Opinion

Dana Milbank: It’s a cynical campaign in Colorado

When I worked on a college paper as a freshman, the editor was a talented but prickly junior by the name of Andrew Romanoff. He clashed so fiercely with the newspaper’s business staff that he and the publisher communicated only through written memo. Instead of putting all effort into the newspaper, energy was wasted on internal squabbles.

I recalled that long-ago episode while watching this year’s Colorado Senate race, in which my old editor Romanoff is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet for the Democratic nomination. The dynamic is much the same: Rather than furthering the causes they agree on – there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference in their ideology – Romanoff is provoking a Democratic family feud.

He is painting Bennet, a former Denver school superintendent appointed to the vacant Senate seat last year, as a Washington insider on the take from corporate donors. “The nation’s biggest insurance firms and drug makers and oil companies and Wall Street banks are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into my opponent’s campaign coffers,” Romanoff alleged at a rally earlier this year. “Why?” he asked. “What have they already gotten” for their money?

Having accused his opponent of corruption, Romanoff announced that “our campaign does not accept money from political action committees.”

Romanoff didn’t tell the crowd that a mere four days earlier he quietly shut down his own PAC, the Romanoff Leadership Fund, which freely accepted corporate PAC money. In his eight years in the state Legislature, including a stint as House speaker before term limits forced him out in 2008, Romanoff himself accepted money from those evil “insurance firms and drug makers and oil companies and Wall Street banks.”

The man Romanoff accuses of being corrupt, meanwhile, is the very opposite: an earnest education policy wonk who had never held political office and who, appalled at the way the Senate operates, has authored a radical proposal that would close Washington’s revolving door between government and lobbying. He was chosen for the job by Gov. Bill Ritter for the right reason: because he would make a good senator, not because he was a good politician.

That’s why I’m troubled by what my old editor is doing in Colorado. Americans are cynical enough about politics. Is it really necessary to portray one of the good guys as a crook?

I’ve been following this race with more than the usual interest. I’ve never met Bennet, but for years I’ve known his brother, James, who is editor of the Atlantic and was a classmate of Romanoff’s at Yale in the late ’80s. I’ve also admired Romanoff’s success in Colorado politics, where he was by all accounts a model legislator, a centrist Democrat who built consensus with Republicans on thorny issues such as immigration.

But now he has hired Howard Dean’s former strategist, Joe Trippi, and is practicing the Dean style of Democratic fratricide. The clearest instance of this was his recent release of e-mails from the White House dangling the possibility of jobs at the U.S. Agency for International Development if he didn’t challenge Bennet.

It was clearly aimed at embarrassing President Barack Obama for backing Bennet. But Romanoff neglected to mention that he had applied for jobs at USAID, part of a long and public job search that, according to state records and Colorado media, included an application to be Colorado secretary of state and attempts to position himself for governor, lieutenant governor, head of a child advocacy group, and, of course, U.S. senator.

It’s understandable that Romanoff would be angry that he didn’t get the Senate appointment, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ritter made an excellent choice. As Bennet’s views of his Senate colleagues shifted from awe to disgust, he has authored sweeping reforms (a lifetime ban on former lawmakers lobbying and a six-year ban for congressional staffers), taken a lead role in education policy, and voiced support for institutional changes such as electing committee chairs rather than awarding them on seniority. If more Mr. Bennets came to Washington, the Senate wouldn’t be the mess that it is.

This is what makes Romanoff’s anti-incumbent message so disturbing. He describes Bennet and his supposed Washington masters as “an incumbent protection racket” and urges supporters to defy “the power brokers and party bosses” and “send a seismic shock to the U.S. Senate, which needs one.”

Romanoff’s right. The Senate needs a shock. But accusing one of the few good ones in the chamber of insider dealing and corruption isn’t a shock – it’s politics at its most cynical.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is danamilbank@washpost.com.


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