Hello Colorado, it’s still me, John
John Hickenlooper is generally a crowd pleaser, but in a debate earlier this month against Bob Beauprez, he said something that drew scoffs and boos.
He was being grilled by Beauprez — the former congressman vying to unseat him — about controversial gun-control measures passed last year that turned the Capitol into a heated protest zone. Citizens had packed committee rooms. Drivers circled the building honking horns. A hired airplane buzzed over the gold dome trailing a banner that read “Hick: Don’t take our guns.”
During the September 6 debate in Grand Junction, Beauprez asked if Hickenlooper would apologize for telling Colorado sheriffs he hadn’t spoken to New York City Mayor and top gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg before supporting the laws.
Hickenlooper stammered, explained that he had been misunderstood, and then said, “I haven’t been in politics, Bob.”
“Oh, c’mon!” shouted a woman on the Beauprez side of the room.
Hickenlooper hasn’t “been in politics”?
He has in fact served in elected office for more than a decade, since making a successful underdog run for Denver mayor in 2003, sliding into reelection with a commanding margin in 2007 and waltzing into the governor’s office against warring conservative candidates in 2011.
Yet people who know and have worked with him for years say he still sees himself as an outsider to politics — at least today’s dominant form of rough-and-tumble partisan politics. He has managed to win elections above the fray, beyond typical partisan mudslinging, and to keep his record in office uniquely nonpartisan. His famously quirky, non-aggressive, collaborative style is how he has practiced politics, and it is also his political brand.
It has served him remarkably well, right up until the spring of last year, when gun control and the death penalty landed at the center of state politics and raised the temperature on every side by a thousand degrees. They’re issues that don’t lend themselves to compromise and so seemed especially resistant to a Hickenlooper approach. Any bill aimed at limiting gun rights is painted as an assault on the 2nd Amendment. And capital punishment is by definition black and white. Voters are either for it or against it. Death-row prisoners are either alive or dead. Suddenly, Hickenlooper-style inclusive and collaborative seemed inadequate. Or as his opponents say, “weak.”
Now, a month and half from Election Day, Hickenlooper is locked in a neck-and-neck race to keep his seat. A recent Quinnipiac poll of likely midterm voters — a traditionally more conservative demographic — has Hickenlooper trailing ten points behind Beauprez, who lost his 2006 bid for governor by 17 points to Bill Ritter and since has embraced radical positions such as one that demonizes nearly half of Americans whom he said don’t pay federal income taxes and one that argues people would “line up like sheep” to have the government implant microchips in their bodies. A Project New America poll has Hickenlooper up by 7 points. And a more typical USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll lists the race at a statistical dead heat, putting the governor ahead by 2 points.
The surprise, of course, is that the race is so close. No incumbent governor has lost in Colorado in decades, and before last year’s movement to recall Democratic state lawmakers, hardly anyone thought Hickenlooper might be the one to break that streak.
Hickenlooper’s strength has been his uncommon ability to find common ground. But now he finds the race being defined by two divisive issues — guns and capital punishment — that leave him with little common ground to stand on.
Before he entered politics, Hickenlooper launched one of Denver’s first urban breweries, Wynkoop, and was pivotal in the enormously successful redevelopment of the city’s LoDo neighborhood. He supported several progressive causes through Chinook Fund, a Denver philanthropy he helped found. His only foray into the public sphere had been a quasi-successful, populist campaign opposed to a movement to put a corporate name on Mile High Stadium.
Hickenlooper was a relatively unknown candidate in the crowded 2003 mayoral race, and nothing better illustrated his outsider image than his advertising at the time: Images of classic blue-and-white name-tag stickers reading “Hello! My name is … John.” His name appeared in his own handwriting. Hickenlooper followed the name-tag campaign with a series of political ads as deft as they were goofy. In one, he walked around the city feeding change into parking meters, heading off the meter-man while arguing that the high-price of parking was killing business downtown.
He molded his image as Denver’s everyman — a humble urban hero as comfortable behind a bar as in a 17th Street boardroom. He sought to fix what was wrong in a city that had been led for 12 years by Mayor Wellington Webb, who had built a museum about himself and named Denver’s new administrative headquarters The Wellington Webb Building.
Riding into office with a positive campaign, and never having sniped at his opponents, Hickenlooper carried sometimes staggering approval ratings as mayor. He cleared the city’s $70 million deficit and won reelection in 2007 with 87 percent of the vote.
Deploying largely the same “everyone’s everyman” approach in 2010, he easily won the governorship when Tea Partier Dan Maes and firebrand former Congressman Tom Tancredo effectively split the state’s Republican vote. Tancredo ran as a Constitutional Party candidate, mocking Maes all the way to Election Day as a hopeless amateur. When Hickenlooper snagged a victory with 51 percent of the vote, pundits said he won the race on style and without much effort. They meant that as a compliment. There was something different and refreshing about upbeat Hickenlooper politics. Observers began talking about a 2016 Hickenlooper presidential bid.
Hickenlooper took office when the state faced a $1 billion budget deficit. His first State of the State speech focused on improving the recession-hobbled economy by emphasizing jobs and streamlining regulations. Republican lawmakers sang his praises.
“We’re thrilled by the Governor’s commitment to reduce the size of government, reform burdensome regulatory policies and create jobs,” Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, told The Denver Post at the time. “It sounds a lot like our agenda. What’s not to like?”
Then-Speaker of the Republican-controlled House Frank McNulty was also optimistic about the new governor.
“We’ve had several conversations and they’ve been very productive,” McNulty said. “I get the sense that he’s a man of his word, and he’s very sincere in his effort to work with the legislature.”
When Hickenlooper became governor, it was the first time he served in office under the label “D” — Democrat. Denver mayors don’t serve under partisan affiliation. The scene was well set for a politician who identified himself far more by his “everyman” brand than by his political party. The legislature was split. Republicans controlled the
House and Democrats controlled the Senate. Compromise and collaboration would be the watchwords. Hickenlooper wouldn’t be calling the shots; he’d be setting the table.
“You and I both know Hickenlooper would like to have an ‘I’ by his name for ‘Independent’, but you don’t get elected like that,” said Tom Cronin, a Colorado College political scientis who studies swing-state politics in Colorado. He’s also a Hickenlooper supporter who has co-hosted fundraisers for him and offered occasional words of advice.
“He’d like to be a freelancer. That’s his style.”
Hickenlooper maintained broad bipartisan support among lawmakers as recently as early 2013. When, at the end of a General Assembly speech, he bungled an effort to quote Robert Louis Stevenson and said, “Oh Jesus,” his flub drew hearty laughs in the chamber.
“I think he’s a wonderful man. He came off very well as our governor,” Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, told The Denver Post.
But Hickenlooper wasn’t prepared for 2013.
Riding the wave of Barack Obama’s re-election, Democrats held majorities in both chambers of the legislature. The summer before the General Assembly opened session in January, James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 more when he shot up an Aurora movie theater. The summer after the session ended in May, convicted-murderer Nathan Dunlap, out of appeals after nearly two decades, was set to be executed. The year would become all about guns and the death penalty.
With the Aurora massacre still fresh in the minds of Colorado lawmakers, a deranged young man went on a shooting spree at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, just weeks before the legislative session got underway. The tragedy shocked the nation. References to the iconic 1999 shootings at Columbine High School just south of Denver were everywhere in the news. Democrats in power at the Capitol felt the need to act. They unveiled a suite of seven gun-control bills, including proposals to ban ammunition magazines that contained 10 rounds or more (later upped to 15 or more), close loopholes on universal background checks for gun purchases, and hold manufacturers of assault rifles liable for injuries and death resulting from use of their products.
The bills set political fires raging. After Hickenlooper signed them into law, two Democratic state senators were recalled from office by frustrated gun-rights constituents in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. A year later, Hickenlooper is still struggling to tamp down the flames.
Capitol insiders wonder why instead Hickenlooper didn’t work early on to kill the bills or at least to better control the conversations around them before they were introduced. After all, he signaled in the wake of the Aurora Theater shooting that he didn’t believe gun control was the best response to senseless mass shootings.
“If there were no assault weapons available and no this or no that, this guy is going find something, right?” Hickenlooper told CNN. “He’s going to know how to create a bomb.”
He also suggested after the fact that he didn’t fully support the 15-round magazine ban and that he was monitoring the legislature and never expected to have to sign it into law.
“I think a lot of people, if they’d known how much commotion was going to come out of the high capacity magazines, probably would have looked for something different, or a different approach,” he told the sheriffs at their annual meeting this past June. “To be honest, no one in our office thought it would get passed… There were several Democrats that said without question they weren’t going to vote for it.”
The meeting with the sheriffs was fateful. It’s what Beauprez was referencing when he was grilling Hickenlooper in debate.
The governor took the meeting in order to try and smooth out rancor that had grown around the gun laws. The sheriffs were a main opposition bloc. Many of them had joined a suit targeting the law that banned high-capacity magazines. They argued the law violated the 2nd Amendment and was unenforceable. They lost in the first-round court hearing on the matter and they were still angry. Hickenlooper was clearly frustrated and looking to apologize for what he saw as the communication breakdown that led to such intense emotions and bad feelings.
Why didn’t you make time to talk with us about the bills? they wanted to know.
“How many apologies do you want? What the fuck,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper’s response flowed with the rest of the conversation, which was colloquial and frank, but it was being videotaped and the footage was later posted online by a conservative candidate-tracker website. It went semi-viral. Hickenlooper was made to seem pandering and off-balance. Beauprez called him unprincipled and lacking in leadership. Addressing the topic in debate, Hickenlooper seemed to stumble all over again, drawing the boos born of still-simmering resentment.
“My theory is he believed in his ability to manage his way through the political turmoil and he definitely underestimated either the turmoil or overestimated his ability to manage it,” said Kopp, who went from praising Hickenlooper’s anti-regulatory agenda in 2011 to running to unseat him as a candidate in this year’s Republican primary.
In fact, only five of the seven proposed gun bills ever made it to Hickenlooper’s desk. The measure to make assault rifle manufacturers legally liable for death and injury and another to ban guns on university campuses never made it out of chambers.
Hickenlooper may or may not have a hand in quashing those bills. He certainly showed no hesitation in working the legislature in that way. It was the approach he took when he let it be known he would veto a bill aimed at outlawing capital punishment, prodding the bill’s Democratic sponsor to withdraw it.
“We must have a larger statewide conversation on capital punishment,” the governor explained.
But it was Hickenlooper alone who had to reckon with the approaching August execution date set for Dunlap. It would be the first execution in the state in 15 years. There was no time for a statewide conversation.
Hickenlooper previously had said he supported the death penalty. But he was clearly conflicted. He was raised a pacifist Quaker and now, faced with the decision and strong pressure by several members of his staff who opposed capital punishment, he hesitated. He met with a priest and, in the end, did a most Hickenlooper kind of thing: He made a decision that he thought would respectfully demonstrate he saw both sides of the issue. He granted Dunlap a reprieve. The execution was postponed. Another governor could reverse the decision.
But the death penalty — and the fate of convicted murderers — isn’t an issue where shades of gray prevail or where people are sympathetic to thoughtful finessing.
Republicans derided the decision as cowardly, slamming Hickenlooper for kicking the can down the road and circumventing justice. Democrats, many stinging from the failure of the death penalty abolition bill, saw the temporary reprieve as a half measure at best.
Hickenlooper since has come out firmly in opposition to the death penalty. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of taking people’s lives,” he said.
For Kathy Hazouri of Coloradans Against the Death Penalty, Hickenlooper’s struggles with the death penalty were frustrating to watch unfold. “You can only do so many panels, or committees, or whatever, when in the long run it has to be [a governor’s] decision,” she said. Still, Hazouri was relieved that Hickenlooper’s decision was carefully considered. She said she prefers his think-it-through style of governing to rash policy decisions.
But the political backlash from the Dunlap decision still reverberates among Republicans. The Governor fueled that anger last month in an interview with CNN. What if his campaign opponent promises to execute Dunlap? he was asked in reference to the fact that Beauprez has repeatedly made such a promise. Hickenlooper said an option would be to grant clemency. The comments generated a rash of Republican attack ads accusing the governor of holding justice hostage.
The political crucible was as hot as it had ever been in Colorado and the two issues boiling at its center sharply divided Colorado Democrats from Republicans. Even now, when some Republicans turn to criticize Hickenlooper, it’s not his politics or ideology that concern them, exactly. It’s that they think he caved to the more liberal wing of his party.
“He didn’t govern on his own agenda, he governed on the agenda that the Democrats in the legislature were handing to him,” Kopp said.
For all the turmoil, Hickenlooper’s “everyone’s everyman” approach has worked on some extraordinarily challenging issues. He weathered a very unpopular decision to slash the K-12 education budget by $375 million in 2011 and he has grappled successfully with a recession-wracked economy. All the numbers are up and, most significantly, Colorado has jumped from 40th to 4th in the nation for job creation — a figure Hickenlooper regularly cites on the stump.
Hick credits his success to bipartisanship. He notes he has built one of the least-partisan cabinets on record. His cabinet members include 60 percent Democrats, 23 percent Republicans and 17 percent unaffiliated voters.
Kathy Green, Hickenlooper’s press secretary, said his inclusive approach is “more reflective of Colorado as a whole, which makes developing policies, passing budgets and moving forward the economic agenda that much more efficient and effective.”
Green also emphasized the bipartisan victories that have come in some of the legislative battles Hickenlooper did choose and personally invested himself in winning. Like the one over Referendum S, she points out, which reformed the state’s personnel system. Hickenlooper ran a light-hearted radio campaign for the reform with former Republican Governor Bill Owens.
Hickenlooper was similarly successful in responding to the scourge of natural disasters that has battered the state during his tenure. Wildfires raged in the north and the south during recent blazing-hot and dry summers and, in 2013, Colorado endured a double whammy Biblical flood followed by the shutdown of the federal government. Hickenlooper responded by releasing nearly $70 million in emergency state funds. A month later, he announced that every one of the 27 highways closed during the crisis was passable again, ahead of schedule.
And last month, Hickenlooper seemed to pull a rabbit out of his hat as the clock ticked down toward November’s election and a costly, uncertain battle over oil-and-gas hydraulic fracturing dominated headlines. A movement for greater local control over drilling on the residential Front Range met stiff resistance from the powerful oil-and-gas industry and the state. Citizens of the gas patch and their congressional Representative Jared Polis proposed ballot initiatives to give cities and towns greater zoning authority. Those initiatives drew opposing initiatives by the drilling industry. The battle lines threatened to upend campaign politics, bombard Coloradans with multi-million dollar messaging campaigns and end in rigid constitutional amendments restricting drilling that would have drawn a rash of lawsuits.
Hickenlooper first tried to defuse the fracking war by suggesting compromise laws could be passed in a special legislative session. The warring parties couldn’t come together. Hickenlooper tried again and succeeded. He presided over a compromise, where the main parties agreed to stand down and let a commission appointed by Hickenlooper make recommendations next year to the legislature that would ease tensions and address concerns.
Hickenlooper has a well-established record of working well with others to solve difficult problems and at managing not to offend in the process. He also now has a record that shows he’s less good at the kind of partisan brawling that has marked contemporary politics around the country and in which it’s impossible not to offend.
“It’s not always easy carving out the new political middle,” is the way Politico put it in a recent article on “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter in this age of gridlock and dysfunction.”
“After spending down his political capital on controversial issues, Hickenlooper’s popularity is falling. Still… his leadership stands in damning contrast to the polarized politics of just about everywhere else.”
But will that matter to voters in mid-October, when the state’s universal mail ballots begin landing in voters’ hands around the state? It matters to Democrats. If Hickenlooper won’t attack Beauprez’s record, outside groups — labor unions or the Democratic Governor’s Association — will begin buying up broadcast air-time to do it in his place. Those groups know Beauprez is an unabashed partisan who relishes a political fight and that he is vulnerable. They will play up the fact that Coloradans rejected him in a landslide loss the last time for governor in 2006 and his unabashed embrace of wingnut theories as a conservative pundit in the Obama era.
Meantime, Hickenlooper will try to polish up and re-sell his non-confrontational kind of leadership as still the most-effective approach to get things done for constituents in the long run — even in a job where he now knows ugly partisan confrontation is inevitable.
For a decade, Hickenlooper hasn’t seen himself as “in politics.” He does now.
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