Michael Bennet on high-profile committee appointment

"Before I came to Washington, I used to wonder a lot, as a lot of people who are in public education do, as to why the federal government seemed so mean," says Senator Michael Bennet, who's been chosen to sit on the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, filling the seat opened up by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy. "Now that I'm back here, though, my sense is not that folks aren't mean, but that they have very little understanding of what goes on in classrooms across the country day after day."

Bennet, who previously served as superintendent of Denver Public Schools, will get a chance to share some of that knowledge in his new gig -- and he sees his colleagues' interest in his perspective as the real motivator behind a move that's been widely interpreted as more evidence that the White House wants to boost his efforts to win election to an office he earned courtesy of Bill Ritter's largesse.

"I had asked to be on the committee when I was first appointed, but there just wasn't the opportunity or room," he points out. "And then a vacancy was created when Ted Kennedy passed away, and we had conversations with the Majority Leader's office. In the end, I think he was persuaded that having somebody who had practical, day-to-day experience with education would be a contribution to the committee. To be able to bring what I learned from folks at DPS and spending time with students and their families is terrific."

Just as positive is the opportunity to sit on the very committee to which he'll eventually submit new education-reform legislation currently in the draft stage. "We haven't introduced it yet, because we're working with various groups on it," he says. "But the focus is on human capital, which is just a fancy way of saying, 'How do we attract people into the teaching profession, and how do we keep them there longer?' We've been operating on teacher-recruitment theories that date back to a time of major job discrimination against women, when nearly the only professions open to them were nurse or teacher. But that time has long since passed, and we need to think much more broadly and creatively about how to attract and retain the very best people."

Don't expect Bennet to formally introduce the bill anytime soon, however. He doubts that the measure will be ready for public perusal until mid-2010, in part because the Health committee is currently embroiled in the seemingly endless healthcare-reform battle. Yesterday, the Senate finance committee rejected amendments that would have put a public option in place, but Bennet isn't ready to declare the concept DOA.

"I think it's too early to say that," he maintains. "I think that as people in the Senate and the House come to understand the incredibly significant issue around affordability, they may give the public option a second look. Because if you're going to require people to have insurance but you don't make it affordable, that can't pass for obvious reasons, and it shouldn't. It's untenable."

Of course, rendering the entire debate untenable seems to be the strategy of Republicans determined to kill any and all reform measures. Still, Bennet says "hope springs eternal," albeit without an especially hopeful tone, when he's asked if he really thinks opponents can be convinced to consider compromising. "It may sound trite to say, but staying with the status quo is making a choice. We've had ten years of double-digit cost increases for families, and if we can do something about that, we should.

"One of the great ironies of this whole debate," he goes on, "is that now, as we sit here, fewer and fewer people are covered by their employers, because fewer and fewer small businesses can afford to provide insurance for their employees. And the reason that's ironic is that those people are ending up either on already public plans like Medicaid or Meidcare, or they're being treated at places like Denver Health with uncompensated care. So I'm hoping we can have a more constructive conversation about how to meaningfully move forward."

Bennet acknowledges that the back-and-forths to date haven't fit this definition, and he implies that the blame can be laid mainly on people with Rs after their titles. "There have been significant ideas Republicans have advanced, and some of those have been accepted," he allows. "But overall, we still have not found a way to move past the partisan environment. We just have to keep trying."

And now, he'll be able to watch that process from an extremely coveted position.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts