(Editor’s Note: Michael Bennet was appointed to fill the Senate seat of Ken Salazar in 2009 when Salazar become Secretary of the Interior. He was elected to the seat during the 2010 elections. This interview was conducted via e-mail.)
Where did you grow up? And what is your educational and family background?
My mother and her parents came to America in 1950. My father’s family has been in this country for generations. And I moved West.
I attended Wesleyan University (Middletown, Conn.) and then graduated from Yale Law School (New Haven, Conn). My wife, Susan, who is from Arkansas, and I moved to Colorado to raise our three daughters. We love Colorado’s natural beauty, entrepreneurial energy, and western spirit. One of my favorite places to spend time is on the Eastern Plains. We’ve been able to do a lot of that lately to discuss the Farm Bill as it moved through the Agriculture Committee, on which I serve, and through Congress.
When did you first get interested in politics? Why did you decide to run for elected office? Did a specific issue lead to your political involvement?
When I was appointed to the Senate, I didn’t have intentions to run for public office but was always interested in public service. Much of my interest stemmed from my father’s lifelong work as a public servant. (Douglas Bennet was a longtime veteran of the U.S. State Department holding important positions in several different administrations.) I spent much of my career in business and then moved into local government, including several years as Superintendent of Denver Public Schools. In Denver, we worked together to build a culture of high student achievement and measurable progress. Now, as a Senator and a father of three young girls, I hope to expand on that work and continue to create more opportunity and build a better future for the next generation.
Agriculture has always been a very important part of the U.S. economy, but many say it is threatened with extinction because of outside factors including lack of labor, over-regulation, and unfair competition from foreign production not required to live up to the same regulatory standards. What type of future do you see for U.S. agriculture, especially specialty crops?
I see a bright future for specialty crops and all of agriculture. There’s a lot of innovation happening in farming right now, from meeting demand for local foods to ever-growing exports. With persistent drought in the West, it’s important that we move forward with the stuff we do actually have some control over. We can reform our broken immigration system to ensure that producers have a sufficient workforce to harvest their crops. We should also finalize the trade deals with countries in Asia and Europe to break down barriers that keep Colorado food products from reaching grocery baskets all around the world. We should also strive to create a regulatory environment for agriculture that is more focused on outcomes rather than prescribing behavior. None of these are easy, but it’s all absolutely achievable.
Water is a very important issue to specialty crop agriculture. How can the federal government help producers in the West have sufficient water to handle their needs?
I know better than to say the federal government should play a bigger role in Colorado’s water decisions. That said, the government can provide some basic tools to help producers. USDA conservation programs are a big success story in Colorado—especially for addressing water issues. Potato growers in the San Luis Valley, for instance, are using the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to balance increasing production demand and water conservation goals. It’s a great example of a coordinated industry-wide effort to address a shared challenge—in this case, the challenge is how to stay in the potato business when there’s not enough water to go around.
Comprehensive immigration reform, including the passage of a guest worker program in one form or another, is an important issue for agriculture. What’s your position on that issue and how do you see the current debate playing out in D.C.?
Fixing our broken immigration system is very important to Coloradans. Before helping write the immigration reform legislation as a member of the so called “Gang of 8,” we brought together members of the faith, Latino, business, agriculture, government, and law enforcement communities from across the state to craft a set of principles to guide a civil conversation about reforming our immigration system. We called this the Colorado Compact. Since then I have met with farmers and ranchers from the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains that have told me how defunct the current guest worker program is and how they are often forced to watch their crops wither and die without the labor to harvest them.
The Senate was able to pass a bipartisan bill that would have secured our borders, put in place a workable guest visa system, lowered the national debt and grown the economy. Unfortunately, that bill has not yet been voted on in the House. I’m hopeful, however, that the House of Representatives will stop avoiding this important issue and take action.
What is your position on creating free trade agreements?
Expanding free trade will open new markets abroad to Colorado exports — agricultural products in particular like pork, beef, wheat and dairy — creating new jobs and growing Colorado’s economy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is one important example of a major new free trade agreement the Administration is working to negotiate right now that could be a boon to Colorado farmers and ranchers. But these trade agreements also need to be forged in the right way — and that includes meaningful language to protect workers and preserve the environment.
The Affordable Care Act is now moving forward and it appears the efforts to repeal it are in the past. Ten years from now, what do you think it will look like and how do you believe it will be viewed?
While there are important provisions in the Affordable Care Act, ensuring access to affordable health care for children and families with preexisting conditions among them, it’s not perfect and we need to focus on improving the implementation of the law. Whether these efforts to fix the implementation are successful or not will determine how it is viewed down the road.
What are your top priority issues in Congress?
Now that we have successfully passed the Farm Bill and temporarily secured PILT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) funding for our rural communities we need to turn our attention to fixing our broken immigration system. We also need to develop a sensible and forward-looking energy policy, improve our nation’s infrastructure, and ensure that our schools are preparing our children for a 21st century economy. I also plan to continue to work hard to make sure we are fulfilling our responsibility to veterans, service members, and their families.
What do you see in your political future and how do you describe yourself on the conservative/liberal political spectrum?
As a newcomer to politics I don’t really focus on my next political step. Colorado is one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third Independent so there isn’t any place for partisanship. I’m in Congress to focus on what’s best for Colorado and that means working together to solve problems.
Our members and some of your constituents grow the finest fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts in the world, and we have a national policy advising consumers to eat many servings a day. Do you get in your five a day or more? And do you have a favorite produce item or a favorite way to prepare a fruit, vegetable and/or nut?
Sometimes the hectic schedule in Washington prevents me from getting my five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. When I’m home I really enjoy eating Palisade Peaches, and Susan and I always try to make sure our girls get their five servings a day.
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