Sen. Michael Bennet is ready for a difficult election year amid inflation, housing crunch

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet was among those who joined Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland at Camp Amache National Historic Site on. Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, where more than 7,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly held during World War II. The visited was timed to coincide with the Senate clearing the way for a bill that would make the site near Granada part of the National Park System, and with the 80th anniversary of the federal order establishing such camps.

Incumbent Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet said he has a difficult election ahead of him, as people deal with inflation, increased housing prices and rising crime.

Bennet is running against Republican businessman Joe O’Dea, and O’Dea has been placing the blame of the current economic problems on Democratic leadership under President Joe Biden, who currently has a record low job approval rate at 31 percent.

In an interview with Colorado Matters, Bennet said inflation is something all nations are dealing with as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he has also taken action on housing by forming a group of experts from all over the state to come up with housing solutions in Colorado. His proposed solutions include increasing supply by building higher-density housing.

Bennet said he’s no stranger to difficult elections. But he believes the only way to ensure abortion rights access is for voters to elect senators and representatives who will vote to codify Roe v. Wade. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Senator Bennet, welcome.

Senator Bennet: It's nice to be back. Thank you for having me.

Whitfield: When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, you released a statement saying quote, "This ruling is not the last word. In the months ahead, the American people have the opportunity to elect pro-choice majorities in the Congress and in state legislatures across the country to codify law in the fundamental right to choose." What is stopping Congress from making Roe v. Wade law right now?

Senator Bennet: Well, let me say first of all, this is the first time in American history that a fundamental Constitutional American right has been stripped from the American people and it's a tragedy. It's a tragedy for our society. It's a tragedy for women all over the state of Colorado and across this country. And the Supreme Court cannot be the last word. We have to elect pro-choice majorities, as I said, in the Senate and the House, and what's standing in the way is that we don't today have the votes to codify Roe versus Wade in the US Senate. I hope that's going to change in this election.

Editor's note: PolitiFact looked into the idea that the Roe v. Wade decision is the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has restricted a constitutional right. Legal scholars said that, while rare, legal rulings like the one in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization are not unprecedented, citing two different instances where the Supreme Court has reversed previous decisions.

Whitfield: There's already a majority of abortion rights supporters in the House and Senate right now who support making abortion access legal on a federal level. This of course includes Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. Both have said they'd support that action. Again, why can't Congress codify abortion rights access now?

Senator Bennet: Well, I've talked to both Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins and I think that it may be possible at some point to get a bipartisan vote that would support the codification of Roe versus Wade. Unfortunately, it would fall well short of the 60 votes that are required to overcome the filibuster in the Senate right now.

Whitfield: In the past, you have argued in support of getting rid of the filibuster. Do you think that's the answer and the only way to ensure abortion rights access becomes law?

Senator Bennet: Well, as I just mentioned, I believe it's important for us to have a functioning Senate, and I would vote to change the rules to do that to create the opportunity for the minority to have much more say to be able to have real debates again in the Senate, and allow a majority to make a decision with 51 votes. And I believe that would be an important step to codifying Roe versus Wade. But I also think it's not just Roe. There are lots of things that we have to do as a country to make sure that we're competing, in particular with Beijing. And that's hard to do when a group of senators representing roughly 22 percent of the people that live in our country have a veto on everything, whether that's choice, or whether that's health care, or whether it's immigration, all these issues can be vetoed by people representing that small number of people in the U.S.

Whitfield: So if the Senate gets rid of the filibuster, do you think there's a risk of having no way to stop legislation you disagree with if the GOP reclaims the majority in the Senate?

Senator Bennet: There's no doubt about that. That is absolutely a risk. For example, if the filibuster didn't exist, it would only take 51 votes to ban abortion in this country, so we have to go into this with our eyes wide open. I think the difference is that 70 percent of the American people support codifying Roe, whereas a minority of the people agree with the Supreme Court decision. But I think part of the problem with the current system that we have, is that when Washington can't get anything done, it's very difficult for the American people to hold the folks accountable, in this case, Mitch McConnell in particular, for why nothing ever gets done here. And I think changing the rules of the Senate to make it operate in the way that I would describe would create more accountability than we have today.

Whitfield: You alluded to this earlier. That most recent term of the Supreme Court has led to many controversial decisions, with some critics calling for impeachment of some justices or even adding more justices to the high court. Do you support either of those measures?

Senator Bennet: I think that the idea of putting more justices on the Supreme Court is not something that the American people would support. I would worry that taking that position would risk creating a pro-life majority in the Senate for a decade or more. I am considering whether the right idea would be to have term limits for Supreme Court justices as a way of trying to depoliticize the confirmation process that frankly has been destroyed by the United States Senate. 

Our responsibility to advise and consent on Supreme Court justices, when I was in law school, that was a process that the American people knew that Senators respected, and that every time we put a judge on the court with 90, or 95, or 98 votes, we reasserted the independent nature of the judiciary and we're not exporting our hopefully temporary partisan insanity to the court. Now we've destroyed that. And one way out of that might be to create term limits for justices and just bring down the temperature.

Whitfield: In his majority opinion for the Dobbs ruling, Justice Alito said, "This is an issue of states' rights and it should be up to individual states." What problems will this cause?

Senator Bennet: I fundamentally disagree with Justice Alito's opinion. I read his opinion. He completely, in my view, missed the fact that we're talking about a fundamental human right here. That's what this is. This is a fundamental right. He didn't even contend with that. 

And I'll give you one example just off the top of my head. I've been called by people that have served in the military, women, who said to me, "What is going to happen to women in the military, who are serving in states where abortion is banned? How in the world are they going to be able to get the medical services that they need?"

That's a perfect example, and even if you provided the medical services, even if you paid for people enlisted in the military to be able to travel, everybody in the unit is going to know because you're gone for a day, or you're gone for two days, what's going on? The right to privacy has been shredded by this Supreme Court opinion, so that's just one example.

Another issue is what's going to happen to poor women living in states that ban abortion. I guarantee you that women of means in these states are going to find a way to continue to have access to the right to choose. But if you're poor, if you're living in a rural community someplace, which doesn't really have access to health care to begin with, what this is going to mean is there are going to be millions of American women who no longer have the right to choose, who are going to have to carry their pregnancies to term because the state tells them they have to. That's the result of the Supreme Court decision.

Whitfield: The Washington Post and the New York Times have published stories about Democrats who are frustrated with what they see as a lack of leadership from President Biden on key issues, such as gun control and abortion. This has led to worries about big losses in the midterm elections. Are you concerned?

Senator Bennet: Look, I'm concerned about the fate of our democracy. I've said for years and years and years that I think our democracy is fragile, in part because we have such massive income inequality in our country, in part because we have such little economic mobility left in our country because of the damage that's been caused by trickle down economics for five decades in the United States. And now we know our democracy is not just fragile, we are losing fundamental human rights now as a result of the fact that Donald Trump got elected president. And we need to man the barricades. That's what we have to do. And we've got to show up and vote, and every single person needs to vote.

Whitfield: Back to the initial question. Do you have concerns about Biden's leadership?

Senator Bennet: What I would say about Joe Biden is that he was the one person out of 300 million Americans who could beat Donald Trump, and he beat Donald Trump. And I'm very grateful that he ran and I'm extremely grateful that he won. 

I have my disagreements with President Biden from time to time. I've fought the administration on the solar tariffs that were going to destroy the solar industry in Colorado. I've fought Democrats and the administration on the state and local tax deduction, which I think is a giveaway to the wealthiest people in the country. I've fought them to make sure that we had the BLM headquarters located in Colorado. So we have our disagreements, but in the main, I just feel grateful that he ran and won and beat Donald Trump.

Whitfield: President Biden's approval rating is at an all time low right now, 33 percent. Is he the right leader for this country right now?

Senator Bennet: I think anybody who is president right now would be at those kind of low approval ratings. When you have energy prices, when it costs $4.84 a gallon to fill up your tank in Colorado, when you've got the kind of inflation that we have, any president I think would be facing the sorts of low approval ratings that he is facing.

Whitfield: Speaking of inflation, the cost of living has skyrocketed both nationally and here in Colorado. In fact, this week we just learned that inflation hit 9.1 percent in June. As you alluded to, gas prices are at an all time high, and it's increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. Republicans, including your opponent, Joe O'Dea, blame the Democrats. Is that a fair judgment?

Senator Bennet: I definitely think that's not a fair judgment. I mean, if you look, if you just read a newspaper, you'll see that almost every country in the world is facing almost exactly the same inflation that we're facing. Look at Canada, look at the United Kingdom, look at the EU. And the reason for that isn't hard to understand. It's the broken supply chains that we have to fix, that coming out of the COVID recession has driven up inflation for consumer goods. And the economic recovery itself, which has driven up the price of energy, and then Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which has driven up the price of energy and the price of food. 

The fact that's happening in every single country is really cold comfort to people in our state and in our country who are having to pay, as I say, $4.84 for gas, or higher prices for food. And it's very natural I think that they would blame the president or the party that's in power for that, even though it's really a global phenomenon. So this is obviously something we're going to have to deal with in the election. 

On housing, this has become a catastrophic situation in the state of Colorado. It's why I put together a group of people from all over the state last year who are housing experts to make recommendations on what we're going to do about this because there is no workforce housing left in the state of Colorado anywhere, urban or rural.

Whitfield: What are you proposing to do about inflation?

Senator Bennet: Well, it's what this group of experts have proposed, which is that we need to find ways of increasing supply. We need to innovate in terms of how we build housing in the country. We're going to have to have, in the state, more density to be able to deal with it. And it's critically important if we don't want to turn into San Francisco or Seattle. 

When I was the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools just 14 years ago, it was very common to meet people who taught in Denver and lived in Denver. Now if you're a teacher in the Denver Public Schools, it's impossible to afford housing in Denver. 

And it's not just Denver. The “Teacher of the Year” this year in Colorado is from Glenwood Springs, and she was kind enough to come visit me in my DC office and she said to me, she wasn't complaining, but she said in passing that 70 to 80 percent of her colleagues at her middle school and her high school in Glenwood Springs have to work two or three jobs just to be able to live in Glenwood Springs. That is absolutely unsustainable for our state and unsustainable for our country. And we have to address it.

Whitfield: Some political pundits have described you as being vulnerable in the upcoming election. And during the primary, some progressive groups spent millions boosting State Representative Ron Hanks. What are your thoughts about that strategy? And do you consider it dangerous for progressive groups to use money to influence the outcome of an election?

Senator Bennet: Well, that is not my campaign. But I will say that I agree that this is going to be a really challenging election. I've had challenging elections before. 2010 was a terrible year for Democrats and we barely hung on. I ran again in 2016. That was also a tough year. And I think this is going to be a tough year as well for the reasons that we talked about earlier. 

But I think that I've got a record in Colorado of working for people, whether they voted for me or whether they didn't, spending time all over the state, rural and urban Colorado, the Eastern Plains and the West Slope and every place in between. So we're going to run a very vigorous campaign and I think we'll be successful in the fall.

Whitfield: The January 6th committee hearings continue. What actions do you think need to be taken following those hearings?

Senator Bennet: Well, I think I don't want to get ahead of the January 6th commission because they're not done with their work, but their work is incredibly important. It's really important to get this on the historical record. I mean, people like my opponent, just for one example, Whitfield, my opponent in this Senate race says Donald Trump bears no responsibility for January 6th. I mean, that is just a ridiculous statement and I think what Liz Cheney and others are doing are really important public service to the country. I hope the result of this in the end is that Donald Trump never is able to run for president again. But we'll have to see what happens. We'll have to see what happens with the final result of the commission.

Whitfield: Senator, thank you for joining us.

Senator Bennet: I really appreciate your time. Thank you.