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Saturday, April 20 Dan Haar

Dan Haar: A CT son from Colorado eyes White House

The public portion of the 2020 presidential election cycle in Connecticut started Sunday in a low-key way as U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, stood in an obscure recital hall, deep in the Yale campus.

Bennet, just in from a morning appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, hasn’t declared he’s running. He danced around the issue, as he did on NBC. But he looks and sounds like a presidential candidate.

He later told me he’s talking with his family about a run.

To say the least, Bennet — a former private business executive and big-city school superintendent from a Mountain West state with an elite East Coast pedigree and strong Connecticut ties — is hard to place in a box.

He’s been called a pragmatic progressive. I call him a moderate idealist.

On issue after issue, Bennet spoke in lofty tones about how average Americans are losing ground, not being heard, facing a future muddied by economic inequality and greenhouse gases. Ah, the liberal discourse we know and love here in the bluest state, where Bennet went to college and law school.

But wait. When it comes to solutions, Bennet, 54, sounds more like the former member of the “gang of eight” senators that he was — four GOP and four Democrats who proposed a compromise on immigration reform in 2013. That was right before the issue exploded in the torrent of right-wing fanaticism that gave us President Donald Trump.

“There’s enough polarization. We have too much polarization. We shouldn’t give up on our ideals, but at some point we have to get the work done,” Bennet told students, many from the Yale University chapter of Every Vote Counts, the election reform group that invited him.

He was talking in that moment about “ranked choice,” in which voters rank candidates in their order of preference rather than picking one — a change that would bring us more moderate candidates.

But he might as well have been talking about any issue because that’s Bennet’s way of being: High ideals, mostly left-leaning, offset by a calm voice and a never-ending faith in bipartisan negotiations.

“As you can tell, I’m not a good bumper sticker candidate,” he said toward the end of an 80-minute town meeting, during which he struck some animated physical poses, alone on the stage with no microphone.

Bennet’s Jan. 24 rant against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, about the partial government shutdown, went viral and boosted talk of his presidential possibilities.

That’s ironic, as his typically even-keeled style, with few sound bites, stands in contrast to Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and the It-Woman of U.S. politics — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York. AOC’s Green New Deal has divided the Democratic Party since she and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., rolled it out on Thursday.

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For my money, the take-no-prisoners, AOC-Warren-Sanders wing of the party is a gift to the Republicans and will doom the very liberal ideals it hopes to advance.

I asked Bennet about that Green Manifesto, which advances lofty energy and environmental goals but no practical way to get there. Bennet, not a co-sponsor, said he hadn’t had a chance to study the document.

But he said, in his sharpest tone of the afternoon, “every single thing that Barack Obama put in place in respect to climate is gone.” Methane rules, fuel efficiency standards and more, all undone by climate change deniers led by Trump.

“What we have to decide is not just what we’re going to propose on climate, but what will be a durable solution,” Bennet said, again with the pragmatic bent.

Connecticut’s two U.S. senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats, are among the Green New Deal co-sponsors. “I think it’s absolutely realistic and I frankly think we need to set our sights high,” Murphy said on CNN with Jake Tapper Sunday.

The Center for Responsive Politics, documenting contributions from environmental groups to the Green New deal co-sponsors, pointed out that Bennet isn’t among the backers even though he’s one of the biggest recipients of environmental cash. Hard to peg, again.

At Sunday’s talk, I didn’t see any Connecticut elected pols among the few dozen folks there. Students introduced Bennet.

Bennet spoke on the day before teachers in the Denver schools — which he ran from 2005 to 2009 — were set to walk out over pay and benefits, the latest teacher strike in a flurry over the last year.

“We need to pay them a lot more, and we need to do it differently,” he said, alluding to seniority, regionalism and the anti-tax, anti-government movement he abhors. “We need to have a revolution in technology in the way we run education in this country. I’m completely unqualified to say what that will look like. ... But we don’t need to teach like we’re living in the 16th century any more, or learn that way.”

This is a bit of the aw, shucks school of politics that we see in Gov. Ned Lamont, only Bennet is a two-term senator on the national stage. He was raised in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown in 1987, then Yale Law School.

His maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. His brother, James, is the editorial page editor of the New York Times.

His father, Douglas, whom I knew as an active Wesleyan alum myself — was reared in Lyme and also graduated from Wesleyan; worked for Chester Bowles, the former Connecticut governor, congressman and U.S. Ambassador to India (where Michael Bennet was born); eventually headed National Public Radio and later was president of Wesleyan. He died last June at his home in Essex.

The senator, wearing a dress shirt under a Patagonia zip-up on Sunday, combines that old-line East Coast liberalism with an ethic of the Great West. Speaking at the exact moment when another non-coastal Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was declaring her candidacy for president in Minneapolis, Bennet talked about visiting cattle ranchers in counties he could never hope to win.

He repeated the word “pluralism” often.

“We have no idea what we want yet as a party and we’re going to figure it out during this campaign,” Bennet said. “What I hope is that whoever decides to run ... levels with the American people.”

And thus Connecticut entered the electoral fray of 2020.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com

Dan Haar|Columnist and Associate Editor

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