Bennet, 44, was not among those generally considered the front-runners for the slot, which will open if Sen. Ken Salazar is confirmed, as expected, as secretary of the interior in President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet.
"Uncertain times call for certain leadership, and that’s why Michael Bennet is the right choice to represent all Coloradans in the Senate," Ritter said.
Ritter had been expected to name Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, house speaker Andrew Romanoff, or U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter to replace Salazar through the end of his current term, which would end in early January 2011.
Bennet's tenure at DPS has been widely considered to be successful, but it has not been without controversy. He has fought with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association over merit pay, encountered resistance to decisions to close under-performing schools and wrestled with ongoing low levels of student achievement and faculty attrition.
His achievements while serving the state's largest public school district include winning voter approval and implementing DPS’ ProComp program, the nationally recognized teacher pay-for-performance system; helping to improve graduation rates, enrollment and access to early childhood education opportunities; and playing a vital role in ending a several-years long period of annual multimillion-dollar budget cuts.
Bennet worked with billionaire businessman Phil Anchutz and as chief of staff for Hickenlooper before coming to DPS.
Before coming to Denver in 1997 Bennet worked in the Clinton Administration's Department of Justice and as a law clerk for a federal appellate judge. He earned his law degree from Yale University in 1993 and holds a B.A. in history from Wesleyan University. Bennet is married to another lawyer, Susan Daggett, who specializes in environmental law and used to be employed at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now known as Earthjustice). The couple have three children.
Bennet indicated a willingness to attempt bipartisan solutions to the nation's problems when he arrives in Washington, D.C. at the news conference announcing his appointment this afternoon.
"I have learned from Mayor Hickenlooper that there is no challenge without a solution and no problem too tough to withstand innovative thinking," Bennet said. "My experiences, not only in public service but also in business, have taught me that when people come together, put aside partisan differences, and focus on pragmatic problem-solving, we can accomplish great things.”
Republicans greeted the appointment with a mixture of surprise and some optimism that Bennet could be beaten in 2010 should he choose to run for a full term.
State GOP chair Dick Wadhams told the Associated Press Friday that he thinks Bennet's selection is "perplexing."
“There are some admirable things Bennet did with Denver Public Schools, but he’ll be judged by what he does in the Senate. There are major issues coming up this year, and he’ll have to vote on tax increases and bailouts. Those votes will define Michael Bennet,” Wadhams said.
Democrats, at least publicly, welcomed Ritter's choice, starting with the President-elect.
"Michael Bennet perfectly reflects the qualities of the ruggedly independent state he has been chosen to serve," Obama said. "An innovator in the public and private sectors, he has shown himself willing to challenge old thinking and stale policies. His breakthrough work at the helm of Denver's schools has reflected that commitment, and established Michael as one of the nation's leading education reformers. He will be a breath of fresh air in Washington.”
Speaker-designate Terrance Carroll of Denver pointed to Bennet's history of being bold both in his public and private sector work in lauding the appointment.
“Families across the state are facing tough times, and it will take a proven leader to stand up on their behalf in Washington, D.C.," Carroll said. "Michael has unique experiences, an innovative approach to problem-solving, and the skills to bring people together to find real solutions.”
Some reports, however, indicate that a goodly portion of the state's Democrats might not be pleased with Ritter's decision.
The story in today's Rocky quoted former Denver city council member Susan Barnes-Gelt as saying that the choice of Bennet is "yet another example of Bill Ritter making a strange choice that reflects nothing but the fact that he has not been listening to an overwhelming number of Coloradans."
Here is a link to a recent New Yorker article focusing on Bennet's tenure at DPS. Here is a link to Bennet's official biography.