The Accidental Senator

Michael Bennet’s brand of politics—moderate and pragmatic—is what many believe Congress needs. So why isn’t he more excited about being there?

May 2015

— Photography by Benjamin Rasmussen

Michael Bennet is late. He’s half-running, half-walking through the basement cafeteria of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, careening past congressional staffers and constituents, double-timing it to the United States Capitol building, where he’s scheduled to make a speech. “This is the shuffle,” he shouts over his shoulder, suit vents flapping, as he darts through security and hops on the Capitol subway, the little trolley that shuttles senators from their offices to the chamber.

Bennet, who recently turned 50, arrives in time and takes his seat. It’s unusually busy on this cold day in late January because the Senate is concluding almost three weeks of debate on Keystone XL, the controversial energy project that would run a Canadian crude oil pipeline across the Great Plains, ending in Nebraska. The pipeline has sat in limbo since early 2010 as President Barack Obama’s administration weighed its potential environmental, economic, and political impacts. Republicans have long clamored for its passage, arguing that the oil is desperately needed and that it would be a massive job builder—never mind that gas is currently hovering around $2.50 a gallon and one federal study showed that Keystone XL would only create about 50 long-term jobs. After a resounding November victory and a new Senate majority, the GOP has made Keystone XL its first priority. A handful of centrist Democrats, including Bennet, have agreed to vote for it.

The Colorado senator’s turn to speak finally arrives, and he promotes an amendment that would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a landmark program that finances public lands and water reserves and is set to expire this year. He’s a co-sponsor of the amendment, which is being pushed by Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. “For once, we have a program where there is actually nothing wrong with it,” Bennet tells his colleagues, describing how effective it’s been for the past 50 years and how it has funded projects in nearly every U.S. county, from building parks for inner-city kids to protecting historic battlefields. “We don’t need to overhaul LWCF,” Bennet says. “We just need to reauthorize it and let the program’s proven track record of success continue.”

Effective, pragmatic government is Bennet’s hobbyhorse, which makes him unusual in a city where ideological purity is often prized above all else. The LWCF amendment exemplifies this, and unlike many of the more than 240 other amendments offered on the Keystone XL bill, it actually has a legitimate chance of passing: Bennet’s staff is counting on at least 60 votes.

As the Senate clerk begins counting, the chamber fills with America’s political glitterati: Here comes the slight, frowning figure of libertarian Rand Paul, a smiling John McCain, a lonely Al Franken, and liberal god Elizabeth Warren. They file toward the clerk, voting with thumbs up or down, which makes them look like a batch of gray-haired, suited kindergartners choosing lunch drinks: Yoo-hoo, aye! Strawberry Nesquik, nay! Bennet watches with a pinched smile, his hands clasped in front of him like a choirboy, awaiting the outcome.

As the clerk nears the end of the roll call, a scrum forms around Mitch McConnell, the new Republican Senate majority leader, known among the Jon Stewart set as “the Turtle” for his lack of a chin and plodding—some say infuriating—nature. Bennet watches McConnell and the GOP leadership harangue members to change their votes; as popular and widely used as LWCF might be, a permanent reauthorization of a government conservation program is not part of today’s plan. A few minutes later, it’s done: McConnell gets three Republicans to flip, and the LWCF reauthorization fails by one excruciating vote.

This is Michael Bennet’s new world. He  earned millions in business and helped run the city of Denver and its public school district. Once he landed in Congress, he played a key role in the Democratic Senate majority for six years; Bennet has been so influential that as recently as January, he’s been buzzed about as a potential vice presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton. But today, and at least until the next election, the Turtle owns him.

Once the vote is over, Bennet heads to the Capitol basement to greet Cory Gardner, his new Senate colleague from Colorado. Gardner was one of the few Republicans to vote for the LWCF amendment and makes sure Bennet knows it. “I voted yes, and leaders are trying to get people to vote no, ” he tells his cohort. “And I’m like, ‘I know what they’re doing, I’m not going down there!’ ” After four years in the House, Gardner is still adjusting to his more high-profile and older Senate colleagues. “Despite the rumors,” Gardner jokes, “the Senate doesn’t smell like Mentholatum!”

The two go into a TV studio and stand before a backdrop with a rendering of the U.S. Capitol dome seen through a fake window. (The actual dome is surrounded by scaffolding, part of a multiyear, $60 million effort to preserve the venerable structure against further rust, decay, and erosion.) They’re recording a message for the personnel at Colorado’s Fort Carson, which is facing cuts due to sequestration, the political compromise that resulted in massive government spending decreases beginning in 2013. The three-minute video lauds the base’s many contributions to the state and the military.

Gardner has long been a GOP rising star. He has a smile straight out of a Crest ad and a cheery nature; the Washington Post’s George Will once called him a “human sunbeam.” Bennet is more measured, often wonky and wry in private, but in public he turns the dial to bright and upbeat. He’s clad in the D.C. uniform of a dark suit, a blue dress shirt, and a tie. (In Colorado he’s more inclined toward a black fleece, jeans, and worn black loafers.) Unlike Gardner, Bennet doesn’t seem to enjoy the public eye. He’ll give a quote or a brief interview to journalists, but despite his telegenic nature, he rarely appears on television, whether it’s Meet the Press or liberal-friendly MSNBC. His staff says he’s far more interested in the humdrum “blocking and tackling” of the legislative process. The senator can be so under the radar, in fact, that he verges on being anonymous and can move around Colorado mostly unnoticed. In the week or so I spent with him in the state, the lone instance I saw him stopped was when a Transportation Security Administration agent pulled him aside for an extended screening at the Durango airport.

That Gardner is here at all could be seen as a failure of Bennet and the Democratic Party. When Bennet was first appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2009, Democrats were ascendant and controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. They briefly enjoyed a filibuster-resistant 60 votes in the Senate and passed a major economic stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. Their successes led pundits and analysts to speculate about a demographic-led permanent Democratic majority.

That hasn’t come to pass. Obama was re-elected in 2012, but the midterms in 2010 and 2014 were ugly for his party. This past cycle, Bennet chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), whose mission is to elect Democratic senators. In 2014, Obama’s low approval ratings, the dual crises of ISIS and Ebola, and an economy slow to uplift the middle class all conspired to bury the Democrats, costing the party nine Senate seats and its majority. One of those seats belonged to Colorado’s Mark Udall, who was bested by Gardner. The loss still stings for Bennet. “Mark and I were as close—probably closer—than any other delegation in the place,” he says. “I miss him a lot.”

Ironically, Bennet arguably has more power now than he did during his time in the majority, when he often negotiated high-profile legislation such as immigration reform and the Farm Bill. But doing so meant requesting help from Republicans, whose typical approach—as the Turtle has infamously stated—was to obstruct Democrats’ objectives as much as possible. Now the situation is reversed. McConnell and his party need Democratic cooperation to get those 60 votes, and the moderate Bennet often is one of the first  Dems the GOP solicits.

If Republicans want to end the confounding but politically useful standstill they’ve maintained since 2010 and create legislation that Obama actually will sign, Bennet will likely be involved. He’s already joined Republicans and some Democrats to begin tweaking the Dodd-Frank regulations; he’s also willing to negotiate the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education act, which has languished for seven years. (In February, he delivered an impassioned speech to Senate colleagues about the “moral duty” they’ve been shirking by tabling public education policy for so long.)

Today, Bennet looks notably older than the fresh-faced senator he was in 2010; the strain from traveling between Colorado and D.C. and seeing his family in bite-size chunks is evident. He’s facing another two years of slogging physically and mentally toward the elusive reform still needed on so many issues. Which begs the question: Is such reform even possible anymore?

“It’s too early to tell,” he says, citing the House’s recent repeal of Obama’s immigration policy (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents), which would streamline the process that enables immigrants to become citizens, as a bad sign for bipartisanship. “Does this new constellation”—a Republican Congress and a Democratic president—“somehow produce a set of conditions to fix aspects of the immigration system that we couldn’t fix before? That’s the question. We don’t know the answer.”

Man With a Clan
Bennet with his wife, Susan Daggett, and daughters—(from left) Caroline, Anne, and Halina—in Wash Park