart's business is kept afloat thanks to donations from his neighbors. Romanoff likes to point out that while the majority of Bennet's cash comes from outside the state, 95 percent of his comes from Coloradans.

When I ask him about not being chosen to replace Salazar, he deflects the question. "No comment." Pressed, he wryly offers: "I was disappointed by the governor's decision." Fact is, Romanoff was, to say the least, frustrated. "A day or two after Michael Bennet was appointed, I talked with Andrew, and he was very disappointed," says a former legislator who's close to Romanoff. "He said, 'I really hoped that I'd have this opportunity because there's a lot of things that I'd like to work on. I'm really worried about the genocide in Darfur, and I would like to use the office to help the situation there.' "

If Ritter had chosen Hickenlooper, John Salazar, Perlmutter, or DeGette, that might have made sense to Romanoff. But Bennet? The guy had never raised money, never campaigned, and probably had never even been to Salazar's San Luis Valley.

In the weeks after the appointment, some Romanoff followers encouraged him to challenge Ritter in 2010. The governor was the face of a state that was, like the rest of the country, in economic freefall, dealing out budget cuts. His unpredictable signing and vetoing of bills had managed to upset just about every constituency. Ritter was also the man who had passed over—and pissed off—Romanoff.

Bennet, also, was vulnerable. The new senator had to learn Washington's ways while building a Colorado political organization from scratch. Both were full-time jobs, and as Romanoff puts it, "If you don't know the people that you represent before you go to Washington, it's very hard to get to know them."

People who know Romanoff best say quick decisions aren't his forte. He mulls over every option. Instead of considering just choice A and B, he wants to look at C through Z. Sometimes it works. Consider the state's 2005 budget crisis: Bounded by the strict rules of TABOR, Colorado's education and health-care funding was dwindling. Instead of trying to repeal TABOR, a law popular with voters, Romanoff engineered a compromise: Referendum C, a five-year timeout from the revenue limits of TABOR. Supported by the business community and Governor Bill Owens, it narrowly passed at the ballot. "He developed a solution to what looked like an intractable problem," says Cary Kennedy, current state treasurer and a former policy director at the state House.

When it came to his own political career, however, Romanoff couldn't find a solution. He passed time as a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado Denver while considering every option. He followed up with the Obama administration about the USAID job but still didn't receive an offer. Ritter's office dangled the possibility of lieutenant governor for the November 2010 reelection, but then pulled it back when Barbara O'Brien said she wanted to stay. Romanoff pondered and traveled. While on break from CU, he went to Nigeria to offer legislative training to that country's national assembly. He spent time in the Middle East.

Back in the states, he applied to be the president of the Colorado Children's Campaign, a bipartisan nonprofit that pushes for increased access to education and children's health care. It would've been the perfect job for him to bide his time and wait for another political slot to open, but he also started putting out feelers to gauge a run against Bennet. Why? Over our lunch at Bruno's, Romanoff served up one of his favorite campaign mantras: "The governor gets to fill vacancies, not grant senators for life. As much as I support the governor, he gets only one vote now."

On September 16, 2009, Romanoff finally announced he was running for Senate. He had few staffers and little money, but he believed he could leverage his grassroots network to beat a guy who had never before run an election campaign. By then, though, even critics had warmed to Bennet, who chalked up important votes on the stimulus bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and Obama confirmations like Sonia Sotomayor. He'd also launched a barn-burning meet-and-greet effort across the state. "Romanoff should have gotten into the Senate race last February [2009]," says a former Romanoff campaign staffer. "Instead, he waited until September to announce, and that cost him endorsements, months of fund-raising, and a lot of activists." The day after Romanoff announced his Senate bid, President Obama endorsed Bennet.

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