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.
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 ," 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.