Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper spent some time last week at the Washington, D.C. home of Hillary Clinton as she approaches the final stages of choosing her running mate. Hickenlooper kept his trip pretty quiet — some top Democrats in Colorado didn’t know he was visiting with Clinton — and he hasn’t commented to media about how his talks with her went.
Others summoned to the Clinton home were Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal firebrand, and HUD Secretary Julian Castro. Days earlier, Clinton had campaigned with U.S Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, whom she is also vetting for veep.
Hickenlooper is known as an amiable, pro-business technocrat governor of a purple swing state who’s neither a polarizing partisan warrior nor a buck-stops-here kind of leader. He’s a consensus builder who would rather make everyone happy than ruffle feathers with strident policy stances. His background is in brew pubs and geology. He was the mayor of Denver before becoming governor.
What Hickenlooper could bring to the ticket would be a leg up for Clinton in carrying the key state of Colorado, which she would have to do if Donald Trump ends up breaking through in the Midwest. Another plus could be Hickenlooper’s quirky, entrepreneurial craft beer personality that might connect with younger voters, which Clinton would want to draw in. Hickenlooper loves Colorado and he’s spent plenty of time downplaying his chances (and interest) in being vice president. But that also fits into his self-styled brand as Colorado’s marketer-in-chief. He can’t make it look like he’s trying to leave.
That said, the governor this year published a memoir and recently got re-married. So we thought we’d separate fact from fiction and offer some in-state context about Hickenlooper, who, if he’s lucky, will snag the VP nomination he has clearly been eying.
Everyone knows Colorado legalized marijuana. What did Hickenlooper have to do with it?
Hickenlooper didn’t legalize marijuana in Colorado. Voters did in 2012 when they passed an amendment to the state constitution. Hickenlooper was against the ballot initiative, and after the vote he said he wished he could wave a magic wand and reverse the decision.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done it … I opposed it from the very beginning. In matter of fact, all right, what the hell — I’ll say it was reckless,” he said during a 2014 debate against his Republican opponent.
When speaking in Texas this spring, Hickenlooper warned other states about making recreational pot legal.
“Let me tell you, if you’re trying to encourage businesses to move to your state, some of the larger businesses, think twice about legalizing marijuana,” he said at a conference in Dallas. But later, when pressed by media about which businesses he was talking about, his office said, “The governor knows marijuana is part of the conversation in recruiting companies to Colorado, but it has not had any measurable impact to the economy.”
Hick has gradually changed his tune. Having been responsible for overseeing the administration of the world’s first legalized recreational marijuana market, he now says that program is working. And, toward the end of this year’s legislative session, Hickenlooper made marijuana personal. When there was a pending bill to allow medical marijuana in schools, he said he supported it because if his son needed medical marijuana at school he would want him to be able to get it. The bill passed.
Bottom line: Hickenlooper has waffled on weed.
What’s up with those gun control measures he passed in 2013?
Perhaps one of Hickenlooper’s highest re-election hurdles in the wave Republican midterms of 2014 was what became know as his gun gaffe. But what dinged him a bit in Colorado could end up an asset on the national level.
Under Democratic control, lawmakers in 2013 passed a package of gun control laws that expanded background checks and limited the number of bullets a gun magazine could hold.
The new laws incensed gun-rights groups and conservatives, and led to unprecedented legislative recall elections in which three Democrats were ousted, including the then-president of the state Senate. County sheriffs in Colorado also sued Hickenlooper, but lost. The gun bills feature prominently in an anti-Hickenlooper film called “Rocky Mountain Heist,” produced by Citizens United.
When he was running for re-election in 2014, Hickenlooper tried to charm a group of sheriffs to win their votes. But his comments to the group backfired big-time when they became public. The governor told the sheriffs he had been unaware they wanted to meet with him before he signed the laws into effect. Hickenlooper also said he hadn’t spoken to gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg, but a conservative website obtained cell phone records that indicated otherwise. He also told the sheriffs, “If we’d known that it was going to divide the state so intensely, we probably would have thought about it twice.”
Though the gun gaffes played over and over in his 2014 reelection campaign, Hickenlooper still won, and voters elected Democrats in the legislative races where they’d been ousted in the gun recalls.
Clinton has made gun safety and curbing gun violence a key part of her campaign. In her final days campaigning in Colorado in February, she pushed the issue front and center.
Bottom line: Hickenlooper as Clinton’s VP could open the ticket to criticism by a loud and well-funded segment of gun voters. But in a presidential election in which gun control will no doubt be a topic of much debate, Hick could also say he passed stricter gun-safety measures as governor of Colorado than anything the federal government has been able to do.
Did he really drink fracking fluid? Why? And what does that mean?
Hickenlooper says he did. During a 2013 hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, he told lawmakers that he once drank a new kind of fracking fluid concocted by Halliburton.
Some Coloradans had heard this story before — a year earlier. So the governor put out an explanation when news of his oil-and-gas guzzling stunt made headlines.
“Although tasting frack fluid might seem newsworthy to some, it was not really the point of testimony we recently gave to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in Washington, D.C. We were drawing attention to the fact that Colorado has created the most comprehensive and stringent set of regulations around oil and gas production in the country,” he said.
Hickenlooper is a former geologist who is pro-fracking and is seen as an ally of the oil-and-gas industry in Colorado. That’s partly why some environmentalists aren’t crazy about him.
In 2014, prior to the midterm elections, he orchestrated a compromise between fracktivists and the oil-and-gas industry, which saved the state from a massive battle over ballot initiatives on both sides. But in trying to please everyone, he might have ended up pleasing nobody. That battle could play out on this year’s ballot, anyway.
One hard knock made against Clinton by progressive supporters of her former Democratic rival Bernie Sanders is that she won’t come out against fracking as Sanders has. As Secretary of State, she supported hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Bottom line: On the fracking issue, Hickenlooper likely wouldn’t help Clinton with progressive environmental voters, but also wouldn’t alienate fossil fuel conservatives.
Hickenlooper created Colorado’s first water plan. So, what’s the plan?
Colorado’s governor has acted like he doesn’t want to move to D.C. He has said that he loves his job, loves Colorado, and spent months brushing away talk about becoming vice president, ambassador, or whatever. If he doesn’t make veep, maybe he’d follow in the footsteps of Coloradan Ken Salazar as head of the Department of the Interior. (In March, Hickenlooper actually floated the idea that Salazar should be Clinton’s VP.)
In that regard, it’s useful to know that Hickenlooper created, by executive order, Colorado’s first-ever statewide water plan in response to the effects of climate change and a looming shortfall predicted for 2050. So far, since the proposal came out in the winter, it has been a $4 million undertaking, and as The Colorado Independent has reported, the 400-plus-page document is more of a water study than a real strategy. Key water experts have been unimpressed, characterizing the plan as a “compendium of ideas” rather than a real plan for a state whose water resources can’t keep up with growth.
Does Hickenlooper really not run negative campaign ads?
He doesn’t personally. And that’s part of his I’m-a-nice-guy brand that goes along with his self-styled above-the-fray, nonpartisan positive attitude. He didn’t run negative ads during his campaign for mayor, although he did run an ad in which he took a shower with his clothes on saying he felt like he needed to do so whenever he saw an attack ad on TV.
Technically, Hickenlooper didn’t run negative TV ads during his first race for governor or his 2014 reelection campaign, either. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Campaigns now rely heavily on third-party groups to handle their messaging. And those groups did run negative ads about his opponent, Bob Beauprez. In fact, outside groups such as the Democratic Governors Association spent more than $1 million on Hick’s behalf in 2014.
Because campaigns can’t coordinate with the independent groups, Hickenlooper dodged a hit about hypocrisy by saying just that: “The law says I’m not allowed to know or talk to or even shout out to the press what any independent expenditures should or shouldn’t do.”
Bottom line: While Hickenlooper has honored his no-negative-campaigning promise, he hasn’t managed to keep independent groups from heeding what he says are his wishes.
Here’s another thing: Presidential running mates usually serve as attack dogs, so Hickenlooper would likely have to stray outside his comfort zone in playing that role if Clinton chooses him as her veep nominee. The mayor-cum-governor who for years has made a point of keeping his hands clean of political mud has slung some patties for Clinton in recent weeks. He recently held a news conference on the Statehouse steps where he attacked Donald Trump over comments he made about an Indiana-born federal judge of Mexican heritage. Hick’s willingness to get dirty could be a strong sign of how much he wants the VP nod.
What’s his (new) position on the death penalty?
Hickenlooper used to support capital punishment. Now, not so much. Colorado’s governor changed his mind when he was confronted with the decision about whether to put a convicted killer named Nathan Dunlap to death in 2013.
Hickenlooper immersed himself in the issue and deeply researched capital punishment in America. As Dunlap’s execution date neared, he said he couldn’t allow the state to kill a man on his watch, given that state-sanctioned executions are carried out inconsistently. He also concluded that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent to crime. And so Hickenlooper signed an executive order granting a temporary reprieve that would punt a decision to execute Dunlap to a future governor.
That was a big risk, especially given that Hickenlooper was up for re-election the following year. And during his 2014 campaign against Bob Beauprez, it seemed at times the entire election would hinge on Dunlap’s fate. “Colorado’s Governor’s Race Could Come Down to the Death Penalty,” wrote The New Republic. “Colorado’s pro-death penalty voters could make Hickenlooper pay,” The Denver Post wrote.
It was also a signature Hickenlooper move: avoid a tough decision by calling for statewide conversation on the issue.
The thing is, Colorado never really had that big statewide conversation about the death penalty. In fact, as The Colorado Independent reported in January, death penalty abolitionists hit the snooze button on the issue this year in large part because it’s a presidential election year and Hickenlooper wanted to delay the conversation.
Photo credit: Corey Hutchins