A moderate lawmaker, candidate Romanoff has moved left
For years, Romanoff frustrated Colorado progressives with his
By JASON SALZMAN
DENVER – Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the Colorado State House
and now a candidate for U.S. Senate, likes to say he’s more
progressive than his Democratic primary opponent, Colorado Sen.
“On health care, energy, the environment, financial reform — my
positions are not just more progressive,” Romanoff says. “They’re more
So how did Romanoff manage on Tuesday to score an endorsement from
President Bill Clinton, whose love of centrism is legendary?
The number-one explanation is that Romanoff supported Hillary Clinton,
and ever-loyal Bill is returning the favor.
But here’s a reason that
likely contributed to Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Romanoff. Before
he launched his primary campaign against Bennet, and throughout his
eight years in the Colorado State House, Romanoff wasn’t the kind of
Democrat, like he is now, who points to Sen. Paul Wellstone as the
kind of U.S. Senator he admires most.
In fact, at the Colorado Capitol from 2001 – 2009, Romanoff operated a
lot like Bill Clinton might have, if he were a Colorado legislator.
Romanoff frustrated Colorado progressives with his center-right
positions on labor, crime, immigration, and other issues. He
notoriously pushed passage in 2006 of a set of anti-immigration laws,
denying basic services to undocumented immigrants, that
immigration-rights activists saw as the among the worst state laws on
immigration in the country.
In the mold of Bill Clinton, Romanoff in 2006 was state co-chair of
the Democratic Leadership Council, a position he downplays now. But at
the time he acted the part.
Romanoff counters that during his career as a state legislator, he got
results by working with Colorado Republicans to free up money for
education and services that were underfunded after decades of
Republican rule here. Romanoff is proud that he built Democratic
majorities in both houses of the state legislature for the first time
in 28 years.
”I don’t see it as a left-right debate,” he told me. “I
look at it as forward and backward. No one’s worked more effectively
to put Democrats in a position of power and then use it.”
For this reason, among others, Romanoff was seen as a rising
Democratic star, in a state that’s elected a crop of moderate
Democrats, like Gov. Bill Ritter, as it’s turned from red to blue over
the last six years. Romanoff was widely viewed as a key player in this
But his star fell in 2009 when Ritter passed over Romanoff, and
appointed then-Superintendent of Denver Public Schools Michael Bennet
to fill a U.S. Senate seat left vacant when moderate Democrat Sen. Ken
Salazar became Secretary of Interior.
Bennet, who earned millions working for Colorado billionaire and
Republican mega-donor Phil Anschutz, signaled his intention to run for
the Senate seat when he was appointed in January 2009, and Romanoff
entered the Senate race late by campaign standards, in September of
the same year.
A former chief of staff for Denver Mayor and Colorado gubernatorial
candidate John Hickenlooper, Bennet is endorsed by most of the
Democratic political establishment in Colorado, including four of five
Democratic U.S. House members, Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado’s Secretary
of State, and unions like the Service Employees International Union.
President Barack Obama came to Colorado in February on Bennet’s behalf
— making Clinton’s recent support of Romanoff a bit of a shocker to
Bennet’s endorsers aren’t taking a back seat in the campaign. For
example, at a recent news conference a group of African-American
leaders stood with Bennet, including the state’s first
African-American Speaker of the State House, Terrance Carroll, the man
who replaced Romanoff.
“We’re not here explicitly because Michael Bennet is African
American,” he joked as the pale-white-faced Bennet stood by, “but
because Michael cares about the issues we care about.”
Asked later why he picked Bennet over Romanoff, Carroll said: “There’s
very little daylight between them on substantive policy issues
important to us. So I had to have a tie breaker. And the tie breaker
is where they stood on education. For me, especially for my community,
education is the great civil rights fight of our time, and Michael’s
consistently been with us.” (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, known
for his right-leaning approach to education policy, also visited
Denver to help Bennet.)
Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, probably Denver’s best-known
African American leader said: “The question is, who is there now, what
kind of job is he doing, and can he hold the seat? Michael [Bennet] is
doing a great job and the answer is affirmative. He has the best
chance of holding the seat.”
Romanoff has no patience for Webb’s argument, which dogs him, along
with accusations that he’s draining scarce Democratic dollars in a
long-shot primary fight. Romanoff trails Bennet by double-digits among
likely Democratic primary voters.
“I respect the governor’s right to fill a vacancy,” says Romanoff.
“But governors don’t get to crown senators for life. That’s what’s
what elections are for.”
Progressive author David Sirota goes further, calling the
establishment Democrats’ near unified support of the appointed senator
“The strange and sad part of this is that the Democratic power
structure here is so top down, elite dominated, and deferential to the
national party,” he told me. “To unify around a person like Bennet,
who’s running against somebody who has been a part of their team,
shows a breathtaking deference to national power brokers. That’s
what’s sad. It’s a sad commentary on the Democratic Party here in
Colorado, its independence, its autonomy. It’s a rubber stamp. It’s
Sirota, who lives in Denver where he hosts a progressive talk-radio
show, doesn’t think Romanoff has a more progressive record than
Bennet, but he points out that they have some differences.
“If you look at their records, they’re very similar, in terms of
ideological tinge,” he says, adding that Bennet hasn’t been nearly as
destructive to the Democratic Party as Arkansas’ Sen. Blanch Lincoln,
who won a primary challenge over labor-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, so
there’s “far less incentive for pieces of the Democratic
establishment, like labor, to peel off and oppose Bennet.”
“The contested primary has made Bennet more progressive at least
rhetorically than he would have been,” Sirota says, adding that this
will help Bennet in the general election, if he wins the primary.
For example, after meekly endorsing the public option last year,
Bennet suddenly became an outspoken Senate proponent of the measure in
March, organizing fellow Senators to vote for it in the health care
bill. (Romanoff supports the public option and a single-payer system.)
Both candidates have come out against the Arizona immigration law,
which allows for racial profiling.
Bennet has major union endorsements, but has yet to join Romanoff,
who’s got the support of some smaller unions, in publicly backing the
Employee Free Choice Act, without the card check provision.
the campaign, Bennet took one notable sharp turn against the
progressive agenda when he voted against the Brown-Kaufman amendment,
which would have prohibited banks from becoming too big to fail. (In a
statement, Bennet said the Wall Street Reform bill makes Brown-Kaufman
“unneeded and counterproductive.”)
Romanoff, who said in an interview that he doesn’t attack Bennet but
then immediately did so, has been hitting Bennet repeatedly on
Brown-Kaufman and PAC-money issues, most recently Bennet’s donations
from big oil companines.
For former Colorado Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, Romanoff’s
decision not to take PAC money is “the difference between someone who
really wants to do something about the biggest problem facing American
democracy and someone [Bennet] who doesn’t.”
Romanoff took plenty of PAC money as a state legislator, but this fact
doesn’t bother Gordon who says, “The amount of money in the Colorado
General Assembly is orders of magnitude less than in Washington.”
“And whatever you say about the timing of Andrew’s forgoing PAC money,
he did it before Michael,” adds Gordon.
So putting Romanoff’s record aside, it’s fair to say that Romanoff has
now moved to the left of Bennet, but just how far to the left depends
on your priorities.
For his part, Bennet has said the policy differences between the two
candidates are “vanishingly thin.”
At the Colorado State Democratic convention in May, I caught up with
Bennet, who was thanking supporters in the hall before his speech to
delegates from across the state.
Bennet’s campaign had been putting off my request for an interview for
over a week, so I asked him if I could toss a couple questions at him
as he walked down the hall. He declined, and his campaign never made
him available to me (though his spokesperson was helpful).
I did get a word with Bennet’s wife, Susan Daggett, who chased behind
Bennet and tucked in his shirt.
“That’s not atypical,” she told me, referring to his loose shirt.
In his convention speech, about an hour later, Bennet talked about his
work as a school superintendent and briefly attacked positions by one
of his possible Republican opponents, Jane Norton, who’s called for
the elimination of the Department of Education and who’s slammed
Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.”
As a speaker, Bennet seems surprisingly shy, as if he’s stretching
himself a bit, which gives him a certain authenticity.
In his convention speech, Romanoff, a more polished and rousing
speaker, said that when his campaign “wins a race like this – without
a dime of corporate cash – our victory will send a shock wave to a
town that needs one.”
“And when we win, some other candidate, somewhere else in America –
maybe someone who hasn’t even thought of running for office yet – will
take the same approach,” he continued. “And when he or she wins,
another candidate will follow suit, and then another, and another. You
and I can chart the course not just of this campaign but of our
Romanoff’s decision not to take PAC money may make for an inspiring
sound bite, but conventional wisdom says there’s no way Romanoff can
win in the Democratic primary with the fundraising disparity he faces
— and even less of a chance of defeating the Republican in November.
At the end of March, Bennet had about seven times as much money as
Romanoff did: $3.5 million, versus Romanoff’s $500,000. (Political
analysts say Romanoff’s total wouldn’t be much higher even if he were
taking money from PACs, given establishment support behind Bennet.)
Given the war chest disparity, even if Romanoff — a tireless
campaigner — shows up everywhere there’s a crowd, Bennet is one place
Romanoff is not: on TV. He’s had ads on the tube off and on since
One recent Bennet ad features his three kids cleaning up their rooms
and saying: “He’s our dad, Michael Bennet, and he sure doesn’t like a
mess… My dad’s been in the Senate for one year. He says it’s the
biggest mess he’s ever seen.” Then Bennet closes the piece with, “Now
it’s time to clean up Washington.”
But Bennet’s ads didn’t win over party activists at the Colorado
Democratic convention. After the speeches were made, Romanoff
supporters dominated, giving him the party nomination with 60 percent
of the vote, reflecting the vote at the Colorado caucuses in March.
Under the Colorado Democrats’ rules, a candidate who gets 30 percent
of the vote at the convention — or collects a requisite number of
signatures of Democrats around the state — qualifies for the primary
Bennet did both, so he and Romanoff will square off again Aug. 10 in
the general primary election, open to all Democrats, not just the ones
who attend the caucuses and then the state convention.
Romanoff’s victory at the state Democratic convention may not mean
much. In 2004, the Democratic candidate who won at the convention went
on to lose in the primary by 46 points to Colorado Attorney General
Ken Salazar. Over the past 25 years, only a handful of candidates who
got the nomination at the state convention won in the primary.
So, for Romanoff to succeed in Colorado, he’s going to have to pull
off a victory that would look way different than this state, which
likes to elect center-right Democrats, is used to seeing. But his
grassroots campaign, funded without PAC donations, would certainly
give him the room, if he somehow made it to Washington, to be the
progressive politician he hasn’t always been.