Susan Daggett, a Portrait of Determination and Strength

The Senator’s Wife. The first thing you notice about Susan Daggett is her mile-high smile and welcoming, girl-next-door poise. But it’s when she begins to speak that you find yourself riveted, as much by the charming Southern lilt in her voice as her innate intelligence and wit. It takes about two seconds to understand that the newly appointed senator’s wife is indeed a woman who knows what she wants… and how to get it. In January, Colorado was taken by surprise when Gov. Bill Ritter tapped Daggett’s husband, Michael Bennet, to be the new United States senator from Colorado. The sudden thrust of a somewhat private family into the harsh glare of national politics could surely cause even the most relaxed to duck and cover. Not so this family. With Daggett at the helm, the family has continued life as usual, blissfully under the radar of media scrutiny. Daggett greeted me at the door with a relaxed grin, casually attired in jeans, sweater and boots, wearing little makeup and projecting an aura of astounding calm. Faced not only with the prospect of having to leave soon for Washington, D.C., to attend inaugural events, Daggett also was orchestrating the family’s imminent move from a rental home into their newly renovated home a few blocks away. In the midst of the frenzy, the mother of three young girls graciously found time to sit down with Denver Woman to help us learn more about the woman who will now be known by a new title: the senator’s wife.

Daggett clearly is no wallflower when it comes to knowing who she is or where she stands on her convictions. Born and raised in a small agricultural town in eastern Arkansas, she is the product of generations of family who have lived and worked in the community of Marianna, Ark., a town of 5,000 people that was at one time ranked the sixth-poorest county in the United States. It was a place where people were born and where they stayed and raised families, largely oblivious to the comings and goings of the rest of the world. ”When I was growing up there was one doctor in town and a couple of lawyers … namely my dad and his brother. If you were a Daggett in town, you were a lawyer,“ Daggett reminisces. Daggett’s parents recognized that if their daughter were to have a chance at experiencing the rest of the world, she would first have to live life within a larger, less confining environment. They sent her to Memphis for high school, where she lived with different families and commuted home on weekends. ”My parents had the sense that the community where we lived was a tough place to go to school, from both a social and racial perspective. There were so many girls in the 10th grade who were having babies and dropping out of school. The school system was falling apart, and my parents wanted to get me out of that environment, which was the best thing they could have done for me,“ she reflects. After high school, she attended Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a step that represented yet another move away from her small-town provincial roots, toward a life that would position her to compete in the fast lane. ”I did not want to go to the safe place that was in my comfort zone,“ she reflects. ”I wanted to see more and do more.“

By her senior year the idea for her thesis was clearly cemented in her mind — she would take the experiences of a young girl growing up in a racially divided community and use them as the microcosm for the civil rights movement. ”My first year in school (the first grade) was also the first year of integration in Marianna. My parents had been away in the Air Force for several years, and when they returned, they realized the town’s goal was to have a separate school for the white kids. My parents instead enrolled me in the public school, where I was one of just a few white kids,“ she says. Daggett remembers this period — the early 1970s — as one of civil unrest punctuated by frequent visits by national civil rights leaders. ”I had few if any playdates because my friends were African-American. I was not allowed to play with my best friend because it was too dangerous for both of us. I think from that point forward I developed an interest in race relations in the South,“ she says. Ultimately she concluded in her thesis that the anger that pervaded the black community and the accompanying violence was justified, that in fact this was a community that had been badly mistreated. But there was another side to the story, Daggett recalls, in the form of an 18-month-long boycott of all downtown businesses by the black community, which represented 55 percent of the population. In the end many merchants were driven out of business, effectively crushing the town’s economic livelihood. Today many of the buildings have been demolished, and even now there is evidence of a town still suffering and racially divided, with a public school that remains 95 percent African-American and still pulsates with evidence of segregation.

profile2After college, Daggett returned to Arkansas to work in Little Rock for the attorney general’s office. She worked in a job called the Advocate for the Elderly, spending her days helping older people sort through the maze of the health care system. At the age of 21 she was hired to replace the woman who had been running the division and found herself learning the fine art of being an ombudsman. ”The attorney general was very interested in the issue of elderly rights, and that office was responsible for investigating Medicaid fraud. We were looking at false charges for services that had not been provided, as well as nursing home abuse and neglect,“ she says. The attorney general assembled a team to investigate the abuse and identify the more problematic nursing homes. Daggett was assigned to two different nursing homes. She applied to work as a nursing aide in the homes. For one month, she assembled meticulous notes, documenting the massive neglect. ”The nursing home was terribly understaffed, and people were literally left alone for hours at a time. It was just heartbreaking and tough to be working in the midst of it,“ she says. ”I remember one time in particular I had to work a double shift because of a bad snowstorm, and when I got home, I just sat in the bathtub and cried.“ Yet in the end her perseverance paid off, when the state of Arkansas passed a series of legislative reforms for nursing homes that were the direct result of her team’s findings.

After her stint with the attorney general’s office, Daggett was accepted to Yale Law School. As she neared graduation, she knew she wanted to work in some type of public interest capacity, perhaps civil rights, perhaps environmental law. ”That was in the late 1980s, and people were beginning to talk a lot about climate change, global warming. I knew that somehow I wanted to help make a difference,“ she says. Daggett had already been exposed to the world of environmental law when she worked for a summer at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Denver after her first year in law school. ”At Yale we were told that in our first year we should do something different, because after that things will become much more serious,“ she says. ”I lived in Boulder, worked in Denver, did a lot of hiking and camping. Little did I know that even though I thought this was something different I was just doing for the summer, I would end up working in the area years later,“ she muses. After law school Daggett and a friend saved up their money and spent six months living in Ecuador, learning the language, the culture and researching social programs. She returned to Washington and clerked for a district court judge. It was on a blind date that she met her husband, Michael Bennet, and she realized this was no ordinary matchup. ”I remember thinking Michael was attractive and funny, but he seemed a little shy,“ she recalls. ”We had gone with another couple to an outdoor concert on a Friday. When I went to work on Monday, I was hand-delivered a note from Michael inviting me to the symphony the next weekend. That was our first real date, and we started seeing each other regularly after that.“

In the meantime, Daggett received a job offer to move to Bozeman, Mont., where the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund had just opened a branch office. Bennet moved with her for six months, where he spent some time hiking, cross-country skiing and learning to fly-fish. After he returned to Washington to start a new job, the couple regularly commuted back and forth. ”This was a dream job,“ she says. ”At that time there was talk of a massive gold mine that was going to be constructed outside of Yellowstone. The mining activity would pollute the headwaters, potentially impact Yellowstone, and we wanted to stop development of the new mine.“ For the next two years, Daggett worked tirelessly, litigating the case and focusing on political and regulatory issues. In the end, they won the lawsuit. With the litigation a success, Daggett returned to Washington to work for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Daggett and Bennet were engaged in the winter of 1996, when he was serving as special counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno in the Clinton administration. Bennet was detailed to the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut; Daggett remained in Washington. After six months of commuting the pair moved to Denver so Daggett could start a new job as an environmental attorney doing public lands and natural resources work. They were married in the fall of 1997.

Looking back on her life, Daggett’s eyes shine as she recalls the path she has traveled, both on her own and in partnership with her husband. ”My parents never pushed me to do anything extraordinary,“ she admits. ”Both of them had gone to the University of Arkansas, and although they were always supportive of me, they had no special goals they wanted me to reach. They saw points in time when I needed to be taken out of a potentially bad situation, such as high school. But for myself, I’ve always been a fairly opinionated person, and I’ve always had a sense of self-confidence and some level of understanding that I’d be OK no matter what I decided to do. I’m a very adaptable person, and I learned how to move from one world to another with little interruption,“ she acknowledges. The worlds she refers to were as different as night and day, beginning with the small destitute town where she grew up and the faster-paced climate of Memphis, where she attended high school. ”My mother would drop me off in what she called Ken and Barbie land, where everything was beautiful, and then on the weekend I would return home. Those experiences helped me to understand I could take chances and that I would not fail,“ she says. Today her life experiences have set her on a sure and steady path of confident optimism. ”I know this is going to be hard, and my challenge is to make it fun for my kids and to make sure we have a steady family life. Our kids’ lives are so normal now, and I want them to remain that way. I want my kids to be challenged rather than pampered, and I want them to learn to be resilient and to understand how to survive and thrive in situations that aren’t always easy.“

Even when her husband was school superintendent, the couple made sure their kids, who are products of the Denver Public School System, never received preferential treatment of any type. In all aspects of their lives, the couple has strived to retain a sense of utter normalcy, especially as it affects their children. ”We’re very clear with the teachers that it’s not OK for our kids to expect any type of special consideration, and to the teachers’ credit they have never singled out Michael as anyone other than a parent when he’s visited the kids’ school. The kids understand that their dad has a job like any other dad, and in that sense it has never been a problem. Now with the Senate appointment, it’s really a non-issue because the kids don’t understand anything about what he’s doing. I’m going to keep their lives as consistent as possible and be around for the kids as much as I can.“ Her dedication to family was evidenced by her determination to spend as much quality time as possible with her children. A long-time environmental attorney with Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which later became Earth Justice, she eventually whittled her career to part time and eventually stopped. ”The last year I was working I had a very heavy load. Michael and I were constantly juggling, who could be in the house at the end of the day to get the kids to their various activities, feed them dinner, get them to bed. Our oldest daughter was 5 at the time, and it was getting more demanding,“ she recalls. Still, it took her another year to stop working, a decision that did not come lightly. ”I was the managing attorney in the office and had a lot of administrative responsibilities. I didn’t like managing the office without being able to do the substance, and I felt badly not being able to carry out the real work of Earth Justice, which was about protecting the environment. And at the same time I was preventing someone else from doing this job.“

When her youngest daughter was 1 year old, Daggett made the break. Still, she candidly admits she misses the action. ”I have a fair amount of energy, but I realize I’m not a good stay-at-home mom,“ she acknowledges. ”I’m not a traditional homemaker, and I don’t enjoy the domestic chores,“ she says with a grin. While many women would relish the thought of being able to break from the hustle and bustle of the working world, Daggett is not of this mindset. Her busy schedule includes sitting on the board of the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which she refers to as a ”way to stay in the conservation world without it being a full-time job.“ She is very involved in her kids’ school and has worked as a consultant on energy policy for a local advocacy group. Until recently she served in an appointed capacity as a commissioner of the Denver Water Board, a commitment that consumed several hours each month. Now, she must prepare herself for a new type of job, one that will thrust her front and center into a highly visible and scrutinized role. Clearly, she’s up to the challenge. ”This is going to be so different for us, but I am going to do what it takes to keep our lives on a steady path,“ she says. ”We made a deliberate decision to be here, and we love everything we have here. We’ve spent a lot of time in D.C., and we could have been there all along, but we chose not to. So this opportunity fits what we want for our family. Michael will come back to Denver on the weekends, and we’ll all get in the minivan, throw in our fishing poles and hiking boots, and we will continue to spend time together as a family, doing what we love.

”One of the reasons Michael and I fell in love and made it work through all the jobs and challenges is that we have been fundamentally driven by our desire to make the world a better place for our kids. This has been a primary motivation in every job I’ve had, and I like to think, in the choices I’ve made along the way. In everything I do, there is an element of wonder regarding what I could be doing right now to make things better for my family and my community. Michael is with me on this every step of the way, whether in his job as head of DPS, which was highly political, or in life. ”I did not grow up in a political family, but the experiences I’ve had brought me to the same place as Michael, whose father was always in public service. But in the end, we both want the same thing for our kids, and that’s for them to embrace this life, and to also want to one day help make the world a better place.“

Written by Ellen Gray
Photography by Duke Shoman

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