01/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Potential Huge Differences Between Colorado Senate Candidates Have National Implications

The lobbying among Democratic politicos here in Colorado for Ken Salazar's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat is fast and furious. The Denver Post's front-page story today goes through some of the candidates. Strangely, there's only passing mention of what could be the most important differences between them all - their stances on the huge national issues that will be toughest to get through the Senate: namely, health care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Among the top contenders the Post identifies, one - former two-time Senate candidate Tom Strickland - is the vice president of one of the largest health insurance companies in America, UnitedHealth. Yes, you read that right. Apparently, not only can you be a the Treasury Secretary who helped deregulate the economy and still get a top White House job these days, as Larry Summers did. But you can also be a top executive in one of the most reviled industries in America - an industry at the center of one of the worst crises of our time - and yet you can still be a top contender for a Democratic U.S. Senate appointment. Obviously, Strickland's line of work strongly suggests he's probably not going to be a guy all that interested in serious health care reform.

Another top contender - Denver mayor John Hickenlooper - has a bit of a rocky relationship with organized labor, leading many to believe he'd be a no vote on the Employee Free Choice Act. To my knowledge, Hickenlooper hasn't taken a public position on the issue (and I'll be happy to correct this post if he has) - but I don't think it's a stretch to be concerned that he'd be a no vote.

The other top contender is Ed Perlmutter, who I'm a fan of. We don't agree on everything, of course, but he is a fairly progressive lawmaker on most issues - and he voted for EFCA. And unlike the other top candidates, he's also a proven vote-getter in a very competitive district - a bonus for what will likely be a tough statewide re-election battle in 2010.

Interestingly - or, actually, not interestingly because it's so predictable - the media is already subtly attempting to portray Perlmutter's moderately progressive voting record as some sort of albatross around his potential appointment. Notice this passage in today's Denver Post:

And despite strong ties to unions and a relatively liberal voting record, Perlmutter has won twice in what is among the state's most competitive congressional districts, suggesting to many in his party that he could win in a statewide race with a similar voter makeup. (emphasis added)

The key word in the passage is "despite." The Post could have easily - and accurately - substituted the phrase "because of" for "despite," considering organized labor's decisive grassroots role in winning elections and considering the polls showing the mainstream public's own progressive positions on issues. But instead, the Post is saying even though Perlmutter has ties to unions and a moderately progressive voting record, he's been able to win office - as if having ties to working people and being in sync with the public should be some sort of hindrance to winning competitive races in a state that just elected a senator, Mark Udall, who has a similar voting record.

Of course, Gov. Bill Ritter (D) may appoint someone other than one of these three - perhaps former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald or current U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D), among others. Any of those three are more in the progressive Perlmutter mold on the two biggest issues, rather than the Strickland/Hickenlooper mold. But then again, it's hard to know what Ritter is thinking considering his own record on these issues. Indeed, Ritter has a mixed record on both labor law issues (at the request of corporate interests, he vetoed a key labor reform, but he later extended minimal union rights to public employees) and health care reform (he pledged to enact some modicum of universal health care in Colorado by 2010, then later backed off the promise).

Bottom line: Here's hoping all of the stakeholders in this appointment - the Democratic Party base, grassroots groups, enviros, organized labor, etc. - all make their opinions heard, and vet the candidates thoroughly. And here's further hoping that Gov. Ritter doesn't use this appointment as some giveaway to corporate forces that have a decided interest in preserving the status quo on issues like labor law and health care reform.

Note: I'm going to be guest-hosting the big progressive drive-time radio show in Colorado starting Friday for a week. Tune in locally at AM760 on your dial between 6am-10am MST, or online at We'll be talking all about this potential appointment, and have some live interviews with some of the contenders (they are all being invited to come on the show).