It is a late Friday afternoon in early February and passengers at Gate 12 of Washington’s Reagan National Airport are displeased.
“Fucking United,” a lawyer-lobbyist gripes when hearing that his flight home to Denver will be delayed.
“Noooo,” grumbles a young congressional staffer who’d skipped out of the office early for a weekend of Vail powder. “I’m going to miss my ride up to the mountains.”
One passenger, though as eager to board as the others, embraces the delay. The man in a candy stripe shirt and black overcoat spends the hour introducing himself to the frequent fliers, stressed-out text messagers and others weary from their week in the orbit of a federal government cranking up after a partial, month-long shutdown.
He shakes the hand of an engineer from Golden who’d been wondering aloud if he is the Colorado governor who was term-limited out of office a few weeks earlier. Then he shakes the hands of the engineer’s colleague and the colleague’s intern and even the woman whose charger the intern is borrowing.
Another passenger wants to know if it’s true what they say on TV, that he’s running for president because, what with the shutdown and that Russian mess, Washington seems kind of, well, broken.
Hearing this, a federal worker in a Broncos scarf looks up from her iPhone. “Wait, you’re, uh, you’re…” she says, fumbling for her “camera” button.
John Hickenlooper flashes his giddy-up smile.
“Yes,” he says and reaches out his hand. “Hi, I’m John.”
A long shot
Hickenlooper is a long shot. And that’s putting it mildly.
The 14th Democrat to launch a 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, he is polling at 1 percent, campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire in the shadows of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. Just last week, the rising Dem star, Beto O’Rourke joined what is expected to be the largest Democratic field in memory. The national press seems to adore Hickenlooper when it’s not calling him naive.
Hickenlooper was a mayor and then governor known for his careful consideration, his on-one-hand-but-on-the-other strategizing over potential outcomes, sometimes to the point of paralysis. This is a man who, while running the city in 2006, agonized over a possible bid for governor to such extent that he would go to bed thinking he was going to run and wake up thinking he wasn’t. When he finally made the announcement he would sit out that cycle, he did so with a sheet of paper on one side of which he’d typed a speech declaring he was in. On the other side he’d scribbled notes about how much he loved being the mayor of Denver. He’d wait four more years before jumping into the governor’s race.
In 2013, Hickenlooper told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza that he didn’t want to be president. And maybe he meant it. But Trump has, as Hickenlooper puts it, “divided the country, angered our most loyal allies, attacked the free press and First Amendment and the very notion of what’s fake and what’s true.” And so he changed his mind about a presidential bid. Trump, Hickenlooper says, has to be beaten.
“The way to do so isn’t by out-talking him or kicking him in the balls. That would just strengthen his base and deepen the divisions,” says the longtime pledger of “clean” campaigns. “I think the only way to beat Trump is by demonstrating an ability to make government work (by getting) people in conflict to work through their disagreements and find compromise moving forward.”
Hickenlooper is running essentially as an anti-Trump, on a record of centrism, compromise, a willingness to listen. He defines himself as a can’t-we-all-just-get-along beacon of optimism in Trump’s American Carnage landscape. He, unlike Trump, isn’t a grudge holder, but rather a “dream-of-what’s-next-and-let’s-figure-out-how-to-do-it person,” says Dan Baer, an Obama-era ambassador and former Hickenlooper cabinet member.
Hickenlooper is running because he thinks it’s his time — or, more to the point, that these extraordinary times need someone like him.
He knows he’s a long shot, a relative unknown leaping into the political fray. But he also knows a little something about being both and has proven he shouldn’t be underestimated.
The political unknown was considered a dark horse 16 years ago when he glad-handed his way into the Denver mayor’s office.
Hickenlooper was used to introducing himself. He has a little-known condition called prosopagnosia that makes it difficult for him to recognize faces. He’s also an extrovert. He says the combination makes social situations “kind of an adventure,” and so he offers handshakes enthusiastically – sometimes introducing himself to people he already knows.
To reach voters whose hands he couldn’t shake personally, his 2003 mayoral campaign rented billboards bearing the image of the timeless “Hello, my name is” nametag, with “John” handwritten in the center. They were signature Hickenlooper: Earnest, folksy, and suggestive of a kinder, more civil approach to politics.
Ever the savvy marketer, the geologist-turned-brewer distinguished himself from the pack of seven mayoral contenders by touting his effort three years earlier to keep the Mile High Stadium name on the new Broncos stadium. It was ultimately dubbed Invesco Field at Mile High for a price of $120 million. But Hickenlooper had tried to block the naming-rights deal by filing a lawsuit arguing the Mile High brand shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder because it had cultural and economic value for Denver.
His defeat in court didn’t keep him from earning props as a spirited champion of a growing city that had yet to brand itself, nor from forging his own brand as a populist underdog. He spoke often about the death of his father, a mechanical engineer after whom he was named, when he was 8. And he talked about having been a lanky, dyslexic and painfully shy kid with Coke-bottle glasses and an odd last name who learned early on to disarm bullies with self-effacing humor.
Hickenlooper was raised and educated at an elite prep school on Philadelphia’s Main Line and then at Wesleyan University in Connecticut where he earned an English degree and later a master’s in geology. After grad school in 1980, he went to work as a field geologist for the Denver-based Buckhorn Petroleum, which laid him off during the energy bust of 1986.
With a severance package and time on his hands, he researched the art and science of micro-brewing, drew up a business plan, and persuaded friends and investors to partner in opening Colorado’s first microbrewery, The Wynkoop Brewing Co., in Denver’s then-dilapidated Lower Downtown neighborhood.
The place was a success, and Hickenlooper parlayed what he calls “the hip new brewpub thing” into investments in more than 30 other hip new pubs and restaurants in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and elsewhere. He also invested in the redevelopment of several empty warehouses near the Wynkoop and helped rebrand the neighborhood as “LoDo” as an influx of galleries and boutiques prodded it, too, toward relative flyover-state hipness.
During that time, he gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Chinook Fund, a nonprofit he co-founded that gives startup grants to progressive community groups in Denver.
The mayoral candidate with the modern art collection and sprawling loft in LoDo’s Titanium Building managed to come off as a regular Joe who was so frugal, he often said, that he didn’t own a suit.
“Had one, but the zipper broke,” he told me during his 2003 mayoral run.
“You know, he even drives a Saturn,” added his spokeswoman.
The timing of his mayoral run wasn’t ideal for his family life. The longtime bachelor who once offered a $5,000 reward to prod a friend to find him a bride had a year earlier married Helen Thorpe, a journalist from Texas. The couple’s baby boy, Teddy, had whooping cough the month his parents moved into their new loft and his father launched his campaign. The new dad was fighting a cold and sleep deprivation as he rocked his wheezing son the morning of our first interview. Thorpe, drained from several nights up with Teddy and ambivalent about her husband’s political ambitions, mentioned something about him being more excited about filling potholes than furnishing their new home.
Politically, though, his timing was impeccable. So was his luck. The newcomer seemed fresh after 12 years of governance by Mayor Wellington Webb who is credited for opening Denver International Airport, redeveloping the Central Platte Valley and reducing the crime rate, but also known for cronyism and political patronage. Webb’s political machine was backing his former police chief Ari Zavaras, as his successor. But Zavaras lost his frontrunner status by misrepresenting that he had a college degree and then telling The Denver Post it was no big deal.
Hickenlooper, an avid reader, Malcolm Gladwell-citer, and Big Idea guy, harnessed the aspirations of educated, upwardly mobile newcomers hankering for a more sophisticated city – a place their friends and family visiting from the coasts would see as more than just a cowtown. An untapped well of fiscally moderate, socially liberal Denverites were drawn to his ideas about streamlining City Hall to run more like a business and changing the culture of city government into a more customer-friendly “service industry.”
His campaign played to those ideals with a TV ad in which, wearing a coin dispenser around his waist like a gun holster, he talked about “making change” in Denver while feeding coins into expired parking meters as a city parking monitor looked on, aghast. The message: That this hi-I’m-John guy was one of us. For some voters, weary after 12 years of Webb, this dorky micro-brewer with the motor scooter and self-deprecating humor had them at hello.
Hickenlooper whizzed into the mayoral run-off and beat his opponent, former state lawmaker turned city auditor Don Mares, with 65 percent of the vote.
It was during that run-off that the distinctions between the liberal Chinook Fund he’d helped found in the ‘80s and his pro-business agenda became clear. Labor unions and some of the groups Chinook bankrolled blasted him for having opposed a living wage in Denver, where he owned seven restaurants and employed 400 workers with the help of a $125,000 city loan and a $3 million subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.
Shortly before his victory, he told me that sometimes the words “progressive”’ and “progress” were mutually exclusive.
Branding a “world-class city”
Denver’s new mayor lucked out by landing the job just as Denver’s economy was bouncing back after its tech bubble burst in the late 1990s. The 9/11 attacks slowed its recovery. Hickenlooper benefited from projects that Webb and former Mayor Federico Peña helped put into place: A new international airport, massive housing construction at the former Stapleton Airport and in the Central Platte Valley, three new sports stadiums, a public library expansion, and the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center.
He kept up the momentum by backing tax increases for arts and culture that bankrolled, among other efforts, expansions at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and Denver Botanic Gardens and an addition to the Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind, the “it” architect of the moment. Whether projects like those turned Denver into the “world-class city” Hickenlooper had promised is debatable. But there’s no doubt they elevated the Mile High brand.
He also pushed for better transportation, including the passage of a $4.7 billion regional tax increase for a light rail system and commuter buses that eased movement not just within Denver, but throughout the metro area. That project involved brokering agreements with a long list of ideologically diverse suburban mayors, many of whom had distrusted Denver city government until that point.
Despite his fear of heights, he parachuted out of a plane (twice, because the first time he wasn’t looking into the camera) for a 2005 ad supporting ballot measures to stave off constitutional spending limits and raise state revenues for transportation, education and other programs throughout Colorado. Backing regional and statewide efforts helped boost his name recognition and build support beyond the city limits. It also helped fill his campaign coffers with contributions from construction companies, developers, lawyers, lobbyists and people working in the financial sector.
Hickenlooper picked former Anschutz Investment Co.’s managing director (and now U.S. Sen.) Michael Bennet as his first chief of staff. Roxane White, a well-respected former executive of several Denver-area nonprofits, took over that job after Bennet left to run Denver Public Schools. The team of neo-liberal and Republican policy wonks set out to professionalize the city. They put in place a customer-friendly 3-1-1 phone system, expedited permitting processes for developers, and lured new businesses – and jobs – to Denver. And they closed Denver’s worst budget gap ever without major staff or service cuts.
His promise to reward and retain high-performing city workers with free meals and other perks didn’t pan out. Neither was he able to put an end to police and sheriff misconduct nor stop officers from having disciplinary issues overturned on appeal to the city’s Career Service board, though he did create a safety oversight committee, appointed a special safety monitor, and adjusted the disciplinary system for errant officers.
Perhaps most destabilizing was Hickenlooper’s failure to plan for the repercussions of the redevelopment that he and his predecessors championed. As housing prices went up, racial and economic diversity declined in wide swaths of Denver, stripping neighborhoods of their cultures and textures, and pricing many residents out of the city.
Meanwhile, citing his effectiveness and eccentricities, Time magazine named him as one of the nation’s top five big city mayors in 2005. A year later, he persuaded the Democratic National Committee to hold its 2008 national convention in the city. After scraping together tens of millions of dollars for that effort, he showed party elite a Denver that organizers portrayed as a hub of microbrewing, rockabilly-listening, bike-riding, downward-dogging, upwardly mobile, tech-savvy, health-and-recycling-obsessed, carbon-light sustainability, civic engagement and tolerance. Meanwhile, his police department spent much of the convention week sweeping up homeless people, silencing protestors and hauling innocent bystanders off to jail.
Whether or not the city vaunted in national headlines that summer reflected reality, Hickenlooper helped Denver achieve some modicum of hip, maybe for the first time since the Beatniks hung out on Colfax. Maybe for the first time ever.
Hick takes the state
Denver’s brander-in-chief had stayed in his lane as mayor, rarely using his office to weigh in on national or international politics. But in 2009, when Ken Salazar resigned from the U.S. Senate to become Barack Obama’s Interior secretary, Hickenlooper threw in his name for Gov. Bill Ritter to consider him when picking a replacement. Bennet, who was running Denver Public Schools at the time, also sought the appointment. By several accounts, the superintendent wowed Ritter with his fluency in national and global affairs, and the mayor underwhelmed him. Bennet beat out his former boss for the Senate seat.
Hickenlooper set his sights on the governor’s office once it became clear that Ritter wasn’t seeking re-election and that Salazar wouldn’t run.
Unlike Denver, which is solidly Democratic, Colorado in 2010 was a purple state with an even blend of Dems, Republicans and independent voters. It was a tough year for Democrats as the Tea Party took aim at Obama and his supporters nationally. Again, luck was on Hickenlooper’s side as a plagiarism scandal took down his most formidable Republican opponent, former Congressman Scott McInnis. That left two weaker conservatives in the race: Anti-immigration crusader Tom Tancredo running in the right-wing American Constitution Party and Republican Dan Maes, who at the time was dogged by ethics scandals.
“Hick,” as the big-city mayor had become known statewide, no longer campaigned about the need for more cafés and public art. He called for economic growth in all parts of the state, a series of non-controversial, nonpartisan state reforms, and more political civility. He neutralized Tancredo’s and Maes’ mudslinging with a TV commercial in which he stood, fully clothed, under a shower because he said negative campaign ads made him feel dirty. The feel-good ad drew national attention, replayed in segments on the nightly news and Sunday morning talk shows.
Tancredo and Maes effectively split the conservative vote in that year’s general election. And Hick’s 51 percent victory in the three-way race – made possible by a strong showing in politically moderate Front Range suburbs – earned him a national rep as a rare Democrat whom independents and moderate Republicans would support.
But that reputation was challenged almost immediately when a troika of hot-button issues – “guns, gays, and grass,” as one of his aides called it – landed on his desk during his first term as governor.
In July 2012, a gunman opened fire during a midnight screening in an Aurora movie theater. He killed 12 people. The state legislature responded with three tough new gun control bills. Hickenlooper signed all three, much to the chagrin of gun rights advocates, including the statewide group of county sheriffs. Two of those laws – one requiring universal background checks before gun sales and the other limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines – led to the recalls later that year of two Democrats in the state Senate.
At a County Sheriffs of Colorado gathering months later, sheriffs confronted Hickenlooper about their displeasure with the magazine limit law and his failure to meet with them and hear their objections before signing it. He was caught on videotape stammering to apologize for the magazine law, saying he and his staff didn’t have all the facts about it. He also said that he was conflicted about supporting the bill, but felt compelled to do so because, he claimed, one of his staff members had gone rogue by “committing to us signing it.” The National Rifle Association described his remarks as “a desperate tap dance,” and sheriffs scorned him for gutlessness. Gun control advocates murmured similar criticisms, albeit more quietly.
Later in 2012, Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana, the first in the nation to give it the green light. Hickenlooper opposed the ballot measure, saying it was “reckless” and “risky.” But he accepted the will of the voters and became the de-facto face of what, by most accounts, was its successful implementation. Conservatives and law-and-order moderates who didn’t know about his early opposition or overlooked it felt burned, saying he should have thrown his weight behind stopping the ballot measure or tried to stall its rollout once it passed. Hickenlooper now says he would oppose national legalization of marijuana, but also thinks the federal government should stop classifying it as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin.
Also in his first term, many right-of-center Coloradans felt alienated by his support for civil unions, gay marriage, and policies allowing driver’s licenses and in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants. Many also derided his backing of Medicaid expansion, which has dramatically cut the number of uninsured Coloradans.
Hickenlooper, ever eager to find middle ground, took care to balance those Democratic stances with policies that appealed to moderates and conservatives. He signed an executive order against unfunded state mandates; set customer service goals for every state agency; consolidated more than 30 departments to cut duplication in state government; and launched a program called “Cut the Burden,” which eased public health and environmental regulatory requirements to make it easier for companies to do business in Colorado.
He also built public-private partnerships, including a much-lauded program that places high school students in apprenticeships within companies that commit to hiring them full time after graduation as an alternative to the college track. About 250 students and 70 companies are participating in Colorado’s CareerWise program, which over the next eight years aims to place one in 10 high school kids in apprenticeships.
Hickenlooper’s successes with economic development were undeniable, eclipsing all others in his eight years as governor. Colorado’s unemployment rate fell from 9 percent to 3 percent, and its ranking as the nation’s 40th most job-creating state skyrocketed to somewhere between 1st and 6th, depending on the list.
“There were natural forces at play there, sure. But John made a deliberate effort to sell Colorado as a place where it’s great to do business,” his lieutenant governor, Donna Lynne, said in December. “John is the jobs governor. He’s the economic recovery governor. Those are the achievements he’ll be remembered for.”
But as his term progressed, he became a target of the left for his stance on one of the most contentious issues in the state: oil and gas development. Hickenlooper sought, often unsuccessfully, to toe the line between Colorado’s public face as an oasis of wilderness and clean air and his own, pro-oil and gas agenda. Simultaneously, the former petroleum geologist put in place the first program in the nation aimed at limiting methane leaks from oil and gas sites while also quietly dismantling key aspects of Ritter’s clean energy goals.
A rare Democrat with heavy campaign funding from the oil and gas industry, Hickenlooper once publicly drank fracking fluid in an attempt to vouch for its safety. He spent years opposing local bans on drilling. Those efforts led to a 2014 showdown he waged with Jared Polis over the then-Boulder congressman’s backing of two statewide anti-fracking ballot measures, arguing they threatened Democrats in an election year. After months of wrangling, he persuaded Polis to end his financial support for the initiatives, effectively killing their chances of passing.
Hickenlooper now says, “I am unaware of any disagreement I’ve ever had” with Polis, who took office as his successor in January. Polis and Colorado’s newly Democrat-controlled legislature are poised to pass sweeping regulations on oil and gas development this session.
As Hickenlooper’s administration let oil and gas companies pock communities that opposed their presence, and allowed exurban sprawl to coil around existing oil and gas sites, a growing movement of “fractivists” protested the governor they started calling “Frackenlooper.” In 2017, their objections to his laissez-faire policies intensified when an abandoned Anadarko gas line sparked a fatal home explosion in Firestone.
But laissez faire is a relative term in Colorado, and less than an hour north and east of Firestone, rural communities fearing that Hick and his administration would grab their guns, steal their water and strip their liberties tried to secede from the state in 2013. Roxane White – the chief of staff who moved with Hickenlooper from City Hall to the statehouse – recalls meetings in northern Colorado communities where she says “they were just yelling and screaming at us.”
“That was so difficult, because it went against everything John believes in about governing, which is bringing people together rather than letting things splinter.”
Another lowpoint, White and others say, came with the 2013 murder of Hickenlooper’s first corrections director, Tom Clements. Having inherited a prison system that over-relied on solitary confinement, Clements was working to limit its use and end the practice of releasing inmates from long-term isolation directly onto the streets without offering step-down programs to ease them back into civil society. It was tragic enough that he was gunned down at his front door by a man newly paroled from the state prison system. But nearly unbearable to Hickenlooper and others in the administration was the irony that Clement’s killer, Evan Ebel – who happened to be the son of a lawyer friend of Hickenlooper’s – had spent years in solitary confinement, only to have the prison system ignore his requests to participate in a step-down program before he walked free.
“Do you have an obligation to the public to re-acclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?” Ebel asked in three formal grievances, each almost verbatim, filed in the months before he was paroled.
The Corrections Department didn’t answer his final complaint until two weeks after it had already released him. The letter said that because Ebel hadn’t adhered to the department’s line-spacing requirements for written grievances, his wouldn’t be considered. The parolee who long had complained about the prison system having crushed his humanity went on to murder Clements five weeks later.
During his first term, Hickenlooper also faced personal challenges. He and wife Helen Thorpe ended their 11-year marriage in 2012. Thorpe, who was on her way to becoming an award-winning and best-selling nonfiction author, since has openly discussed her discomfort as a politician’s wife. Hickenlooper married Robin Pringle, a vice president at Liberty Media, four years later.
Politically, the roughest patch of Hickenlooper’s governorship came during his 2014 re-election bid. It was a brutal year for Democrats. Popular Democratic Sen. Mark Udall lost his seat to Republican Congressman Cory Gardner, the first incumbent U.S. senator in Colorado to be toppled by a challenger in nearly four decades. Hickenlooper’s prowess at campaign fundraising – snagging unprecedented sums from health care, banking, oil and gas, construction, tech, telecomm, legal and lobbying interests – wasn’t helping him push ahead of his conservative Republican opponent, Bob Beauprez, in the polls. The former congressman was so far right that on talk radio he likened Americans to sheep who are living under a “one world order” and eagerly would line up to let the government implant microchips in their bodies.
For about 12 hours from election night until the following morning, it looked as though Beauprez had unseated the governor. But Hickenlooper managed to squeak ahead with a three-point victory. That slim margin, a close advisor says, “scared the living crap out of John in terms of his political future.” The advisor and others say the experience prodded Hickenlooper to shift to the right in his second term and to stay out, at least publicly, of state Democratic politics.
Notably, Hickenlooper didn’t commit to helping his then-lieutenant governor, Joe Garcia, run to replace him when term-limited out of office this year. Garcia went on to resign in 2015 and is now head of the state’s community college system. Three years later, Hickenlooper also didn’t publicly back the gubernatorial bid of Donna Lynne, the longtime health care executive he appointed as his second lieutenant governor, though she essentially ran the state while he travelled the country extolling centrism with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and planting the seeds for his presidential run. Lynne was knocked out in the Democratic primary and is now the chief operating officer of Columbia University’s medical center and CEO of its system of affiliated doctors.
Hickenlooper left the governor’s office in January with a string of unfinished business. He agreed to discuss it – among other issues – a few weeks later when I ran into him at D.C.’s National Airport as he headed home after some presidential campaign prep-work. Once our flight finally boarded and took off, he switched his aisle seat in the 8th row for a middle seat next to me in row 33 for an interview.
We spoke first about the two state constitutional amendments – the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the Gallagher Amendment – that bind Colorado’s budget with strict revenue and spending limits, and a perception that he wouldn’t make the tough decisions needed to ease their stranglehold on state government.
“I’m not sure what tough decisions we haven’t made,” he told me, “we” being his preferred pronoun when talking about his record in office.
“A decision to ask voters to strike them from the Constitution,” I said.
He paused, repositioning his back, which he injured moving a piano at age 35, and acknowledged, “OK, fair enough.” He went on to say TABOR is “with all candor, the stupidest thing we have in Colorado,” but that undoing it and the Gallagher Amendment is an idea “whose time hasn’t come” in terms of “public awareness and readiness.”
Other challenges whose time he said has not yet come include how to raise funding for road and transportation improvements — the state has a multi-billion-dollar backlog of transportation needs, which have failed to keep up with population growth. Adequately funding education — the state ranks 42nd nationally – in part to close persistent racial and socio-economic gaps is another core issue with which Colorado had yet to grapple. Voters rejected tax increases for both during his governorship. He said it’ll be up to Polis’s administration to raise enough public awareness to bring about meaningful – and, likely costly– reforms.
He also leaves to Polis the task of implementing Colorado’s first statewide water plan, whose creation he touts as one of his top achievements. The plan is meant to avert a statewide water shortfall that, due to climate change and population increases, is projected for 2050. Because water is such a divisive issue, his administration made a point of seeking input from rural and urban water users, West Slopers and Front Rangers, environmentalists, the outdoor recreation industry, the business community and others. The resulting plan is big on collaboration, but short on action. It fails to prioritize which projects among those competing interests should be funded and to say how, specifically, to pay for them.
Amy Beatie, former executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, has described the plan as “basically just a multi-page tome that’s more narrative than a plan. It’s just a giant thing that just sits on everybody’s desk.” She and other water policy experts say it’ll take “lots of tough decisions” before Colorado can put into action a defined strategy for living within its means.
In response to criticisms that he avoided those water policy decisions, Hickenlooper told The Independent last fall that “Any time you try to do something for the first time and you are … a pioneer, you’re going to get some challenges.”
The tough decision for which Hickenlooper is best known for not making relates to Colorado’s death penalty law.
He supported capital punishment during his run for governor. But as the execution date for convicted Chuck E. Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap drew near in 2013, he reversed his position and granted Dunlap a temporary reprieve. That he did not “commute,” or nix Dunlap’s death sentence, nor seek to address the racial inequities and other “flaws” he said concerned him about how Dunlap’s and other capital cases have been prosecuted, nor work to repeal the death penalty law altogether, troubled several of his closest aides. They expressed their frustration and disappointment to him as they never before had.
Facing criticism that he had punted on yet another controversy, Hickenlooper promised a “statewide conversation” about a death penalty system that has targeted defendants of color at rates exponentially higher than defendants who are white. He never started that discussion.
“I did not execute Nathan Dunlap and I’d grown up my whole life being an eye-for-an-eye supporter,” he said, defending his handling of the issue. “People say I didn’t make the hard decisions. But that was the hardest decision of all.”
As with TABOR reform and increasing transportation and education funding, he says abolishing the death penalty is an idea that “wasn’t ready” during his time in office. “I didn’t think I should eviscerate our legal system, all those witnesses, all the judges and jurors” in Dunlap’s case, he told me.
In the two months since he left office, Colorado’s new Democrat-controlled legislature is poised to pass a law abolishing capital punishment, and Polis has said he is willing to sign it.
This neither-here-nor-thereness, a consistent inclination to avoid conflict and confrontation in the name of compromise, or reason, or carefulness has, critics and supporters say, both helped and hindered Hickenlooper as a leader. He is the sometimes-moderate claiming to be the sometimes-progressive, the bridge-builder who avoids heights. Some attribute the tendency to his narrow 2014 re-election and to concern for how his stances may someday effect his election or appointment to a higher office. Others, more charitably, cite his intuitive ability to choose which battles to fight and which to walk away from.
“There’s something really unappealing about some politicians who say ‘People on this side believe this and people on that side believe that, and I’m somewhere in the middle’,” former Hickenlooper Cabinet member Baer says. “But I don’t see the governor in that role. I think he’s very in tune with constituencies and has an unusual Spidey sense about making sure that you only have fights that are worth having in order to get things done.”
Baer notes that the “canny centrism” with which his former boss approached his job was necessary partly because Colorado is so politically divided, but also because, by statute, its governor’s office holds less power than those in other states.
“I think John’s natural instinct with Colorado has been to go slower because if you go fast and actually say what you’re thinking, you might have northern Colorado voting to secede or a bunch of legislators getting recalled, and you might have a hard time governing from then on,” he says. “Had he commuted Nathan Dunlap’s sentence… had he tried to do away with the death penalty, would he have lost a second term? I don’t know. But I do know know it was a hell of a fight holding on to the seat.”
The upside – and downside – of not making enemies
Hickenlooper asked for two ground rules during our interview on the flight back to Denver: That we not speak on the record about his now-16-year-old son, Teddy, and that he’d go off the record when he felt necessary.
“If you answer all reporters’ questions, things get divisive. If you aren’t careful, you’ll piss everyone off,” he told me.
Given his willingness to move back 25 rows, I acquiesced on the condition that, among other things, he discuss his unwillingness to upset people. You’ve served 16 years in political office, half the time leading a purple state, and you’re running for president in what may be the most politically divisive time in modern U.S. history, I said. Isn’t pissing people off inevitable?
“I hear that,” Hick said. “I’ve been hearing that a lot.”
The now-67-year-old hearkened back to the days in his 30s and 40s when he was trying to persuade a city that had grown up on Coors to try the Wynkoop’s array of microbrews. He said it wasn’t just beer he was selling. It was the experience – the free samples, the friendly touch, the personal connection. “I learned early on in the restaurant business that there’s no margin in making enemies,” he told me, just as he has told hundreds of people in neighborhoods throughout Denver, counties throughout Colorado, and now in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I’ve never persuaded anyone by telling them why they’re wrong and why I’m right. You need to listen to them. You need to repeat what they say back to them, let them know you hear what they’re saying,” he continued, pointing out that his approach is the opposite of Trump’s.
He cited as an example his record as mayor convincing suburban mayors with a wide array of political views to support FasTracks, the system of light rail and express bus services in metro Denver.
As examples go, that particular one is unlikely to win him the Oval Office. But, Hickenlooper is not running for president on big ideas.
Sixteen years after first schmoozing his way into office, he has learned that his brand, his winning formula stems from his ability to listen, to make people feel heard enough to believe that compromise is the best way forward, however old-school that strategy may currently seem.
“It’s not just that we need to get rid of Trump. We need to get back a willingness to collaborate, which has atrophied. There’s a sense that if you collaborate with someone, if you compromise, somehow you’re not strong enough, not good enough,” he said.
Hickenlooper knows that his approach may, in the context of the 2020 race, be counter-intuitive, and lack a certain audacity. He acknowledges that in a race to unseat one of the most pugnacious presidents in history, trying too hard to find middle ground risks coming off as naive and unresolved, untethered from a party that feels its indignation more righteously and urgently than perhaps ever before.
And so the moderate Democrat who years ago told me that sometimes “progressive”’ and “progress” were mutually exclusive wants me to jot down in my notebook that somewhere deep inside him is the geology graduate student who in 1978 wrote a letter to the editor saying health care is a right, not a privilege. He wants folks to appreciate that despite his whiteness and maleness – “things I can’t do anything about” – he understands the dynamics of racism and sexism and oppression. What Democrats and, ultimately, America need to be confident of, he said, is that his heart’s in the right place.
“People don’t think of me as a progressive because I compromised to get things done and am flexible on how we get there. But I’ve stayed pretty true to my core values over the course of my life. The outcome is a progressive outcome even if it’s a compromise,” he said.
It is here, as our flight from D.C. is somewhere over northern Missouri, that Hick starts bouncing all over the map. The longtime oil and gas booster under whose leadership critics say Colorado regressed on green energy issues is saying there’s no other state “to achieve more on progressive issues than (Colorado). We’ve got the greenest people on earth.” One minute he is spinning his progressive credentials while the next he is pointing out that moderates nationally won 37 out of 40 swing districts that Democrats grabbed in the 2018 midterm election, and that beating Trump will require winning swing states like Michigan and North Carolina, and that he’s the Democrat to do it.
As he speaks, I notice that he keeps pointing out my window toward Iowa, which isn’t far north in the darkness. He figures he has a strong shot in the Democratic caucus there next February because his grandfather’s first cousin, Bourke Hickenlooper, had served as governor of Iowa and one of its U.S. senators.
“If you’re over 60, you know the name Hickenlooper in Iowa,” he tells me.
He rattles off a list of talking points about Iowans’ affinity with Colorado, and how they’re three times more likely to vacation in Colorado than any other state, and how warmly they receive him every time he stops by. Other candidates may be better known, he acknowledges. They may be raising more money or drawing bigger crowds. But in the wilderness of today’s politics, Hickenlooper wants to be the voice of reason. He is the geek who came from nowhere, the geologist who became a brewer who became a mayor who became a governor who believed Colorado could be more than what it was. And Colorado, he notes, “is hip in Iowa.”
“So, it’s all coming together now,” he says of the symmetry he sees between the political landscape, his record, and his hail-fellow-well-met approach.
“In a funny way, it’s as if it’s my destiny to be here now, at this point in history.”