Littwin: Lucky John got the deal done

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]T looks like John Hickenlooper has officially broken his long losing streak. Yes, there had been signs of the old Hick recently. He told his terrible shark joke the other day. He played banjo and sang with Old Crow Medicine Show at Red Rocks.

But, still, people wondered. Liberals were mad at him over fracking. Conservatives were mad over guns and the death penalty. The moderates? Everyone likes a winner, and suddenly Hick was tied — yes, tied — with Bob Beauprez in the polls, which people were saying was an occasion for embarrassment.

We watched it all happen. Hick lost on education and taxes. He lost on recalls. His special session gambit failed. His WTF speech with the sheriffs was more than an embarrassment. It made people wonder if the old Hick, who almost never lost, would ever return.

Wasn’t he (as, blush, one columnist had called him) the luckiest man since Ringo? Had his luck really run out?

[pullquote]To get this deal done, all Hickenlooper had to do was to bring together the oil and gas industry, the major environmentalists, the Denver business community, Jared Polis and Frank McNulty. Yep, that’s all.[/pullquote]

Well, that was then. That was before Monday when the Colorado political world moved. It was a frack-quake, but not the bad kind.

In crafting a last-minute fracking compromise, Hickenlooper may not have pulled off the impossible, but he definitely produced the unlikely. He had gotten the center to hold, and Hickenlooper will tell you that when the center holds, all else is right in his world.

To get it done, all he had to do was to bring together the oil and gas industry, the major environmentalists, the Denver business community, Jared Polis and Frank McNulty. Yep, that’s all.

How’d he do it? I guess we’ll learn that in the memoirs. But we can piece together a few things now.

First, he had to persuade the oil people that they were taking an absurd gamble in playing the initiative game. What if they lost? And even if they won, after spending $20 million or more, wouldn’t the fracktivists be back next year and the year after? After all, this wasn’t just some issue to be negotiated on the fracktivist side. This was a cause — and a righteous one. And in a bottom line game, the oil people had to step back from the ideological ledge and let someone else jump.

Second, he had to persuade Polis that he had backed himself into a corner, and that only Hickenlooper knew the way out. The oil people were going to make him the bad guy. They were going to kick Polis around, figuring that there’s nothing that your typical voter likes to kick around more than your typical rich guy libertarian liberal. The polls showed the initiatives could go either way. And there was more. The DCCC — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — leaned heavily on Polis, who has ambitions to be a player in the House. What concerned the Democrats was not the TV money so much — but the money that would be used to get out the Republican vote. And if those Democrats in tough races — Mark Udall and Andrew Romanoff, for starters– were to lose, Polis would take much of the blame.

Third, Hickenlooper knew that if he could take the money out of the picture that the initiatives would be gone, too. The default position on all initiatives is to vote against. Without millions of dollars of annoying TV commercials, you’re very unlikely to win.

Fourth, he had to make sure that all the important players could claim victory. This was especially important in Polis’s case, because he was clearly the loser. But Polis got Hick to drop the Longmont lawsuit, although it’s unclear where that leaves local control. Oil got … richer. In case you’re wondering who’s the winner in this fight, it’s the same people who win in every fight. According to Bloomberg, this was seen as a huge win in the oil world. The two major Colorado producers both won on the stock exchange — Noble Energy gaining 5.2 percent on the day while Anadarko Petroleum had to settle for 4.8 percent. Meanwhile, the mainstream environmental groups, who are pushing hard for Udall, got cover for privately pressuring Polis by saying they supported the initiatives that are no longer there. And McNulty, who co-sponsored one of the pro-oil initiatives, told the Denver Post, “We are celebrating our victory and withdrawing (Initiative) 121.” His victory was apparently oil’s victory, which turns out to be the Democrats’ victory, which is clearly Hickenlooper’s victory. So, go figure.

No one figured on this. Hickenlooper had made these same arguments when he was pushing for a special session, and Polis didn’t budge, and the oil companies didn’t budge. It may not have been certain what impact the anti-fracking initiatives would have in November, but what was clear was that Democrats were nervous and the Republicans were not. Still, Hick got his deal in the end.

And so, with the Great Colorado Fracking Wars Compromise, the issue goes to a committee and doesn’t resurface until next year, long after the elections. And whatever happens next, Hickenlooper’s winning streak is now definitely in play.

[ Photo of Gov. John Hickenlooper by Hans Watson.]


  1. Maybe Hickenlooper has won, but as an average Colorado citizen who appreciates Colorado’s referendum process as a mechanism for maintaining a more populist democracy (as opposed to the kind of ‘democracy’ controlled and purveyed by a restricted elite), I feel like I have lost. A committee whose members are appointed by an ambitious and “business-friendly” politician isn’t a good substitute for citizens’ opportunity to vote.

  2. The feeling on the Western Slope is the fight was lost…not only lost, but betrayed by the folks we were counting on to protect us from the grips of the big oily guys…fracking is still bad…the foxes are now eating the chickens, so to speak…the fight for local control is not over….

  3. […] The Governor had pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the well and announced the unlikely — he’d rallied big natural gas executives, green organizations and Democratic Boulder Congressman Jared Polis behind a blue ribbon commission to settle the flare-hot issue of communities’ local control over oil and gas development. The two initiatives to limit fracking that Polis was backing financially, and which had been a big part of the motivation for Wislocki’s film, were officially wiped out. […]

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