‘I’m not ruling anything out,’ Hickenlooper says of potential 2020 presidential run

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, talks with Politico Playbook co-authors Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman about the interaction between the states and federal government at a Playbook Exchange event on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, at the S&P Global offices in Denver. (Photo via Politico Live)

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said Tuesday he isn’t ruling anything out, but the Democrat downplayed rumors he might join Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, on a presidential ticket.

Hickenlooper responded with a laugh when Ben Sherman and Anna Palmer, co-authors of Politico Playbook, asked him about the possibility at a Playbook Exchange discussion at the offices of financial giant S&P Global in Denver.

“I don’t think Kasich would ever do that,” Hickenlooper said. “You never know, you never say .…”

Hickenlooper and Kasich have been organizing bipartisan groups of governors in recent months to push back against efforts by GOP Senate leaders to write health care legislation that would repeal and, in some cases, replace the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. The two have written letters and appeared on cable news shows to discuss their request that Republican Mitch McConnell involve Democrats and governors in the effort.

“He’s an easy person to work with,” Hickenlooper said. “He also knows as much about the federal budget and understands health care at a deeper level than almost any governor I know.”

He added that the two have different personalities. “Kasich isn’t a joiner,” Hickenlooper said, noting that his fellow governor isn’t a member of the National Governors Association, while Hickenlooper is active in the organization. “Whereas I, as a friend said years ago, I’d go to the opening of an envelope.”

“I don’t think it’s in the cards, but I do like the idea of working with him in some context,” Hickenlooper said.

As for his own presidential ambitions, the term-limited Hickenlooper gave an answer he’s been delivering for months, that he has just 18 months left in office — 534 days, a hand-held calendar he keeps close at hand informs him — and doesn’t want to take his eye off some big goals remaining for his administration, including building a broad apprenticeship program and making Colorado the nation’s healthiest state.

“The moment I start talking about what I’m going to do when I get done, the moment I start a PAC or anything,” he said with an expression midway between a grin and a scowl, “not only do I get distracted, but my whole cabinet gets distracted. I’m not ruling anything out, but I am 100-percent focused. We’ve got a chance to do big stuff; let’s do it.”

The presidential talk capped a wide-ranging, hour-long interview in front of an audience of about 100 — including House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, leading Democratic consultant Craig Hughes and Denver Democratic Party Chairman Mike Cerbo — that covered everything from Hickenlooper’s interactions with President Donald Trump to a dinner the governor recently had with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead.

In between, Hickenlooper gave his assessment of the candidates running to replace him after next year’s election, suggested how the Democratic Party might reach out to frustrated voters, and revealed what fear keeps him up at night.

Trump, the governor said, was affable and “totally disarming” in the couple of meetings the two have had since he was inaugurated.

At a recent dinner with members of the National Governors Association at the White House, for instance, Hickenlooper said he’d been on a cable TV show that morning. “And President Trump stopped and kind of made a funny face and said, ‘I saw you this morning. You were good — very good. I’ll have to keep my eye on you.’ He said it with a level of irony and humor that totally caught me off guard.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, talks with Politico Playbook co-authors Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman about the interaction between the states and federal government at a Playbook Exchange event on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, at the S&P Global offices in Denver. (Photo via Politico Live)

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, talks with Politico Playbook co-authors Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman about the interaction between the states and federal government at a Playbook Exchange event on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, at the S&P Global offices in Denver. (Photo via Politico Live)

Asked to sketch out the contours of Colorado’s governor’s race, Hickenlooper noted that his lieutenant governor, Donna Lynne, had just that morning made it official that she was exploring a run.

The former top Kaiser Permanente executive, he said, was doing a terrific job in her additional role as the state’s chief operating officer. “She’s like like a Hoover vacuum cleaner of problems — they just disappear, and everybody’s happy.” He added that he thought she’d be “a great governor” if she decided to run and won but noted it was entirely her decision. “You can’t be pushed into it, you’ve got to want to do it yourself,” Hickenlooper said.

Listing several of the other Democrats seeking the nomination, Hickenlooper called former state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, “one of the most talented people I’ve ever seen,” and included U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy among a field he described as “people that have a lot of skill, a lot of experience.”

Asked by Sherman what he thought of the national Democrats’ new slogan — “A Better Deal” — Hickenlooper said he agreed that it addresses widespread frustration that Americans can’t seem to get ahead. But he added that he believes Democrats should stake a claim to being the party of jobs and the economy on top of traditional strengths as “the party of social justice, civil rights, protecting the planet.”

When he was elected governor nearly seven years ago, Hickenlooper recalled, he said wanted Colorado to be the most pro-business state in the country in order to make it an attractive destination — “the most magnetic place” — for young entrepreneurs. It appears to have succeeded, as Colorado ranks as the state with the best economy and the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.

“You want to have a government that works,” Hickenlooper said.

The one-time geologist turned brewpub pioneer added a familiar observation: “In the restaurant business, you learn very early that there’s no margin in having enemies. That framework of customer service, everybody matters, you care about how you come out of the transaction,” he said, is a good approach to public service and something Democrats should consider making central to their message.

Asked what keeps him up at night — a standard question in the Politico Exchange interviews, Sherman noted — Hickenlooper said he has a list “as long as my arm” but focused on cybersecurity issues.

“It is far more daunting, the way I look at it, than the Cold War was,” he said, drawing gasps and some nods from the crowd. The breadth of “foreign actors bent on our destruction,” he said, is enough to lose sleep over. “Even though I worry about it, I’m confident we’re going to stay up with it, but I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.”

As for that dinner with Grateful Dead founder Bob Weir, Hickenlooper smiled when his interviewers brought it up to close the discussion. It turns out the governor had been attending a fundraiser in Aspen for the Kitchen Community, a Boulder-based nonprofit that builds what it calls “learning gardens” in hundreds of schools around the country. Weir played an acoustic set at the event, and Hickenlooper was able to sit next to him at the dinner that followed.

“There’s a lot of downsides to being governor, but sitting next to Bob Weir and hearing him talk about the history of the Grateful Dead is not one of them,” he said.

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