Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Because it is long, it is posted in two parts. Part I is here.
NC: How did Michael transition from the business sector to public service?
SD: When he was working for Anschutz Investment Corp, Michael missed being in the public sector. His dad was a life-long government servant, always working for non-profits. (Interviewer’s addition: His mother was a teacher — she taught English as a second language.) The kids were little and I remember Michael coming home and ringing his hands and saying, “What’s next for my life? I want to make a difference. I want to do more with my life.”
So, he got involved with John Hickenlooper’s campaign. He was working for Phil Anschutz at the time, so volunteering on John Hickenlooper’s campaign was a way of participating in community life. He wanted to be involved in something bigger than just his job and he believed in Hickenlooper, was friends with him, and was able to help with the budget … figuring out the city budget.
NC: So he helped John Hickenlooper’s campaign as a volunteer?
SD: Yes. John’s campaign team would meet in our living room every weekend, essentially. Michael was involved with John and his campaign from the very beginning. Basically, you know he said, “Yeah, I’ll help.” They had gotten to know each other socially, so … it was Michael and John and Sarah Hughes and David Kenney and Steve Bahar – just a small group of people who sat around with John, the wacky brew pub guy no one knew, who only had five percent in the polls.
The way Michael helped was he looked at the city budget and brought up the fact the city was facing a financial crisis that no one was talking about. So, John did start talking about it – the need to deal with what looked like a pretty significant deficit the city would be facing, in a way that wouldn’t require lay-offs and would be smart, you know? So that was part of John’s platform, one of the things John ran on, and he won, obviously. When Michael went to work for him, that’s where he initially focused his energy on — renegotiating labor contracts and trying to get the city in good financial order so they wouldn’t have to lay people off.
NC: When did Michael first express an interest in having a political career of his own?
SD: Never, really. After the Governor approached us, maybe! (Laughter)
You know, it’s funny. I remember having some political conversations along the way. They were never conversations about, “Do I want a political career?”
Those years he spent in the Justice Department and in DC, and when we moved to Colorado, I remember him having conversations with his father, and with other people who worked for the Senate, or who had been involved in Washington D.C. stuff. I remember Michael deciding and talking about the fact you might actually get to do more at the local level, getting involved in local issues. He made a very deliberate decision that Washington D.C. was not the place, at that time, during the late years of the Clinton administration – it was in Newt Gingrich times, you know? It was not a place to get things done at that point in history. He thought D.C. was bureaucratic and frustrating.
He worked for Dick Celeste, the Governor of Ohio…
NC: When did he do that?
SD: After college … between college and law school. He had seen politics at the state level. He never thought he could plot a career path towards that. He never thought about it. When he took the DPS job, people told him, “If you ever want a political career, this is a career killer. You will never be able to have a political career if you take a job as a Superintendant of public schools in an urban school district, because everyone will hate you.” He basically said, “I don’t care. I want to do something right now that makes a difference, and this job can make a difference in people’s lives.
His orientation has always been, “I am going to take a risk, I’m going to do what makes sense now, and I’m not going to worry about what this means for my career.”
NC: In the meantime, that wasn’t his only focus. You had started a family.
SD: Yes, right.
NC: I think that’s something people tend to forget. If you have a family, you have to be multi-dimensional, balancing your personal aspirations with what’s good for your family, and what fits today.
SD: Right. I can tell you when I married Michael I could easily imagine him as an Administrator at some public agency. I could see him running an agency in the state government, or an agency in the federal government. I knew he could have a career in government or public service in some way. I’d never imagine that he… well, he used to turn to me and say, “Did you ever imagine you would be married to a western school bureaucrat?” (She laughs.) When he described it that way, I said “No”.
I never imagined in a million years him running for office. I’m sure if I thought about it I could have imagined it, but it was never part of our discussion, ever.
NC: Some of his critics have charged that he mapped out this plan his whole life, and he came to the west because it was easier to become a Senator here than in the east… that is was all a strategy.
SD: Susan shakes her head side to side and says, emphatically, “It couldn’t be further from the truth… It could not be further from the truth. If he wanted to map out a strategy, we would have moved to Connecticut, where he has a lot of family, and strong roots, and he could have set himself up to run for Chris Dodd’s seat. If he was planning a political career, that’s where we would have moved.”
NC: Sounds like an honest answer.
SD: (Still shaking her head, side to side.) No, (referring to the accusation) it’s not who he is at all.
NC: Not that there would be anything wrong with it, it’s just that’s what some people think.
SD: It’s very calculating and that’s not who he is… it’s not how he thinks about things. It’s not how we thought about things. I mean, we moved here because Colorado offered a great place for us to raise a family. It was a new place – we could create our own lives here, we could raise our kids in a healthy, balanced community, which I don’t think Washington is. And I wanted to do public-interest environmental law. I’d been doing public land — you can do that in Washington, actually — I could have worked with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), or there are a lot of national environmental groups that have great offices in D.C. and you can still do federal lands issue…
(Susan’s cell phone rings.)
NC: Do you need to get that? Are we running out of time?
SD: She checks it and says, “No. I have time. It’s the babysitter and I think I know what she wants. I’ll call her back soon.”
NC: I was concerned about your call – it’s the “mom thing”. (Laugh)
SD: The mom thing. (Smile.)
NC: I can totally relate. I have three kids too, except mine are older than yours.
SD: It is very much the same thing. (Laugh)
NC: Did you have to give up your own career track to be the wife of a Senator? Do you have any regrets about that, or were you intending to take some time off for your family? Does your husband’s schedule and this campaign mean you can’t do what you want to do personally?
SD: When our third child, Anne, was born, I quit working at Earth Justice at that point. It wasn’t because of Michael’s job, it was for me, three kids and litigation was too much for me. I felt completely maxed out being a lawyer and having two kids. With the third, I just felt like I wasn’t able to do any of it very well. So I quit, and I mostly stayed home for the first two years Anne was here. And then when she started preschool, I took on a consulting thing that was part-time, about twenty hours a week. I job-shared with another woman and we were working on public lands energy issues on a contract with Western Resource Advocates. I was able to work from home on a pretty flexible schedule but still do consulting with all my old clients on issues I had been working on for a long time.
So, that’s what I was doing when Michael was appointed. Part of my job in that consulting gig was to think strategically about how to move federal policy, both at the administrative level and Congressionally. It was clearly a conflict of interest, you know? So, I quit the contract as soon as Michael was appointed. I’ve never had any regrets about quitting it. Michael and I discussed that if we were going to do this, it is really a two-person job – because he’s doing two full-time jobs – he’s running for the Senate and he is working as a Senator, and not many people can do that. It’s too much for one person. So, obviously, I’ve done a lot on the campaign side.
NC: And you have to be both mother and father to the kids while your husband is in Washington.
SD: Yes, right. So, I couldn’t be doing that even if I wanted to, and for now, that’s completely fine.
NC: You’ll have no regrets?
SD: I will have no regrets. In a marriage, there is always “give and take”. Michael moved with me first to Montana so I could begin my career in public interest environmental law, and he moved with me to Colorado so I could continue it, and he supported me through a lot of years of me making relatively no money and working really long hours, and it’s my turn to support him now.
NC: Got it. Just as a side, I can’t believe how fast my kids have grown. I look at the pictures and think, “Where did the time go?” My own personal opinion is I don’t think people ever regret the time they spend with their kids. My kids can someday say, “You were a terrible Mom” but they can’t say, “You weren’t there.” (We both laugh.)
SD: Right, right! (Laugh) Well, I am the happiest, and I think I am the best mom, when I have something more to do than housekeeping to do with my time, so I really love being able to be home with the kids after school, you know, and when I am working on the campaign, I stop what I am doing and I take them to their activities, and picking them up for school, and being home for dinner when I can, all that stuff. I try to spend as much time with them as I can, but when the campaign is over, I’ll be thinking about what I am going to do next. If he is in office, I won’t be trying to influence federal policy, but there are other great things to do at the local level or whatever, that will get me back doing things that I like to do.
NC: When the campaign is over, are you going to take a little break first?
SD: Yaah! (We both laugh loudly.)
NC: For your sake, I hope you don’t rush into anything.
SD: I am going to give myself at least a few months. I want to sort out what I want to do, too.
NC: And the kids need a break.
SD: Yeah. We’re already talking about Thanksgiving at the beach – I don’t know where, but we are really going to need a vacation!
(Pause while looking through notes.)
NC: Ready for some harder questions?
NC: Is Michael Bennet a closet Republican?
SD: (Rolls her eyes) He’s not a Republican. He is pragmatic. He wants to solve problems for real people. He is a lifelong Democrat. He is genetically a Democrat (laughs). His father was a Democrat. His grandfather was a Democrat. There’s not anyone in his giant, extended family who is not a Democrat. It is part of who the Bennet family is. His values include providing opportunity to people who have none, and taking care of the next generation – caring for “the least among us” who, for whatever reason, are having a tough time. Those were Michael’s parent’s values, and those are Michael’s values.
He’s not a particularly dogmatic or partisan person. He doesn’t do things because… he’s not about taking a vote because it will score some kind of political points for the Democrats. He is about solving real problems for real people he cares about.
It’s true he worked for Phil Anschutz. When he first flew out here on his own dime to talk to Phil, one of the first things he said to him, was, “I think it is only fair to let you know the reason why we’re moving to Colorado is because my wife is going to work for an organization that sues people like you on environmental stuff. (Laughter.)
Obviously, Michael had just been working in the Clinton Justice Dept. There was no secret about Michael’s politics. He wore his politics on his sleeve the whole time he worked for Phil. Phil does not support Michael in this election. He likes Michael. He respects Michael, but his politics are different. Phil is supporting Jane Norton. Phil’s whole family is supporting Jane Norton. (Interviewer’s note: this interview occurred on July 18th, before Ken Buck won the Republican nomination.)
NC: He’s probably paying for all those Jane Norton signs I saw on the highway yesterday. (Laughter)
NC: Is Michael still friends with Phil?
SD: They respect each other in business. He respects Michael, and Michael respects him, as business men. We are not in the same social circle. We don’t hang around each other together, but we never did. Phil periodically writes Michael a note and says, “Drop in when you are in town.” Phil is a nice man. Politically, they obviously don’t have much common ground. You know? (More laughter)
NC: I get it, I really do. I have a lot of Republican relatives and they are very nice people. We don’t talk about politics though, because it would be dangerous ground. (Laughter from both)
SD: Right. Exactly the same in my family. (More laughter)
NC: I think the only table more passionate, if we are together for Thanksgiving or a holiday, would be the Shriver/ Schwarzenegger’s dinner table. (We both laugh)
NC: The Schwarzeneggers are probably more diplomatic than we are.
SD: We just don’t talk about that stuff, do we? (More laughter – when Susan laughs, she leans forward and puts her hand on her knee.)
NC: What is the greatest thing about your husband?
SD: (With no hesitation and no pause) The greatest thing is that he really can talk to anybody and he really listens to everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent or liberal or progressive. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy or poor – none of it matters to him. He wants to hear from everybody. I think he was successful in the business community and built relationships with people who were ideologically very different because he is able to have civil conversations with people about their differences. He’s very frank and up-front about what he believes and what he stands for. He doesn’t hide that ever, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to bash someone else for what they believe.
NC: I’ve attended a lot of public political events since your husband took office, particularly on health reform. I’ve seen what you’re talking about.
SD: A lot of his supporters have seen it. In hostile audiences, he is respectful. He is a born educator, and I think he really cares about making sure he understands what people believe and where they are coming from, but he also wants to be sure they have an opportunity to talk about the facts. He often says, “You are entitled to your own opinion. I will give you all the room in the world to have your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” There are facts that are true. We have to start with a common understanding of what the facts are about the problem we are trying to solve. We can have an honest disagreement about how you solve those problems.
I think the way he approaches things … he is strong in his convictions, but he is not partisan. He’s not interested in “gotcha” politics. I matters a whole lot less to him if someone is a Democrat or a Republican. When people say, “Are you are you really upset at the idea that we’re going to lose seats in the Congress, the Democrats?” he says, “Yeah that makes me sad. I certainly don’t want to lose seats and I don’t want to lose the Colorado seat that’s’ up, but what makes me even more sad is when Republicans punish their Senators for reaching across the aisle to try to work in a bi-partisan way.”
Senator Bennett from Utah, for example, is a deeply conservative person who has represented his constituents well according to their values, but can’t get on the ballot because he reached across the aisle to work with Democrats.
Another example – Charlie Crist, who is viewed as a moderate Republican in Florida, can’t run as a Republican because he was a moderate who worked across the aisle. The fact that we have become such a partisan country that people cannot work across the aisle, that people vote for their party instead of voting for what’s right for the constituents … I mean the Republicans are punishing politically their strongest advocates because they are work across the aisle from time to time on things that are good for the country.
NC: Because they’re good negotiators?
NC: That used to be valued.
SD: Yes. Right.
Another example is Bob Corker from Tennessee, a deeply conservative person, who stands up on the Senate floor and speaks his truth. Michael does not agree with him on most things, in fact, but the country needs Bob Corker in the Senate because he is willing to stand up, and speak up for working together with Democrats. When the Republicans were calling Wall Street Reform a bail-out, because it is politically expedient to do that, Bob Corker said, “You know, that’s not really true. It’s not a bail-out. This is a meaningful reform.”
Lindsey Graham is another example. He doesn’t agree with Michael on a whole host of things, but was willing to work with Democrats on climate change, and on immigration. This country needs people of both parties who are willing to work together.
NC: Sounds like he spends a lot of time trying to persuade Republicans to vote with the Democrats.
Next question. What do you want people to know about Michael that they don’t already know – that is not out there in the media now?
SD: I think the thing people most don’t get about Michael is how deeply he cares about the opportunities that we’re leaving for our kids and our grandkids in education, or about the debt we are leaving to our kids – and about health care — the institutional structures of our government. He cares about the things that make a democracy work, and right now they are not working. For him, it’s about making sure we have a strong middle class, an opportunity for people of every stripe, going forward. He wants to make sure we leave the country strong. These are legacy questions – he feels those convictions strongly.
I think people don’t understand the courage of his convictions he brings to them. He is pragmatic on how to approach them, given the politics of the moment and how we best move the ball forward, you know, but he never takes his eye off the goal.
NC: I understand.
SD: I was talking to someone the other day who has always been a little suspicious about Michael. You know, “Have we really seen the real deal, the real Michael Bennet, or is he showing us something or just pulling our leg?” This was someone who has seen his votes, but still doesn’t know if he is the real deal, if we can trust him.
NC: People ask all the time, “Is Michael Bennet for real?”
SD: The real Michael Bennet is someone who’s going to stand up for what’s right, and he ultimately cares a whole lot less about his career, and whether he wins or loses than if he is making the right decision in the moment. That is completely reflective of every job choice he’s made; it’s reflected in the fact we moved to Colorado instead of him staying in Connecticut; it’s reflected in the fact he took a job as the Chief of Staff with the mayor of Denver rather than doing other things.
It is certainly reflected in the fact he took the job at DPS – and the things he did at DPS were thankless, hard, unpopular, politically damaging to him personally. He made those tough choices every single time because they were the right things to do for the district, but more importantly, they were the right things to do for the kids he was serving. For him, the public schools are about educating kids. If we can’t do that, the rest of it is just bells and whistles, right?
SD: It’s not that he discounts the other stuff along the way, it’s that he focuses on what the real outcomes should be – and he keeps his eye on that ball. He will every time, make the decision that moves the ball forward. I do think he is, as a politician, so much more trustworthy in that regard.
NC: He’s sincere?
SD: Yes. He always says, “Look, I’ll get another job. It’s not about whether I get elected or not; it’s not about whether I cover my ass for this next period, it is about whether I’m supporting the agenda I believe in.
NC: At the end of the day, living with his votes is more important than the politics of the day?
SD: Exactly. I’ve known Michael for more than 16 years – he has really strong core beliefs, he has really strong core values. He comes from a long family history of public service (on the Bennet side). On the Klejman side, a history of persecution in Poland, and a strong belief in what this country has to offer; His grandparents and his mother discovered when they moved here in the 1950’s. That combination, of such a strong belief in the American dream, and such a strong ethic around the duty to make sure everybody has that – it comes together in Michael. It is who he is, it’s what he cares about.
NC: How much are you able to influence Michael about the topics or issues you care about? Clearly, race relations and the environment are really important to you, from what you said earlier. Where do you draw the line with that? Do you give him your opinions?
SD: You know… that is an interesting question. We both feel acutely there are inequalities in our society. I think we have a very similar understanding of that. You know, those were our early discussions in our relationship… there was never any debate about that… we are completely aligned. And his interest in economics is really about creating more opportunity for people.
That was one of things that really motivated Michael at DPS. My kids — our kids — have all the opportunity in the world because of their station in life. What motivated him was to make sure that the kids who weren’t born with the advantages had the same opportunity (as our kids) — that the schools recognized that fundamental inequality. The schools have an obligation to make sure that disadvantaged people in our society have a shot; we have got to make sure they have the same educational foundation. If that means we have to do things differently, we have to do things differently.
It’s not okay to blame students, or enough to say, “That student comes from a “broken family”. It’s not enough to just say “Their parents don’t make them do their homework at night”. We can’t place the blame on them. This is a huge challenge of running an urban school district. We have got to figure out a way to make it work for them, all of the students – not just the kids at Bromwell or Cory (or wherever)… or the ones who have the advantage of a Mom who stays home, and a home that’s full of books.
And the issue is very much the same for Michael about racial inequality – how do we make sure everyone enjoys the same opportunities? We have an obligation – all of us – to make sure that happens.
NC: (Taking notes.) I hope I get my notes all down okay. I can tell this is very important to you.
SD: If you don’t get it all, it’s okay. I am enjoying the conversation. I like talking about it.
So, to answer your original question, “Do I advise my husband?” No, on the issues of equality or race relations or poverty? No. I don’t need to. He already cares very deeply about those issues, as do I. On conservation stuff, where I have some expertise as an environmental public-interest attorney, yes, he asks me what I think.
The role I try to play is to let him know what I think, and what the conservation community would say on any given issue. I also try to make sure he is getting information from all sources – from all interests – hearing from people who are honest brokers of information, who are not just agenda-driven. There are some people who are scripted by what their institutional interests are, so that is what they are going to say. There are other people are more willing to talks about the strengths and weaknesses of their own positions, rather than just the strengths. Does that make sense?
SD: Take the oil and gas stuff, for example. I’ve tried to help him identify people in the environmental community who I think are really knowledgeable, who represent their positions really well, but who also are not just advancing their own agenda. I also tell him who in the oil and gas industry I feel I can trust – the ones who can honestly say something like, “Yeah, we’ve got some problems in this area; we need to do more. The regulatory structure we have is a problem in these ways, but I’m not saying no to everything”. You know — people who are willing to engage in the conversation in an honest way.
I learned early on actually, it is not good for our marriage for me to be a lobbyist. He already knows completely where I stand on stuff. What I can do is explain why.
NC: Have there been any votes where you’ve thrown up your hands and said…
SD: “What did you do that for?” (Laughs)
NC: “Or, ‘I’m not talking to you for two days?'” (Laughter on both sides.)
SD: Well, it’s funny, there was recently an oil and gas vote where my initial instinct was “Why did he do that?” I first got the information about the vote from an email I got from Andrew Romanoff. (She laughs.) I called a staff person in Michael’s office and asked, “What’s with this vote?” When he explained it to me, it was like, “Okay, I got it.”
NC: I think I remember this vote. Wasn’t this the one his office said was really about jobs?
SD: Not just about jobs, but it was that…
NC: …We have a lot of small independent oil and gas companies in Colorado?
SD: Right. Michael’s perspective is a broader one. We need to get off of coal, and we need to transition in the short term using natural gas. In Colorado, we had a decision in the state legislature this year to substitute natural gas for coal at some of our power plants. Natural gas is a very boom and bust industry – because there are not long-term contracts, some of the companies operate at relatively slim margins, at times. The staffer said the amendments were too broad, and they would affect small natural gas companies way more than the large companies, the big guys operating in the gulf. At the same time, Michael did support, and was an original co-sponsor of a bill to completely eliminate the liability caps for the big companies — for anybody.
NC: What are Michael Bennet’s weaknesses?
Michael’s challenge as a public figure is that he has a hard time showing how passionately he feels about the things he really cares about, but he really does care, very, very deeply. He intellectualizes — it comes from a deep place of really caring about people. When he talks about the 75,000 kids in the Denver public schools, he is concerned about too many of those kids are growing up in poverty – kids we have a duty to help. When he talks about our duty to provide opportunity for the next generation, for example, that’s what motivates everything he does.
NC: Is there anything else you would like to tell me?
SD: No, I think we covered all your questions, don’t you? I hope people will send Michael to Washington so he can keep doing what he’s doing.
NC: I think that’s all I have. Susan, thank you so much for meeting with me today.
SD: You’re welcome! Thank you for giving me an opportunity to tell you more about Michael.