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.
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.