I had the opportunity this morning to talk to Senator Michael Bennet. Michael describes himself as someone who has been lucky in the opportunities that life has provided him. I'd phrase it that Michael has worked hard to insure that many opportunities have come his way and then worked hard to make use of them. As Nolan Bushnell said "Everyone who's ever taken a shower has an idea. It's the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference."
One item of personal (to me) interest, Michael is the proud father of 3 daughters. As a fellow father of 3 daughters, we traded a couple of stories of being the one male in the household. He clearly loves his family.
Ok, on to the interview. Michael is running for election in '10. This is his first time on the ballot and so he has to close the sale with all of Colorado. Time is short and there's a lot of campaigning to do. So Michael dove right in to discussing… how the Denver Public Schools are doing, and what needs to be addressed in our public school system. Some of it was on changes that had been wrought in DPS and their effect, and much was on things that remain to be done.
I think he happily could have spent the entire hour discussing public education, and we did spend over 10 minutes on it. Michael clearly enjoys talking about how to determine the root cause of the problems we face, and how to fix them. And gravitates to that, as opposed to selling himself for the next election.
Add to this Michael's work history, where he has moved to significantly different job after significantly different job (albeit with a consistent theme of organizations that are in a world of hurt) and it draws a picture of an individual who is driven to solve complex systemic problems. (Which begs the question, I wonder if he would have been interested in the Senate if the country was running fine.)
So then we launched in to what is he doing for the next 2 years. I postulated that getting elected is a significant part of his time and he agreed. And with that he has his covering the state mapped out with what has been hit, what is coming, when each part was hit, etc. He is very focused and serious on winning in '10.
But he launched in to discussing the financial mess. He had an interesting twist on the problem, that having this occur at the end of a deeply unpopular president's term significantly exacerbated the problem. And that it hit hard before we knew who the new president would be. And yes, the response from the Bush administration was pretty minimal and disjointed.
He then talked at length on the work he is putting in with Senator Warner and others under the direction of Senator Dodd to come up with the needed regulations to insure this does not happen again. He dove in first to the asleep at the wheel regulators we had. And the fact that not only was there minimal to no regulation, but the banks were being encouraged to leverage themselves even more to 20:1 or even 30:1. Clearly he saw this as insane.
At the same time he talked about the need for the regulation to work well. That it cannot be too light, but neither can it be a heavy hand that restricts the ability of the market to provide the best product and for the companies to operate efficiently. This is a very difficult issue and it will take time to know if any solution works well, but he does see the trade-offs here.
From this he talked about how the economic mess impacts people. And he talked about dreams deferred by people who are graduating from High School or College and will be in a different job, or no job, as opposed to the career they hoped to get started on. He talked about retired people who have seen their savings cut in half and are wondering what they are going to do. He sees this as individual pain that is impacting person after person.
This was surprising that someone who has worked the numbers in most of his jobs did not talk about unemployment levels, credit tightening, etc – he talked about what the impact is on individuals. Michael Bennet is focused on turning life around for people. And this means that if we get the financial markets working well again he won't say problem solved, he'll be asking if things are better for people. He wants to fix the real problem.
He next talked about healthcare. His major discussion was once again systemic, the fact that we have hit a rare point where everyone, individuals, businesses, government – everyone – sees the need to fix what is a broken system. And he followed that up with it is absolutely incumbent upon the elected leaders in Washington to step up to that challenge and solve the problem.
He also talked about how the present system is not sustainable. That the yearly double digit growth in medical costs flat out cannot continue. This growth will break the federal budget via Medicare & Medicaid. And that companies cannot continue to poor more and more money into health insurance (damn straight!).
And to address this Michael then discussed the advantage of Obama starting out high-level laying out the major criteria that any solution needs to meet and getting agreement there before diving into the how. As he said, the beauty of this as opposed to the approach of starting off with a detailed solution is you get buy in across the board on coming up with a solution before you hit the details where you are going to get arguments.
I don't think he has a specific solution in mind. Nor do I think Michael will be one of the main drivers as to what the details will be. But he clearly is applying time and attention to getting up to speed on the alternatives and will probably be a voice at the table as they work out the specifics of the solution. In other words, it does have his attention, but it does not have a boatload of his time.
And that's it for policy and legislative activity. I wish there was time for more as he is a thoughtful and intelligent guy. But our political system is what it is. And for someone just appointed to the seat, who is a relative unknown to the voters, and his first election is in 20 months – this ain't bad. Not if we want him in office 2 years from now.
Michael talked a lot about meeting the voters. He clearly likes doing this, he was excited about the meetings with voters he has scheduled today. (Note, I will be at a Democratic Women of Boulder County meet & greet he is doing this evening so I will get to see him in action.) He talked a lot about the variety of questions and concerns he gets at these events. I think he uses these not just as a way to introduce himself to people, but also to learn about what the voters are thinking about.
He then touched on the conservadem issue. He made a couple of very good points. First that he does not take the approach of to the winner goes the spoils and the Dems now should just ram through what they want. He sees the election of Obama as not just a repudiation of the Bush policies, but also a repudiation of the Bush scorched earth tactics.
Keep in mind that Michael is not proposing we must get Republican buy-off on each issue. His point is that we should try. We should talk and try to bring the Republicans on board. And he never once said the word cloture, he is talking about improving the political culture and reaching out to try and bring about that improvement.
He also was quite indignant about the group that meets being called conservative. He sees it as a group with a multitude of political views that is focused on trying to bring about a needed reduction of all out political warfare and instead have disagreement without it leading to strident posturing. And he proudly called himself progressive. (Ever notice how no one is liberal anymore – we're now all progressive.) He finds a good measure in that in the more conservative counties he's viewed as a bit more liberal than they would like.
I want to add my personal opinion here. I think it is critical that we get this country back to the mode where the Democrats & Republicans are working together for the good of our country. Yes there will be disagreement, and yes the majority party will prevail most of the time, but it remains a joint effort. If we don't do this, we run the risk of becoming two closed camps where we divide the country in half – and that would be horrible. In addition, the Republicans do have a lot of good ideas and we need to make use of those ideas, and the critical review by the Republican members. Ok, rant over.
At the end I asked Michael if he walks into his office next Monday and Reid, McConnell, Pelosi, & Obama are in his office and tell him that he can hand them a bill and they will pass it immediately, what would it be. And his answer was he would like it to be healthcare but he would need more time to craft that bill. So it would be legislation to make alternative certification for teachers a reality.
This illustrates a major component of Michael Bennet. Many politicians would say healthcare. But to him the criteria is a bill that can be presented quickly and healthcare cannot be crafted that quickly. In other words, instead of a good political answer, he took the restrictions of that case to heart and thought through what could be done that quickly. This is someone who focuses on accomplishment rather than a good sound bite.
Second, he did think for about a minute to come up with the alternative certification idea. So when he had to drop back to an instinctive from the gut proposal, he went to education. And he came up with something that is eminently doable and would provide a lot of bang for the buck. All in all a damn good answer. And I think a clear indication that once he has more time, education will be something he puts a lot of effort in to.
I think Michael Bennet has the potential to do great things in the Senate. Thoughtful, a boatload of varied experience, and someone who looks at things from a systemic point of view. Add in strong empathy for what people are going through and a joy in meeting voters. All in all, very very impressive. Plus he's incredibly personable.
I saw Michael again in the evening - My Dinner with Michael.