It’s odd, funny even, that a candidate who was not long ago elected to four terms in the state legislature, a man who became the first Colorado Democrat speaker of the house since 1975, a politician who spoiled Colorado’s red-blue fisticuffs, championed referendum C and helped spur the largest investment in school construction in state history is now considered the underdog.
But that’s the way it’s looking for Andrew Romanoff: the dark horse, the outsider, the long shot.
That’s if you listen to or read political analysts, political blogs and politicos in general. The former Colorado speaker of the house and attorney—a legislator known for his dry sense of humor and his ability to break down partisan walls—announced in mid-January that he was, yes, still officially challenging Sen. Michael Bennet. Media was all atwitter (yes, even on Twitter) about Romanoff’s newly focused theme, a message of grassroots-growing, bootstraps-pulling, special interest-bushwhacking. Until then, Romanoff’s campaign had been called lackluster and odd. But this? This was fresh and feisty.
“We’ve seen what happens when senators cut special deals for Nebraska or Louisiana or Florida,” he told a crowd gathered outside his office. “What we haven’t seen—and what we desperately need—is at least one member of the U.S. Senate who will stand up for the United States of America. One senator who will say no to back room deals. One senator who will take on Washington’s political class by turning down the corporate cash that corrupts it.”
Romanoff announced that his campaign will be funded almost fully by Coloradans, and he reiterated that he would not accept funds from special interests or corporations. He says he will be a senator for the people—not for the PACs.
About a week after his press conference, Romanoff spoke with me, expounding on his campaign and platform. He did not necessarily put a honing target on Bennet’s back, but he spoke about systematic flaws in the modern political machine. His is a message of populism—at a time when populist rage has become chic.
“There is something in the water supply in the Capitol that makes politicians forget who they work for,” Romanoff says. “I don’t want to have to pick between what is good for my constituents and what it is profitable to my contributors.
“There is a reason all those special interests pour money into campaigns for Congress. Voters have a right to know what those companies get in return for their money,” he continues. “What those groups expect in return is the ear of the senator. You dance with them. You end up spending too much time appeasing your contributors and not enough time serving your constituents.”
Romanoff does not consider himself a small fish in the big, back room-dealing pond of Washington DC—despite early polling and fund-raising numbers that show him behind both the Democratic incumbent and Republican frontrunner Jane Norton. Though a recent Rasmussen poll has former lieutenant governor Norton taking a 7-point lead over Romanoff and a 14-point lead over Bennet.
Romanoff says he is no underdog. He is “for the underdogs.” Still, the well-regarded Colorado Democrat speaks as though he is a bit of a lone wolf.
“I worked hard to build the Democratic Party in Colorado over the last 15 years,” Romanoff says. “I’m proud of creating the majority. But it’s clear that the national Democratic Party is against me. They’ve circled the wagons for the incumbents, but the good thing is that they don’t live in Colorado. I think most voters have not made a decision yet. And I’m gonna work awfully hard over the next 10 months to earn their support.
“I’ve said it before, I’m not entitled to serve in the Senate. This is a job you have to earn, and that is what I am going to do.”
Romanoff is positioning himself as a reformer. But truth be told, last year when I sat down with Bennet, he spoke of himself as a reformer and a political outsider too—a tenderfoot politician who had never actually run in an election. Last year, when then Sen. Ken Salazar was appointed as Interior Secretary by the Obama administration, Gov. Bill Ritter selected Bennet—who had worked in business, as John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff and as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools—to be Colorado’s junior senator. More than one Colorado Dem had expected Romanoff to get the job, so the move came as a surprise to many.
Still, Romanoff says that even now he is the right politician for the post. He quotes FDR: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” It’s one of the reasons he became a Democrat and the reason he became a politician.
“I think our obligation as a nation and as humans is to help provide an opportunity for each person to succeed,” he says. “We can’t guarantee the outcome, but we can guarantee that everyone has an education and a safe place to live or the chance to see a doctor.”
For Romanoff, that means breaking down the highly noxious climate that has seized Pennsylvania Avenue. As much as others talk about bipartisanship, Romanoff does have a solid record of finding solutions and making progress despite partisan roadblocks. He’s a political wonk without being an ideologue.
“I know how to build coalitions. I know how to find common ground. And I know where to draw the line,” he says. “Right now, the majority does not know it’s in charge and the minority has no interest in governing any more.
“I think it is a lot tougher in DC right now. The ranks of moderate Republican have been thinned. There are not a lot of moderates. That makes bipartisanship tougher,” Romanoff continues. “But bipartisanship should be a means, not an end. You don’t sacrifice your principals just so you can reach across the aisle.”