Barack Obama knows Colorado's new senator better than most state voters do.
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, the man tapped to replace Sen. Ken Salazar, is a mystery to many voters — but not to President-elect Obama, who received a $4,600 political contribution from him.
Bennet was Gov. Bill Ritter's surprise choice to replace Salazar, who was nominated by Obama to be interior secretary. Bennet, a Democrat, is relatively unknown outside Denver and has never held elected office before.
But he's known Obama for almost two years, first meeting the president-elect in March 2007 at a Denver fund-raiser. Within days, Obama's campaign reported Bennet's $4,600 donation, according to a federal campaign report.
"Michael Bennet was an early and ardent supporter of president-elect Barack Obama," said Matt Chandler, Bennet's spokesman. Chandler was also spokesman for Obama's Colorado campaign.
A Yale-educated lawyer who made millions working as a corporate restructuring specialist before entering government work, Bennet was an aide to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper before taking over Denver's schools in 2005.
A reform plan Bennet brought to the school district earned him national accolades in education circles. Bennet was among those who advised Obama on education during the presidential campaign, said Chandler, who said Bennet and Obama have met several times.
"They approach politics in a very similar manner," Chandler said. "They both feel that for the past few years things have been done a certain way, but in order to solve the problems facing the country right now, we can't solve these problems doing politics the usual way."
The senator-in-waiting may be well known to administration and education insiders, but Bennet will have to work on wooing Colorado voters who have never seen his name on ballots but will be asked to re-elect him in 2010 to one of the highest offices in the land.
"I think everyone's expressing a good deal of surprise" over the Bennet appointment, said Norman Provizer, a political scientist at Metropolitan State College in Denver.
"The biggest thing with Bennet seems to me, and this'll be interesting, is the fact that he has no election experience," Provizer said. "He has lots of government experience, but when you say how will he do in an election, you just don't know."
Aides to Bennet, 44, say he's already at work learning to campaign. Bennet was in Washington on Monday on a Senate tour led by Salazar, to whom Bennet donated $1,000 in 2004.
Bennet's campaign has set up a Web site, and Chandler said Bennet will file official candidacy papers within a few days.
Bennet may be relatively unknown to Colorado voters now, but by 2010, the candidate will be well known because of active campaigning and work in the Senate, Chandler said.
"Michael Bennet will hit the ground running," he said.