Bennet Offered to Stand Down from Senate Appointment for Hickenlooper

Senator was recently asked if running against Hickenlooper was a betrayal

Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper
Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper / Getty Images

Michael Bennet offered to remove himself from consideration in 2009 to allow then-Mayor John Hickenlooper to be appointed to the U.S. Senate, according to audio from an interview Hickenlooper gave years ago.

The revelation adds a new wrinkle to the dynamics between the men now that both Colorado Democrats are officially in the running for the party's nomination for president. Bennet is currently in his second full term as senator, while Hickenlooper was term-limited out of the governor's chair this January.

Emailed requests for comment to both the Bennet and Hickenlooper campaigns were not returned.

President-elect Obama tapped Colorado Senator Ken Salazar in 2009 to serve as his secretary of the interior, creating a vacancy. Gov. Bill Ritter (D.) surprised observers by passing over long-serving politicos in the state, including Hickenlooper, to appoint Bennet.

The anecdote was told to an unknown reporter sometime before 2014, as that is the year this reporter obtained the audio, recorded by then-Governor Hickenlooper's office, through an open records request.

Hickenlooper tapped Bennet to be his first chief of staff after being elected mayor of Denver in 2005, and later promoted Bennet to superintendent of Denver Public Schools even though he lacked a background in education at a time when few politicians in the city or state knew his name.

"I know that when his [Bennet's] name came up to be a senatorial appointee, you know, and there was people talking—it's a whole long story I won't bore you with—you know, he came over to my house (inaudible), and basically said you know if you really are, and people were saying well I should be, you know I was already the mayor I should be the Senate appointee, if you're really interested in that, I'll make sure I pull my name out of it and I'll do everything I can to help you become the next senator."

"I said, ‘No, I don't want it, no,'" Hickenlooper concluded.

While it is not clear what Hickenlooper was referring to at the end of the remarks, press reports from the time clearly show he wanted the job.

"The opportunity to represent metro Denver and all of Colorado in the U.S. Senate carried strong appeal for someone like me who relishes the challenges of public service, wants to increase public confidence in government and strives to make government a more effective, accountable and fiscally agent of positive change," Hickenlooper said in an email to city employees, according to the Denver Post.

Dick Wadhams, who was chairman of the state Republican party in 2009 when Bennet was appointed senator, vividly recalls the sentiment in Colorado at the time.

"What I remember from January of 2009 is that Hickenlooper definitely wanted the appointment and word was that he was very disappointed and perplexed when Ritter appointed Bennet," Wadhams told the Washington Free Beacon. "I went to the news conference at the state capitol that morning and remember that Hickenlooper did not look overjoyed at being passed over, his demeanor was not terribly pleasant that day."

A Denver Post report that said Bennet would win the appointment from then-Governor Ritter also said "[a]fter an array of candidates put their names forward for selection, the choice appeared to come down to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper or Bennet, Hickenlooper's former chief of staff."

Just prior to Hickenlooper's anecdote about Bennet's willingness to stand down, Hickenlooper had said loyalty was one of Bennet's standout attributes.

It is also an attribute that has resurfaced now that Bennet is officially in the presidential race.

"Do you feel as if you [Bennet] betrayed your friend at all by announcing you're going to run against him?" asked local political reporter Joe St. George.

"Not at all, not at all," Bennet said. "Look, this is a huge field of Democrats. I was the 21st Democrat. John and I are both going to have to contend with a lot of different challenges other than the two of us running. I wish him all the best, he's been a great governor and a great mayor."

"I worked for him when he was mayor. A lot of people say, ‘Well, he must have been a really terrible boss for you to run against him.' That's the opposite. He was a great boss, we had a great collaboration, but I think we both think we've got something to say in this race. I think we both think we have a chance to win the nomination, so it's not unheard of to have two people from the same state running."

Longtime Denver-area columnist Mike Littwin wrote about some of the possible tension between the two for the left-leaning online news outlet Colorado Independent.

"I don't know how well Hickenlooper took the news that Bennet would join the race, but don't expect either to have anything but praise for the other," Littwin wrote, noting that another area of possible friction could be how the two struggle to compete for the same fundraising pool in the mountain west.

In March, Hickenlooper closed the door on a 2020 Senate run against Republican incumbent Cory Gardner, and appeared to knock Bennet's political style at the same time.

"Michael Bennet is one of my favorite people in the world and I think he is a great senator, much better than I ever would be. And if he wants to get into the presidential race, you know, I'm all for it," Hickenlooper began.

"Not unlike the other senators, I have a very different history than Michael does," he continued. "And you know, he has, he is really brilliant at thinking through complex issues, but I don't think he probably has the same level of experience that I do in terms of bringing teams together and actually, you know, getting stuff done. Really moving things forward."

Multiple media reports indicate Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) has spoken with Hickenlooper about a Senate run.