WASHINGTON — On the day before the U.S. Senate recessed for two weeks, Sen. Michael Bennet emerged alone from an elevator off the Senate floor at 3:20 p.m.
Walking past a knot of reporters, the Colorado Democrat was asked his position on Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to ban semi-automatic weapons. He broke his stride for half a second and acknowledged the questioner yet his face remained expressionless and businesslike.
“Excuse me, I gotta go,” Bennet said in a loud whisper.
Bennet’s reticence on March 22 was not the first time the senator has declined to answer an unscripted question from a Capitol Hill reporter waiting in a hallway next to the chamber or near the subways that ferry senators to their offices.
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Bennet has conducted few informal press interviews, according to Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report.
“I have noticed as DSCC chair he has not done much yet as far as press avails and pen and pads,” Duffy said in an interview, referring to gatherings in which print reporters meet a member in his or her office and ask a range of questions.
Duffy added that Bennet has been in the position a relatively short time, and that New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, a Bennet predecessor as DSCC chief, did not do a lot of unscripted press either.
Bennet was tapped for the position in December of last year by Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and assumed the DSCC chairmanship in January.
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Jerry Moran of Kansas, said Moran “regularly participates in the weekly press conference by the Republican leaderships.” He did not elaborate.
Adam Bozzi, a Bennet spokesman, said, “Senator Bennet speaks with reporters in Colorado and in Washington frequently.”
A top DSCC official returned a call from TCO, but declined to speak for attribution.
Bennet, 48, grew up in a politically active, media-centric household in Washington. His father, Douglas, was president of National Public Radio from 1983 to 1993. His brother, James, has been a Washington reporter for publications ranging from The Washington Monthly to the New York Times for decades and is the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic.
Since becoming a senator in 2009, Bennet has conducted longer, sit-down interviews with national publications. This year alone, he has spoken on the issue of illegal immigration reform with USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Marketplace Morning Radio, and The Atlantic. He also spoke with Denver’s Fox TV affiliate about his vote against the fiscal-cliff deal in January.
Yet Bennet’s path to the Senate did not come via the media. While many statewide politicians rise to the top by being glib on camera, cultivating relationships with reporters, or sounding authoritative at a press conference, Bennet was appointed to both his previous job as superintendent of Denver’s public schools and as a U.S. Senator.
Bennet attracted criticism from local media outlets for ducking reporters during his ultimately successful run for his Senate seat in 2010. Wayne Laugesen, an editorial board writer for the Colorado Springs Gazette editorial board, blasted the junior senator’s press relations.
“So where is appointed Sen. Michael Bennet? The Gazette cannot begin to answer that. Of all campaigns invited to board meetings, none was contacted more frequently and consistently than Bennet’s. Most calls and e-mails were unreturned … As we became more assertive in our efforts to meet with Bennet, it became clear that he had no interest in speaking with the board of the second-largest newspaper in Colorado.”
Bennet has also not attended press gatherings for causes he champions. He did not attend the Jan. 28 press conference at which the so-called Gang of Eight senators introduced their proposal to reform illegal immigration laws. A spokesman said Bennet was on a plane at the time.
Avoiding unscripted questions and Capitol Hill reporters has been a standard strategy for Washington politicians for generations. President Lyndon Johnson appeared only on military bases during the height of the Vietnam War, while Richard Nixon talked in tightly controlled, highly scripted, made-for-TV settings in his 1968 presidential campaign. More recent presidents, including President Obama, have done the same.
“It’s been a fairly common among presidents and politicians to more narrowly tailor their message. Lots of politicians speak with certain groups of voters they want to reach more narrowly and try to woo for the election,” Seth Masket, associate professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Denver, said.
Masket noted that politicians avoid unscripted questions “to get more positive questions and less critical questions.”
Duffy agreed, and said “at least half” of the members of the U.S. Senate do not talk regularly with Capitol Hill reporters patrolling the hallways. She said younger senators often seek to avoid “gotcha” questions from reporters, figuring a verbal gaffe could harm their political standing or the reward is not worth the risk. “I don’t find Bennet’s strategy (as a senator) all that unusual,” she said.
Now Bennet’s strategy will be put to the test. The 2014 elections are 18 months away and the bipartisan group of senators on immigration reform plan to roll out details of their legislative proposal.
“Bennet might be used to flying under the radar,” Masket said, “but that’s going to change.”