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Frustrated with a broken political system—and driven by a desire to change it—Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet announced Thursday that he is running for president. “I think this country faces two enormous challenges, among others. One is a lack of economic mobility and opportunity for most Americans. And the other is the need to restore integrity to our government,” Bennet said in an interview with CBS This Morning. “If we keep going down this road, we’re going to be the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity, not more, to the next generation.”
Bennet is the 21st candidate—and the second Coloradan—to join the 2020 presidential race after delaying his campaign in April to undergo a successful surgery for prostate cancer. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (and Bennet’s former boss) launched his presidential campaign in March. While Hickenlooper has pitched himself as the nation’s healer-in-chief, pointing to his leadership of a purple state as a model for how to cure a divided nation, Bennet has a different story to tell of government reform—and revolution.
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An accidental politician, Bennet was first appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2009 after serving as superintendent of Denver Public Schools, chief of staff to then-mayor Hickenlooper, and a director for the Anschutz Investment Company. In one of Bennet’s first campaign ads, he points out that America’s founders included 7,591 words in the U.S. Constitution. “The word ‘politics’ is not among them,” he says. “When the campaigning never stops, government never begins.”
Bennet’s frustration with Congressional dysfunction is a key issue he hopes to address in his presidential campaign. He says wants to reverse the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision—which eased campaign finance spending regulations—ban politicians from becoming lobbyists, and make partisan gerrymandering illegal. Bennet’s ire with government inefficiency captured the nation’s attention in January when his viral takedown of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during a federal shutdown became the most watched floor speech in Senate history. “I just felt that I couldn’t be silent,” he told 5280 in an interview.
Perhaps even more noteworthy than his anger, however, is the contrast it provides to Bennet’s reputation as an even-tempered and publicity-shy moderate. Although he has joined the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bennet has ranked low in recent national polls and will have to work to catch up after his late entry in the race. In a recent video, Bennet owned his lack of notoriety. “You probably don’t know me because I don’t go on cable news every night,” he said. “I didn’t go to Washington to get attention; I went to pay attention.”
But some influential Democrats are paying attention to Bennet, including former President Barack Obama, who named Bennet—along with fellow presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg—as a rising politician to watch.
As he transitions to a broader national stage, Bennet is still pragmatic and calls himself a straight shooter. On policy, for example, Bennet supports Medicare X, a public insurance option for Medicare that would allow people to retain their current health plans from unions and employers. He also takes a more moderate view of lowering higher education costs. “I’m not going to pretend free college is the answer,” he said in the video.
In the Senate, Bennet was part of the Congressional “Gang of Six” that wrote a bipartisan immigration bill, and he recently introduced the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act alongside U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Boulder to protect more than 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado and safeguard outdoor recreation opportunities. “Public lands are central to our identity as a state and to our economy,” Bennet told 5280.
Bennet also reintroduced a bill called the American Family Act in March to overhaul the existing federal child tax credit to help middle-class families. “The challenges of being able to afford healthcare, higher education, early childhood education, and housing are making it very hard for people to live middle-class lives,” he told 5280.
If Bennet is pragmatic, however, he is also an idealist. In his campaign video, Bennet pitches the idea that America create a new class of founders that follow in the footsteps of reformers like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and the suffragists to add new chapters that reshape the American story. Like the founders, “we either build a future we want, or one we don’t want will be forced upon us,” he said. “It’s not enough to win the next election, we need to win the next century.”