If you don’t know Michael Bennet — and polls show you probably don’t — his continued presence in a presidential race where he’s lucky if he’s charting at 1% can be puzzling.
But the Colorado senator’s rationale for running dates back to the 1980s and his days as a personal assistant to an Ohio governor who had White House aspirations of his own.
Dick Celeste taught Bennet the art of the living room conversation and the town hall forum, back when that kind of political communication wasn’t drowned out by talking heads or overshadowed by tweetstorms. Bennet believes at least some of the answers to defeating Donald Trump can be found in the old-fashioned style and in the Midwest sensibilities he learned from Celeste.
“One of the reasons I ran for president and I’ve stayed in the race is that I do think there’s a real base of the Democratic Party, and these are flesh-and-blood human beings who are trying to carve out a better future for their kids and who are largely being ignored by the antics on social media,” Bennet, 54, said in a telephone interview with BuzzFeed News.
Celeste — the last Democrat to serve two terms as Ohio’s governor and one of only two Democrats to hold that job in the last 37 years — keeps an influential place in Bennet’s orbit. He offers advice from Colorado, where he coincidentally moved in the aughts to serve as president of Colorado College, and has helped Bennet raise money in Ohio, which many still see as a swing state. And his son, Christopher, is one of Bennet’s strategists.
“I’m obviously biased to some degree,” Celeste, 81, told BuzzFeed News. “But I think Michael brings such a remarkable range of experience, an intellectual curiosity.”
So far, there’s little evidence that Bennet and his mentor are reading the moment right. Bennet failed to qualify for next week’s debate in Houston but has no plans to end his long-shot campaign.
Celeste, he said, has been encouraging.
“It’s consistent,” Bennet said of Celeste’s counsel. “It’s always to keep working. It’s put your head down and put one foot in front of the other — and you can make your own luck.”
Bennet believes his experience working for Celeste in an industrial Midwest state — Ohio backed Trump in 2016, and Democratic strategists are openly debating whether it’s still an electoral battleground — will help him relate to Trump voters.
“Dick’s conviction [was] that Washington, DC, had a bicoastal bias … that Washington wasn’t focused on the needs of the industrial heartland,” Bennet said. “Today, politics is dominated by entities that belong to the coasts: cable, social media. A lot of that stuff is not resonant with people that are living in Ohio or Colorado. There aren’t tons and tons and tons of people who spend their time engaging with their politicians on Twitter or these places.”
Celeste and Bennet go back even further than Ohio. The former governor worked with Bennet’s father for Chester Bowles, then the US ambassador to India, in the 1960s. After Bennet was born in New Delhi in 1964, “I taught them how to change his diapers,” Celeste recalled.
“I imagine it’s the only time I can claim to have changed the diapers of a future US senator.”
Years later, in the middle of Celeste’s second term in Ohio, Bennet was looking for something to do after graduating from Wesleyan University and bumped into the old family friend at a dinner party. Celeste mentioned that he was looking for an assistant in the governor’s office — someone who could do for him what Celeste had done for Bowles in India.
The Bennet family had long been interested in politics. (His father, Douglas, had run unsuccessfully for a Connecticut congressional seat in the 1970s. His brother, James, is the editorial page editor at the New York Times.) Bennet jumped at the job, which placed him just outside Celeste’s office from 1988 until 1990, when he left for law school at Yale.
“I asked him to be a jack-of-all-trades,” Celeste said. “He traveled with me, took notes, made sure we followed up on commitments I had made. When I had come-to-Jesus meetings with county Democratic chairmen around the state, I made sure he was in the room.”
Bennet also helped Celeste craft speeches. He’d scrawl notes with his initials — MFB — on drafts.
“He was clearly bright, very articulate,” said Celeste, who observed that Bennet’s childhood struggle with dyslexia made him “more tenacious” in his reading and writing efforts.
The post with Celeste was one of several Bennet seemed to glide into with little training, thanks to his familial connections or college alumni networks, only to demonstrate aptitude. With no experience in finance, he became wealthy as a private equity dealmaker. With no experience in municipal government, he joined the Denver mayoral administration of John Hickenlooper, until recently one of Bennet’s rivals in the Democratic field, as a top aide. And with no experience in education management, he became superintendent of the Denver Public Schools.
Celeste told him not to take the superintendent job, fearing it would damage his political future. Instead, Bennet applied some of the lessons he had learned in Ohio, where he would accompany Celeste into people’s homes and to “Capital for a Day” forums across the state. As he implemented an unpopular plan to close an underachieving high school in a black neighborhood, Bennet went door to door to talk the students and their families through their options and persuade displaced kids not to drop out.
A few years later, Bennet was the surprise pick to fill a Senate vacancy. He held on to the seat in a close 2010 race and won reelection by a more comfortable margin in 2016. Now he’s holding on in a presidential race where his moderate politics aren’t breaking through in a field led by the similarly center-left Joe Biden and the further-left Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“I think my best argument is that I’ve won two tough national elections in a swing state in the middle of the country that we have to win if we’re going to win the presidency,” Bennet told reporters last month before a Democratic debate in Detroit. “It hasn’t been easy to do that.”
It’s an electability argument not unlike Biden’s, though Bennet has criticized the former vice president at times, including at a June debate where he accused Biden of cutting a bad tax deal with Republicans in 2012. And though Bennet, again not unlike Biden, longs for days past, he has been sharply skeptical of Biden’s pitch to turn back the clock.
“Part of the vice president’s argument has been that the problem we’re facing is Donald Trump, and if we just got rid of Donald Trump, everything will kind of go back to normal, to the time when he was making bipartisan deals in the Senate,” Bennet told reporters in Detroit.
“I think … that it is an absolute misunderstanding and miscomprehension of where we are as a country right now,” Bennet added. “The reason why Trump is there, in part, is that we were a mess before he got there. People said, look, we can’t do any worse than this, we might as well put a reality TV star in charge and blow the place up.”
Bennet sounds like his mentor when he addresses today’s political environment.
“The irony is that the Democratic Party has a funny way, unfortunately influenced by Donald Trump’s reality TV treatment of the political arena,” Celeste said when asked about the Democratic National Committee thresholds that will keep Bennet and other low-polling candidates out of next week’s debate. “The debate format is not really a good forum for determining what candidates are made of. And they’re not really debates.”
Celeste never ended up running for president, despite serious consideration throughout his second term. He said there’s “no doubt in my mind” that the senator whose diapers he once changed “would be the best president we can elect” but acknowledged the long odds.
“Michael has got to find a way to present himself as fully as he can to voters in the early states, in Iowa and New Hampshire, and hope that in that process, people begin to pick up on the quality of his thoughts, but also his character,” Celeste said. “If he’s able to finish in the hunt in Iowa — I think if he’s not in the top four or five in Iowa — he’s got to think: ‘Do I stay with this?’”