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Romanoff, Clinton-Style Democrat, Moves to Left in Colorado Primary Race

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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. Michael Bennet.

"On health care, energy, the environment, financial reform -- my positions are not just more progressive," Romanoff says. "They're more aggressive."

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 transformation.

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 many.

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 "pathetic."

"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 really bizarre."

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.

During 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 country."

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 March.

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 ballot.

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.