It’s been more than a week since the Colorado primaries, and supporters of candidates who did not win have had a little time to adjust. Last Thursday, hundreds of Democrats swarmed the state capital pledging to unify as a party, while previous opponents Michael Bennet and Andrew Romanoff shook hands under the approving smile of DNC Chair Tim Kaine and CO Democratic Chair Pat Waak.
Activists, staff and supporters have begun work to resolve differences, and although hurt feelings still exist, hyperbole and rhetoric have yielded to former friendships rekindled, and peace offerings extended. In the weeks to come, passionate supporters of each candidate, as well as Colorado voters, will question assumptions, rumours, fabrications and innuendos fueled by over-the-top television ads, in search of
I thought this was a good time to post my interview from July 18th with Senator Michael Bennet’s wife, Colorado environmental defense attorney, Susan Daggett, in hopes that Democrats and independents alike will get to know them both a little better.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length. Because it is long, it is posted in two parts. The second part is here.
In case you were living outside the state of CO until recently (or under a rock) US Senator Michael Bennet was appointed by CO Governor Bill Ritter, to fill the seat left vacant when Ken Salazar was appointed to the Obama Administration as Secretary of the Interior. Observers have noted the popularity of Bennet’s wife, Susan Daggett, who has sometimes been referred to as “Bennet’s greatest campaign asset”.
I met with Susan Daggett for a couple of hours one morning at a coffee shop near the campaign headquarters to get an inside look into the life of the Bennet/Daggett family, and to ask the question, “Is Michael Bennet for real?” Susan shared intimate details regarding her own expertise on environmental conservation, her husband’s votes on controversial legislation, her opinion of Michelle Obama, what it’s like being married to a Senator, his relationship with Phil Anschutz, how she juggles a family of five with full-time campaign responsibilities, and much more.
Susan arrives wearing work-out pants, a casual knit top, and academic-looking black-rimmed glasses. We sit down in a back corner, which is still fairly noisy for a weekday morning. Comfortable and cheerful, she smiles easily and exudes southern charm. In between sentences, she peppers her words with the youthful question, “Right?” which makes me wonder if she picked it up hanging out with so many young campaign workers.
NC: Before I get to the hard questions, how are you doing? How ‘s life on the campaign trail for the Bennet/Daggett family?
SD: The campaign is going really well!
NC: It must be pretty exhausting though, with your husband traveling back and forth to the east coast every week, and your family on the campaign trail in between sessions.
SD: Our life can be insane on the weekends. When we have a longer recess period, it actually tends to be a little less crazy because those are the periods when the campaign plans the more state-wide travel. We go out – over the last recess, over the fourth of July, we actually got to travel as a family. We’d go and stay someplace for a day, and Michael would do a bunch of different activities and the kids and I would hang out, swim, do some…
NC: Having fun?
SD: Yeah, it kind of fun for them. But when it’s a Saturday traveling all the way from Fort Collins to Pueblo and stopping everywhere in between, it’s too much for them. So we re-connect….
(Susan sees an old friend, jumps us, says, “Just a second” and gives her friend a big hug. I turn off the video camera and wait. It is clear they share a special friendship. They exchange well-wishes for awhile and Susan comes back and tells me how wonderful it was to see that friend. Susan returns to the table and apologizes for the interruption.)
NC: You were saying that between the Senate sessions, when you are traveling around the state, it’s more casual.
SD: Yeah, we have more time together; it’s a little less chaotic. We’re not trying to cram in as much. It’s a little slower pace. We’re still very busy, but…
NC: There’s more family time?
NC: How are the kids handling the intensity of the election?
SD: They’re doing pretty well. They have moments. Anne asked me when life was going to get back to normal. I asked her, “What does normal mean to you?” For them, our life has never been normal the way other people might think of “normal”. Michael has always worked long hours. Since they were born, Michael has often had weeknight meetings, community stuff. For Anne, I think normal means Michael has more time on the weekends.
They understand what the campaign is about. They’ve been to enough events to understand it is not personal. It’s about bigger issues. They’re proud of Michael. We talk about the things people say on TV. “They don’t know Daddy; those things aren’t true”, I tell them. I think they are taking it all pretty well. The intensity of the schedule is what is hardest on them.
I’ve worked really, really, really hard to make sure they get to do the things they would normally do – they go to the birthday parties they are invited to, they do the summer day-camps, the play-dates with their friends that they would have ordinarily. Their lives day-to-day haven’t changed a whole lot to accommodate the crazy schedules Michael and I have. My Mom’s here. (She smiles.) She helps maintain the calm in the family. She was there all day yesterday. The kids had play dates, they went swimming, they did their thing. My Mom was available to pick them up and take them because Michael and I were both traveling. That helps enormously.
We have good friends as well … great friends who travel with us sometimes with their kids, which makes it more of an adventure. It is such a beautiful state. When we are traveling around the state, we look around, and we are so proud to live in CO.
NC: It’s like any other family — going camping with another family in the summer, enjoying the scenery.
SD: Right. We try to make sure the things the kids do with the campaign are fun. When they’re not involved in the campaign, they are doing their normal stuff at home.
NC: When you’re not traveling, and they are busy during the day, whether it is school or summer camp, what is your day like?
SD: It depends on the day. On a regular day, I go into the campaign office. I make fundraising phone calls, political phone calls. I don’t participate in the strategy meetings. I’m not involved in the planning of the campaign. I just do the kinds of things Michael does. I go out and do meet-and-greets, women’s coffees. I meet with people who have concerns or questions. I’m like Michael’s surrogate.
NC: That’s a big job.
SD: (Pauses, then a deep breath.)
NC: That’s a huge job. (Laughter on both sides)
SD: I try to keep up with what he is doing in Washington so I can speak knowledgably and tell people what he is doing. (More laughter)
NC: Do you have to go to Washington very often?
SD: I don’t go to Washington very much. I only go when there is something fun that I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do. Last week, Michelle Obama was hosting a luncheon at her house for Congressional spouses and I thought, “I should do that. I don’t get to do things like that very often”. (Laughter)
NC: At her house? As in the White House? What was that like?
SD: It was really nice. It was probably what you would expect – a really nice lunch. She made a short speech about veterans. Jill Biden was there, as well. Jill had been to Iraq over the Fourth of July week and visited the soldiers and their families. They did a slide show about that. It was really nice.
NC: What is Michelle Obama like?
(She smiles.) She’s wonderful. Michelle never misses an opportunity to urge people to do good things in their communities.
I also went back one aother time this spring, maybe — for a spouse appreciation dinner the Senate does, once each year. Last Christmas, I was there for the holiday party. You know – the things Michael is expected to go to and he would really like to have a date. (She laughs)
NC: That’s one of the perks of the job.
SD: Yes. (Laughter) Otherwise, there aren’t a lot of reasons for me to go back. Oh, I almost forgot. The kids and I went and did the museums. We were tourists. It was an unofficial visit and we stayed for three or four days.
NC: Do you think the kids have a sense of how important his job is?
SD: Yeah, yes I do. I think they do. We all were engaged in the Obama campaign. We watched the Presidential debates together. Anne was tiny, but even she recognized the significance – that something important was happening. When Michael was appointed, the way we all viewed his job is, “he is helping President Obama”. There is nothing more important than that.
NC: Many of Michael’s constituents can relate to that. So many of us volunteered for the Obama campaign and we ask ourselves each day, “What am I doing to support the President with the ‘change agenda’?
SD: Right. When Michael first was appointed, we watched C-Span and we were excited to see him on the Senate floor, or presiding on the Senate floor. That lasted about a few weeks. (Laughter) And then they were like, “Okay, we know what he does.” Haliena said, “I could be a Senator. I could stand up there and say, “Without objection”. (Lots of laughter on both sides)
I think the mechanics of what he does everyday are not very interesting to them. Daddy is trying to make sure people have health care, and that people have jobs. He is helping support the President. The meta-view of it all — they really get it, and they are really proud of their Daddy.
NC: Tell me about yourself. How did you meet Michael Bennet, and how did you end up in Denver? Start anywhere you like.
SD: Okay. Michael and I are both lawyers. We both went to Yale law school and lived in the same part of New Haven. I was two years ahead of Michael in school. I didn’t know him. He told a story at our rehearsal dinner that he used to follow me on campus, about twenty paces behind me. I’m not sure I believe him, but it made a great story at our wedding (laughs). We met on a blind date a few years later. We were both out of law school. I was clerking for a federal judge in Washington and Michael was clerking for a federal judge in Baltimore. Somebody I knew in my courthouse was engaged to one of Michael’s co-clerks.
I hadn’t been dating anyone seriously. I’m not shy. I figured you have to take some risks in life. So, she sent me an email saying, “There’s this guy. You probably know him because you were in law school together.” She described him as the Editor of the Yale Law School Journal. (She shakes head back and forth, as if to say, “No!”.) I told her I knew all those guys, and I wouldn’t want to date any of them. (More laughter).
It turned out he was behind me in school. I assumed he wasn’t my type – those are really academic guys…
NC: Big wonky types?
SD: Yeah, the kind of guys gunning to clerk on the Supreme Court — not my type — but I said yes. I had tickets to see the Neville Brothers at an outdoor concert venue. We decided the four of us would go together. Michael was totally different than I imagined he would be. He was not arrogant. He was self-deprecating and funny and real. So we had a good time, but didn’t get to know each other that well that night because we were in a group and we were listening to music. That was on a Friday.
The next Monday I got to work and he had given a letter to a friend and had it delivered to me personally at the courthouse. It said, “I had a nice time. I hope I get to see you again.” So… he totally charmed me. (Laughter.)
SD: Our next date was really our fist date. We went to dinner and talked really late. I had done my senior thesis on civil rights issues. His was interested in civil rights and labor. We both had the same interests, so we had a lot to talk about.
NC: You did your senior thesis on race relations?
SD: I did. The town I grew up in is a place called Mariana, Arkansas. Lee County, after Robert E. Lee — gives you a sense of the community I grew up in. When I was growing up, it was the sixth poorest place in the country — very, very poor, very racially divided. When I was in first grade, it was the first year of integration. My parents, at that time, they’d been in the Air Force and had been away from Mariana, and were pretty liberal in those days. They wanted to support public education and they wanted to support integration, so I went to the public school. Almost all the other white kids went to the new white private school that opened up the same year the public schools were integrated.
In 1970-1972, Vista came in to eastern Arkansas to try to help poor people – and most of them were African American. It was all run by volunteers. The situation blew up in ’72. There were riots, and there was a boycott of the school system, so the school closed for the better part of the year. It really was a violent year. The riots started over integration. The clinic was a focus for civil rights activism, basically –it was a place where the community organized for equal rights. There was a lot of political rights activism in the town.
NC: I’ve read that in rural areas during the civil rights movement, some people said “We don’t want out-of-towners coming in to tell the local people how to run their community and their lives.” Was it like that?
SD: There was certainly a lot of that in the white community. They didn’t want the Vista volunteers who were all white, to come in and organize the African-American community around elections–school board elections. Everything came together at once, it was all mixed up together. I was a kid in the public school in a class of 25 or 30 kids, and there were only three white kids in the class — me and two other kids. It was a crazy time – my best friends were African-American, and I couldn’t play with them after school because it was so dangerous. If they came to my house, it was too dangerous. If I went to their house, it was too dangerous. It was a weird time to be six or seven or eight years old. I remember the Superintendant and their kids coming to live in our house to hide, because it was so dangerous for them. They were being threatened (Susan gestures with both hands raised upward, looking frustrated). As a kid it was such a vivid… it was like, “Oh my gosh, what is going on in this world?”
The anger and frustration of the African-American community resulted in a boycott of the businesses, and the schools and most of the businesses failed. Unfortunately, it permanently damaged the economic infrastructure of the community and that, in turn, affected the schools . Education is what was needed most, and it was the students who suffered in the end by not being able to go to school.
NC: Education opens people’s minds, helps heal, helps rebuild…
SD: Right, right… the anger and frustration were very legitimate, very important. A lot of good things came out of it in terms of civil rights. Unfortunately, it crippled the schools for some period of time, which still haven’t bounced back… they’re still not good schools.
NC: So many American cities have survived important movements like that. There is a lot of work to do afterward for everyone to rebuild…
SD: Right. To start over in a way that includes everyone in the community, equally.
Anyway, my childhood experiences make these issues very personal to me.
NC: How did we go from dating to civil rights history?
SD: Oh, that was the conversation Michael and I had on our first real date. So, even though our backgrounds were very different — I grew up in the Mississippi Delta region in a small, very poor community, and he grew up on the east coast, our orientation to life was very much the same. The things we cared about were very much the same. We just kind of found…magic. (She laughs loudly.)
NC: It was meant to be.
SD: It was meant to be. (More laughter)
Six weeks after we met, I got a job offer to go to Montana to work for the Sierra Club Legal Defense fund. Michael always says, we were too far into our relationship to say, “Never mind”, but not far enough into the relationship for me to give up the job of my dreams. So I went to Montana and he came with me.
NC: You were both young and in love, and had some flexibility in your lives.
SD: Yeah. We were both finishing up our clerkships that summer. He already had a job offer in D.C., but he was able to stall it until the first of the year. He came with me to Montana and I worked a lot, but he found us an apartment and furnished it from the local thrift store. He set me up for the fall and we camped and hiked and skied and fished and played through the whole fall. At the first of the year, he had to move back to D.C. and start his new job. Those first months were an investment in our relationship and in the west… it was where we first fell in love with each other, really, and we fell in love with the west. We were in this beautiful place in Montana (she sighs)…
NC: So you fell in love with each other and in the west at the same time.
SD: (Smiling) Yes.
I was there for two years. It was before cell phones. We called each other every night and rang up giant phone bills. It was even before email, even – that’s hard to believe! Once a month we would travel somewhere together. One of the places we visited was Denver, and we envisioned ourselves settling down in Colorado someday.
There wasn’t much for him in to do in Bozeman, Montana in terms of employment. So he went back to this firm, “Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering”. He was there for six months. He hated it. Then he got a job in the Justice Department.
My job was a two-year fellowship. It had a clear beginning and a clear end. When it ended, I moved back to D.C. Within three months we were engaged and planning our lives. At that point we said, “Hey, where are we going to live? I was more willing to live in D.C. at that point than he was. He said, “I am out of this place.” He did not want to stay there. So, I ended up getting a job in CO at the same group, which changed its name from Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund to Earth Justice, while I had been in D.C.
NC: What year was that?
NC: So you’ve been in CO thirteen years. You’re practically a native.
SD: (Laughter) Practically, by Colorado standards, I guess. We’ve done a lot in thirteen years! (More laughter)
NC: I’ll say. Definitely. Was your wedding here? What was it like?
SD: We were married in Mariana, Arkansas. It is a very small town, so there is only one place to have a wedding, and it has the reputation of being for whites-only, a country club. We didn’t want that! So, we had 300 people under a big tent in a cow pasture. People came from all over to that cow pasture in Arkansas. The local muffler guy catered our wedding. We hired a blues band from Memphis – the lead singer is a wonderful African-American vocalist named Joyce Cobb. She said, “This is like the United Nations in the Mississippi River Delta”. (Laughter) We danced the hora (a traditional Jewish dance of celebration) in a cow pasture! (Laughter)
SD: (Susan looks wistful.) It was wonderful…
NC: So you moved to Denver as newlyweds, and Michael started working for Phil Anschutz. Is that right?
SD: (Susan shifts in her chair as the conversation shifts to a new subject.) Yes. We decided to move to Colorado because of my job, and as soon as I got the job, he started trying to figure out what he could do here in CO. He had heard there was a guy in Denver named John Hickenlooper who was doing some interesting stuff, so Michael sent him a letter.
At the same time, someone Michael knew, knew someone who knew businessman Phil Anschutz, and suggested he might be someone to talk to about a job. So Michael passed his resume along, and got a call from Phil, who said, “I will be happy to spend fifteen minutes talking to you if you want to come to Denver. So, Michael flew himself to Denver – this was before we got married. He met with Phil and some of the other guys in the office. Craig Slater was head of the investment group and he was dead-set against hiring Michael.
But Phil saw something in Michael that he liked, so he offered him a job making what he made at the Justice Department, which was for Phil, nothing — way less than anyone else was making. He basically told Michael he would have one year to demonstrate that he could do something that would be of value to the company. He also told Michael he expected him to take finance and accounting courses. (She chuckles.) So we moved here, and Michael paid out-of-state tuition at Metro or CU Denver to take basic finance and accounting classes because he didn’t have a business background.
Within the year, he had gotten involved in a business scenario with a company called Force Energy, which is a small oil and gas company that was failing, basically. He figured out how to restructure their debt-to-equity ratio, take the company through the bankruptcy process, bring everybody together – all the creditors–and essentially restructure the company so it could succeed. It did, and it has, and it still is around.
NC: So he saved the business from failing.
SD: I think at that point the investment group had not taken failing companies and turned them around kind-of thing, so Michael was on the ground floor of that, and his legal background actually helped because a lot of it is understanding bankruptcy and how it works. He could talk to the lawyers and understand them.
So, anyway, he was able to do enough in that first year to persuade Phil that he was worth keeping around. He went on from there to work on the United Artist/ Regal Entertainment account, and he developed a really strong reputation in the business community as someone who could restructure failing companies. Part of that job is bringing people together who have different interests – banks, creditors, investors, who each have something to gain or lose in the bankruptcy process. So I think Michael’s strength in that was to bring together all those different financial interests and persuade them of a plan that would benefit everybody.
SD: You don’t think of it as a skill that would be useful in public service, but in some ways, it really is.
SD: It really is about being able to work with a lot of different people… and create a vision for something that will exist in the future and get people behind that vision. The bankruptcy processes these people went through were never contested bankruptcies. Everybody would go through the bankruptcy court in agreement before they ever went into the court, about what the outcome should be, and why it was fair to everybody.
NC: So there was a whole lot of negotiating and mediating and leading and coalition-building. Saving failing businesses by merging them into one successful business. Is that it?
SD: You’re exactly right. Obviously, it also required the ability to read a balance sheet and understand the finances and how they work.
NC: Those skills are key to his work in the US Senate, as well.
SD: Yes, that’s right. He actually enjoyed the challenge of it a lot more than practicing law.
(End of Part I. To be continued.)