Michael Bennet, the moderate, studious Democratic senator from Colorado known for his work on education and immigration reform, announced his candidacy for president Thursday.
He joins a field so packed with candidates that it now includes six of his colleagues in the Senate and his former boss, John Hickenlooper, a past governor of Colorado.
“I think this country faces two enormous challenges,” he said in an interview on “CBS This Morning.” “One is a lack of economic mobility and opportunity for most Americans and the other is the need to restore integrity to our government.”
Until recently, Bennet, a former school superintendent usually known for his professorial reserve, was not considered a presidential contender.
But in an uncharacteristically fiery speech on the Senate floor in January, during a government shutdown, he excoriated his Republican colleague Ted Cruz of Texas, shouting repeatedly as he accused him of shedding “crocodile tears” over unpaid government workers. He denounced President Donald Trump for shutting down the government over his desired border wall, which Bennet termed a promise the president could not keep and America did not want.
The speech was viewed millions of times online, widely aired on cable news and led to calls for Bennet, 54, to consider a presidential run.
“He revealed that he is capable of anger and passion,” said former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, a longtime friend of Bennet’s, who said the senator had come to him recently to discuss a possible campaign. “When it gets to be that blatant, the hypocrisy on the other side, you have no choice but to speak out.”
Bennet now faces the challenge of setting himself apart in the Democratic field and competing against better-known candidates, some of whom have been laying the groundwork for their campaigns for months or years.
Among them is Hickenlooper, who once hired Bennet as his chief of staff.
“They are friends,” said Hart. “They will be polite to each other. They’re not going to go on background and stick a knife in one another.”
Bennet was asked Thursday about the high number of Democrats running (he is the 21st to declare his candidacy). “This is the opportunity for us to show what we stand for, for us to have a competition of ideas,” he said. “I think it’s phenomenal that we’ve got as diverse an array of candidates as we have, in all respects, and that we’ve got the number that we have.”
Bennet became a senator in 2009 after he was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who needed to fill a seat left empty by Ken Salazar, who had just become interior secretary. Bennet narrowly won re-election in 2010, then cruised to victory in 2016. He has described his top issues as education, climate change, immigration, health care and national security.
In early April, Bennet announced that he had prostate cancer, but he said he would not let it deter his presidential aspirations.
“I am fortunate it was detected early,” he said at the time, “and as a result, my prognosis is good.” In mid-April, he had surgery that his staff called “completely successful.”
As a senator, Bennet is best known as a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group that crafted a sweeping immigration reform bill in 2013. The legislation, which would have provided more than $46-billion to bolster border security while also carving a path to citizenship, passed in the Senate but never made it to the House.
“If the president-elect really wants to fix our immigration system, he should study the work of the Gang of Eight,” Bennet wrote in an editorial in The Denver Post in 2017.
During his tenure, Bennet has developed a reputation as a studious senator with a habit of mulling decisions for weeks. He has bucked the more liberal base of his party on a number of big issues, including his support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. His frustration with the Trump administration, however, has brought him more in line with colleagues to his left.
His maternal grandparents were Jews who fled the Warsaw Ghetto, moving their family out of Poland to Mexico and eventually to New York. (Bennet’s parents raised him with Jewish and Christian traditions.)
His younger brother, James Bennet, is the editorial page editor of The New York Times. James Bennet recused himself Thursday “from any work generated by the opinion desk related to the 2020 presidential election,” The Times said in a statement.
After stints as an aide to the Ohio governor and as counsel at the Justice Department, Michael Bennet came to Colorado, where he took a job with the Anschutz Investment Co., restructuring corporate debt. He later joined the administration of Hickenlooper, then the mayor of Denver, and spent several years as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
He lives in Denver with his wife, Susan Daggett, a natural resources lawyer, and their three daughters.
In January, after his impassioned speech on the Senate floor, Bennet went on MSNBC, where he was asked if he was considering a run for president.
“I’m thinking about it,” he said, adding that he thought the nation was moving in a “terrible direction.”
“Donald Trump is much more a symptom of our problems than he is the creator of our problems,” the senator said. “He is an accelerant. He was sent here to blow this place up. That’s what people in my state who voted for him said. And guess what? They succeeded. But now we’ve got to pick up the pieces.”