May 2, 2019 / 12:28 PM / 22 days ago

Democratic Senator Bennet of Colorado joins crowded 2020 field

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose political career has centered on improving the American education system, on Thursday became the latest Democrat to join the sprawling field of candidates seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

FILE PHOTO: Likely Democratic U.S. presidential candidate U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) speaks at the North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU) 2019 legislative conference in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

Bennet, 54, is serving his second full six-year term in the Senate. He previously ran Denver’s public schools.

“If we continue to go down the path we’re going - and this isn’t just about President Trump, it’s about the politics that existed before he got there ... we’re going to be the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity, not more, to the next generation, and I just need to do everything I can do to make sure that we don’t do that,” Bennet said in an interview with “CBS This Morning.”

He joins a field of more than a dozen candidates, with others such as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Montana Governor Steve Bullock still deciding whether to run.

Bennet is the second Coloradan to enter the 2020 race after John Hickenlooper, a former governor, announced his candidacy on March 4.

Hickenlooper’s presence complicates Bennet’s bid. Both are white male moderates running in a party where much of the energy lies with the diverse, activist left.

Bennet is not well known nationally. However, his stint in 2014 as chairman of the Democratic Party’s Senate campaign arm linked him with a network of political operatives and donors across the country.

The normally congenial Bennet also drew notice during the partial U.S. government shutdown in January, when he blasted Republican Ted Cruz on the Senate floor for leading a similar shutdown in 2013 that stopped the flow of emergency funds to Colorado.

Democratic nominating contests begin in February 2020 in the traditional starting point of Iowa. The candidate who amasses the majority of the delegates will be nominated at the party’s convention in the summer and will likely face President Donald Trump, a Republican, in the general election in November.

Since losing the White House in 2016, Democrats have grappled with how to best take on Trump in 2020. Some in the party believe an establishment figure who can appeal to centrist voters is the way to victory. Others argue a fresh face - and particularly a diverse one - is needed to energize the party’s increasingly left-leaning base.

As a presidential candidate, Bennet may have to fight the perception that he is a product of the party’s establishment at a time when progressives and political newcomers are favored by the base.

He grew up in Washington the son of a former State Department official, and his grandfather advised President Franklin Roosevelt. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale Law School, he served in the Clinton Justice Department before moving West.

When Hickenlooper served as mayor of Denver, Bennet worked as his chief of staff and then took over the city’s schools, gaining national recognition for his reform efforts.

In 2009, after Democratic then-President Barack Obama named U.S. Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado as his interior secretary, Hickenlooper and Bennet vied to be appointed to replace him. Bennet, surprisingly, got the nod. He narrowly won his first full term a year later.

Bennet’s popularity has grown in Colorado as the state has become more liberal. In 2016, he was re-elected to the Senate by more than 5 percentage points, polling particularly well with Hispanic voters.

Bennet told CBS he was focused on economic mobility and integrity in government.

In a campaign video, Bennet also highlighted goals that included improving the healthcare system and investing in education and job training.

“The Democratic party doesn’t stand for very much at the national level with respect to what the American people think,” Bennet said. “A process like this is long overdue in the Democratic party.”

He also acknowledged his bout of prostate cancer, saying it was very “clarifying” in solidifying his plans for the future and that he now had a clean bill of health. The diagnosis also made him more sensitive to the need for Americans to have health insurance, he said.

Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall

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