Colorado’s new U.S. senator’s tale steeped in family roots
Rocky Mountain News
In the thumbnail sketch of Michael Bennet created by sound bites after his controversial appointment to the U.S. Senate, he is the fair-haired son of privilege, an East Coast liberal who came to Colorado a mere decade ago and hop-scotched his way to political power.
While that depiction contains some truth, it lacks nuance, and Bennet chafes at being so narrowly defined.
“I don’t accept the sort of cartoon description because . . . it’s just not who I am,” he said after a recent statewide tour in which he was coolly greeted by some rank-and-file Democrats in proudly blue-collar Pueblo.
Bennet, 44, has begun to publicly speak about his own family’s story of struggle – about how his grandparents fled Warsaw after World War II and how his mother, not yet a teenager, was the only one who spoke English when they finally found their way to New York in 1950.
“It’s not the same, but we share an immigrant experience,” he told an audience in Alamosa, when asked his views on immigration.
He could, but does not, go into the more dramatic details: How his Jewish grandparents, imprisoned in the notorious Warsaw Ghetto, smuggled his mother – then a baby – out to the country through an underground network.
How his grandmother was able to escape with nuns and found refuge in their convent.
How his grandfather hid in different parts of the ghetto until German SS troops showed up to liquidate it and force inhabitants into labor camps.
“They lost most of their family,” said Bennet’s younger brother, James Bennet. “My grandfather came from a very large family, and it was almost entirely wiped out. My mother had experiences that are hard to imagine when she was very, very small.”
Growing up, the brothers said, their mother talked little about that past. But their grandmother, Halina Klejman, who died last year at age 99, often did.
“My grandmother wanted to be sure every day we knew how lucky we were and that we weren’t wasting those opportunities,” James Bennet said. “She wanted to make sure we were doing our best and we understood we had an obligation to make the world a better place.
“This was serious stuff for her.”
Michael Bennet and his wife, Susan Daggett, have three daughters: Caroline, who’s 9, Halina, 7, and Anne, 4. Halina is named after his grandmother. Anne’s middle name is Felicia, for a relative who died in the Holocaust.
But during his time in the public eye, first as chief of staff to Mayor John Hickenlooper and later as Denver Public Schools superintendent, Bennet has seldom talked about his family history.
He did so when he was introduced by Gov. Bill Ritter as the surprise pick for the Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar, now U.S. secretary of the interior.
“On my first birthday, my grandfather sent me a letter,” Bennet told a packed news conference at the state Capitol. “In part it read: ‘The ancient Greeks gave the world the high ideals of democracy, in search of which your dear mother and we came to the hospitable shores of beautiful America in 1950. We have been happy here ever since, beyond our greatest dreams and expectations . . .
“‘We hope that when you grow up, you will help to develop in other parts of the world, a greater understanding of these American values,’ ” he read, then looked out at the audience. “More than you can know, I wish my dear grandmother Halina Klejman were here to see her fondest dreams fulfilled.”
It is this part of the story – the part that comes after the war – that Bennet is more comfortable talking about. His grandparents reunited in 1945 at the rural home where his mother had been sent to live. They moved to Stockholm and then to Mexico City while waiting for entry to the U.S., arriving in New York in 1950.
Like many immigrant children, Bennet’s mother, Susanne Klejman, then 12, was the only one who could speak English – as well as Polish, Spanish and Swedish.
“She was really the guide in many ways to her own parents,” James Bennet said. “My mom basically enrolled herself in school.”
There, in New York City, with no relatives and little money, the family started over. John Klejman, who owned an art gallery in pre-war Warsaw, had managed to send some pieces out with those fleeing Poland. He recovered them in Sweden, and their sale kept the family going while he rebuilt a collection.
Klejman, an expert in African art, became a well-known art dealer and owner of the J.J. Klejman Gallery on New York’s East Side before his death in 1995.
“My grandparents truly believed in this country,” Michael Bennet said. “They believed in it because they felt Franklin Roosevelt and the United States armed forces had rescued them. And they believed in it because when they lived behind the Iron Curtain, they really had a strong sense that there was something really important and wonderful about democracy.
“That was something they never stopped believing in.”
Under Jewish doctrine, Judaism is passed down through the mother. Bennet is Jewish because his mother is. But even in Poland, the Klejmans were not observant, and he did not grow up practicing that religious tradition.
His father, Douglas J. Bennet, is Christian but also did not actively worship.
“I was raised with two different heritages, one was Jewish and one was Christian,” Michael Bennet said. “I am proud that both heritages are part of me, and I believe in God.”
Colorado voters typically have paid little attention to religion. Ritter’s Catholicism became an election issue only after he announced positions that Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput publicly condemned. In last year’s primaries, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney swept Colorado, though his Mormon background raised concerns elsewhere.
“I’m not concerned about that at all,” Bennet said of discussing his Jewish history, “just because I think we’ve moved beyond that in our politics.”
It’s uncertain how involved the U.S. Senate might become in the chronic dispute in the Middle East. James Bennet, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times and now editor of The Atlantic, said his brother’s votes, not his past, are more likely to determine whether he draws funds or fire from national groups involved in that issue.
“I don’t know if politically it will be a net positive or a net negative,” James Bennet, 42, said. “I think it depends on how he interprets his experience and applies it to policy.”
Bennet’s mother, Susanne, could not be reached for comment, and both brothers said she is intensely private. She was an elementary school librarian and, in retirement, volunteers at a public library in D.C. and as a tutor for English language learners.
Susanne Klejman met Douglas Bennet on a double-date in college, when they were set up with other people. Their marriage in 1959 brought together disparate backgrounds.
Klejman had been in America for less than a decade; the Bennets were well-connected, Bennet’s grandfather having served as an economic adviser to Franklin Roosevelt.
Klejman’s family had been reduced to three by the horrors of war; Bennet’s family was sprawling and well-to-do, though he grew up in idyllic Connecticut, not D.C.
James Bennet said his mother tells a story to sum up the difference: When Michael Bennet was in the second grade, his class was assigned to research whose family had been in the U.S. the shortest time – and the longest.
“Michael was the answer to both questions,” he said.
Ritter’s selection of Bennet, who is little known outside Denver and who has never stood for election, set off fireworks in the political blogosphere.
“Bennet is Colorado’s own Caroline Kennedy,” read a headline atop a story suggesting Bennet’s “powerful and connected Daddy” was the reason for his appointment.
Bennet, who has neither highlighted nor hidden his Ivy League background, seems puzzled that it has become the shorthand by which he is known.
The legacy of his father’s family, he contends, is not nepotism but hard work. When he failed the second grade at the exclusive Beauvoir school because dyslexia caused him to write letters backwards, he repeated the grade. His sole memory of that second year in the second grade is tracing letters made of sand and glued to cardboard.
When he earned a D in a college science class, he said he was “horrified.”
His father, after all, had earned a doctorate in history from Harvard, worked for the Carter and Clinton administrations, was president of National Public Radio and later, president of private Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
“I don’t think I worked particularly hard academically until my sophomore year in college,” Michael Bennet said, “and I think I’ve worked really hard ever since then.”
He became editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, similar to Barack Obama’s editor title at the Harvard Law Review. When he took his law degree to work at the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, it didn’t hurt that his father had worked for the same White House.
But when Bennet and his wife moved to Colorado in 1997, much of that political pull was left behind.
“We made a very big choice when we moved to Colorado,” he said. “The priority was to be with Susan and to do something new together, rather than stay here and follow a more predictable path.”
Bennet and Daggett met on a blind date after both graduated Yale Law. She had grown up in the small farming town of Marianna in the Arkansas Delta, where the two would later wed in a cleaned-up cow pasture.
Daggett is passionate about environmental issues and got a job with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund here, while Bennet applied to work for conservative billionaire businessman Phil Anschutz. Bennet didn’t know how to read a balance sheet and was hired on the condition that he pay for, and attend, night classes in accounting and business valuation.
“It was out-of-state tuition,” he said, “and it was incredibly expensive.”
Six years later, Bennet left Anschutz and millions of dollars in stock options to become chief of staff for Hickenlooper. The mayor urged Bennet two years later to apply to take over Denver Public Schools, an idea he initially resisted. He had no experience in K-12 education.
“I didn’t think there was much that I could bring to that job,” he told an audience in Pueblo. “But the more I read about it, the more compelling I thought it was and the more important I thought it was.”
Intrigued, Bennet read voraciously about education reform and called on everyone he could think of to get advice. School Board President Theresa Pena didn’t know Bennet and wasn’t sure what to expect when he interviewed.
“I asked him, point-blank, what was he going to do to address the graduation rate if he was hired,” she said. He responded by picking up a pen and sketching out a detailed plan.
“He had clearly been a student of public education, he had been looking nationally, he had been studying other school districts,” Pena said. “He had such great passion.”
In December, after little more than three years at DPS, Bennet became a candidate for U.S. Secretary of Education. The job went to Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan. Within weeks, Ritter named Bennet to the Senate.
Bennet sees no secret in his ability to take on jobs in which he has little prior experience.
“Every single time, it is hard work, and you just have to do it,” he said. “But what I’ve found is if you take it really seriously, if you take the time to ask other people who have more experience in the field than you do what they know and learn from them . . . you can pretty quickly gain a deep understanding of the work you are doing.”
With DPS, Bennet said another nontraditional superintendent told him to learn about teaching and learning himself, that one of his mistakes had been not to do so. So Bennet committed to near-daily meetings with principals and to meeting with every faculty in the 150-school district at least once a year.
“What I was able to gain from that was the benefit of their knowledge and their wisdom about how policies . . . were either supporting them or very often impeding the work they were trying to do with their kids,” he said.
“I plan to take exactly the same approach with this job, which is to listen to the people of Colorado in all of our communities, hearing from them how our federal government is either helping them or getting in their way.”
Bennet often worked 14-hour days at DPS, calling reporters back late into the evening and frequently going home to tuck in his daughters before going back to the office.
“Michael’s an ambitious guy in the sense he’s trying to get a lot done,” James Bennet said. “This is a guy who’s had opportunities, and he understands, as a result, he’s under a very heavy obligation to make the absolute most of those opportunities, not for his family – because he could still be with Anschutz if that was the case – but for other people.
“But he’s got to prove himself in this job, he really does,” James said, “and that’s right and appropriate.”
No one seems to know this better than Michael Bennet. In stop after stop on his tour with Ritter, he said he was eager to learn, to listen, to return again and again to the farthest corners of Colorado.
“My grandparents’ experience, my mom’s experience, my dad’s work and commitment to public service . . . had a huge influence on all of us in the notion that everybody has a responsibility to give back,” he said.
“Those things are a lot of the reason why I’ve done the work that I’ve done so far, because of concerns about whether or not we really are honoring the promises that my grandparents believed in, and whether we are creating the opportunities we need to be able to create for our kids and grandkids.
“And I have no doubt we’ll be able to do that as a country,” he added, “just as we have in other times when it’s seemed at risk.”