Sen. Michael Bennet often talks about absconding the status quo. He preaches about it on the senate floor. He alludes to it when speaking of health care costs, Medicare incentives and “the theory of human capital when it comes to public education.” He talks about it over breakfast-for-lunch in a cafe near his Denver headquarters.
“We have to be willing to let go of the obstacles that we have in the system and build for the future,” Bennet said during a recent interview. “I think that’s true of health care, education, energy.”
Six months into his first term as senator—appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter after Ken Salazar joined the Obama cabinet as Secretary of the Interior—Bennet is settling into his new position. Just off of an endorsement from fellow senator Mark Udall and already bringing in big bucks for a 2010 election, Bennet calls the first few months “fascinating.”
“A number of decades of not making decisions has caught up with us, and it’s created an incredible fiscal crisis for the government and an economic crisis for the country. The consequences of this are very obvious to people in a way that hasn’t been seen in a while,” Bennet said. “Which means that there is an incredible sense of urgency in the work we are doing in Washington. As we are moving urgently, we also need to avoid creating a bunch of unintended consequences that we haven’t thought through. That’s a very compelling environment to work in.”
Compelling indeed—especially for a man who seems to find himself in hectic jobs that require forethought and a mind for outcomes. Prior to his surprise senate selection (which moved one Colorado political blog to ask, “What the hell?”), Bennet lead Denver Public Schools, served as chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and took a role in billionaire Philip Anschutz’s investment team. And while he has never won (or lost) an election, Bennet’s bygone careers have earned him heaps of relevant know-how.
“Washington is filled with people with good intentions, but it gets lost in translation,” he said. “I hope to be able to bring a perspective that is fairly unique in the senate, which is not exactly long on practical experience.”
Bennet does not come across as the average politician: he’s laidback (at least during the hour we spent with him), he picks his words precisely and thoughtfully, he’s measured and concerned, he takes deadpan jabs at his press secretary, and he tickles and teases his daughters. In many ways he comes across as a legislator for a new era—an era of reformation and renaissance in the wake of turmoil.
Or at least, a legislator who simply stops to think. When asked his thoughts on the public health insurance option, Bennet paused and said, “I want to start with outcomes.
“To me the outcomes are putting an end to double digit (health care cost) increases. …No. 2 is making sure we have a system that covers everyone. And No. 3 is making sure it’s fiscally responsible,” Bennet continued. “I think that’s all doable. I go to town hall meetings where someone will say, ‘It has to be a single-payer system.’ I’ll ask if there is someone who wants to take another view, and sometimes someone will say, ‘Yeah, I think you are all a bunch of Bolsheviks and I don’t want the federal government anywhere near health insurance.’ But when you have a conversation about what the outcomes should be, rather than what the programmatic design is, not surprisingly there is a lot of consensus about what is not working in current system and what’s going to work better in a new system.”
Read more of Sen. Bennet’s conversation with us below:
YS: Do you do your own Twittering?
Sen. Michael Bennet: “Intermittently.”
YS: What is the best advice you’ve received since you’ve been in office:
MB: “I’ve gotten a lot of advice. Actually, I sat at this exact table across from Gary Hart when he gave me some good advice. Hank Brown also gave me great advice. He said the best thing to do in Washington at the end of the day, when the work is done, is to go home, read a book and go to bed. I’ve been following that advice.”
YS: And what did Gary Hart say?
MB: “Gary’s advice was that you’ve gotta pay less attention to what people will think in the next election cycle and more about what you think is right for the people of Colorado. You know, (former Senator and current Secretary of the Interior) Ken Salazar gave me some very, very important advice as well. I’ve found that every time I get a little frayed around the edges, which happens from time to time, I remember what he said: ‘The joy is in the journey.’ And he is absolutely right. …If you are going to derive all your psychic satisfaction from arriving at your destination, you’re constantly going to be on edge because you are never really there. That was an exceptional piece of advice. So, there are two democrats and republican.”
If you could have dinner with three people living or dead, who would they be?
MB: Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, and grandma Phoebe.
With your experience in education, what do you foresee your role being in education reform and what does some of that reform look like to you?
MB: “It’s been a long time since people have realized that the accountability system that we have is as crude as it is and is creating as many perverse outcomes as it is. I’ve got a great relationship with Artie Duncan (Secretary of Education). The president and I’ve have talked about education (before he was in office)…and I’m having meetings with senators across the spectrum to share a perspective on where we need to focus our attention. Some of that has to do with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. But a lot of it has to do with the idea that it is long past time to update our theory of human capital when it comes to public education.
“We have to think differently about how to attract and retain people who want to be teachers and want to be principals and want to serve our kids—because our entire system of training and compensation of investment support springs from a labor market that discriminated against women and assumed that women only had two professional choices: one was being a teacher and one was being a nurse. And 40 years after that’s been true, I think it’s time we start to think about it like it’s a 21st century profession—instead of one designed deep in the middle of the century.
“…Although education is mostly a matter of local concern from how it is structured, there is a lot we can do from Washington to try to exhort people to try to think differently about their work and incentivize states and school districts to devise new ways of recruiting and retaining teachers, ways that pay attention to how women, thank goodness, have far more choices than they had when the system we have was designed… And we have to figure out how to design a system for a world where people change their careers eight or 10 times in a lifetime. What I’m trying to do is lend my voice to say that it is not all about No Child Left Behind; though, that needs to be dramatically changed. It’s about how to build a set of incentives that aren’t just pay, to recruit that new army of teachers that Barack Obama talked about and to retain the folks in the profession who would like to stay but find that they just can‘t because of the way we approach the work.”
YS: In early June, Bennet introduced a bill that works to lower hospital readmission rates and health care costs for Medicare patients. The Medicare Transition Act, inspired by a program in Mesa County, would provide patients with liaisons to transition from the hospital and into self-care.
MB: “Today, the Medicare incentive structure is what drives everything that we do in health care. And it pays people by the test. If (a doctor) administers the test (they) get paid. We need a system that is focused on keeping people well. It’s following patients in their care in a meaningful way. Mesa County has a 3 percent readmission rate. They are devising a very inexpensive way of following patients from the hospital into other places of care. They are doing things like making sure people understand their prescriptions. And the bill is basically ripped off from their great idea. It is something that the finance committee is looking at as a part of their health care program.”