Hickenlooper in the homestretch: Colorado governor ponders his legacy, not his future
Author: Joey Bunch - October 16, 2017 - Updated: October 17, 2017
After eight years as Denver’s mayor and seven as governor, John Hickenlooper still fumbles with the finer points of politics.
The governor’s energetic warmth, which has always served him well, filled up the wood-paneled walls of his Capitol office on a cold, blustery Wednesday afternoon. He greeted a guest with smiles and jokes about his future, near-term and long. He talked as much with his hands and thoughtful pauses as he did his words.
“This shows where I’m not a very seasoned politician,” he said of a special session that was quickly crumbling. Republicans alleged the governor rushed them into session to fix a two-word mistake in a law passed during last session. The mistake is costing museums, transit and other special districts across the state millions in marijuana tax revenue.
Republicans said they would rather take up the question of fixing the flawed bill on their timetable in the legislative session that starts in January. Courts have said the Legislature can fix tax mistakes without asking voters, but Republicans said they swore an oath to uphold the state Constitution, not court decisions.
“You could put a big billboard up over the state of Colorado that says, ‘Hickenlooper still isn’t savvy, a skilled or manipulative politician,'” the governor said of the political backlash. “I could have gone and talked to all the right people, but I just assumed that everybody would accept the fact that we made a mistake and it’s all of our mistake and we should admit it, apologize and then fix it.”
Republicans are eager to exploit Hickenlooper’s fumbles, at the same time his national profile shines. As moderate as he is, Hickenlooper won’t build his political machine by grinding their gears. To demonstrate, they refused to fix the bill they co-sponsored just five months ago.
The term-limited governor is Colorado’s most talked-about candidate for the 2020 election, either for U.S. Senate or the White House.
He was, for a time, considered a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton last year, then a shoo-in for a cabinet appointment.
So, should we call him senator? Vice president? President?
“You can call me Hick,” he said with a booming laugh.
Hick would dodge more stabs, direct and subtle, at getting a self-forecast on his political future.
No obvious direction
He has always been a man blessed by a lack of obvious direction.
Hickenlooper was an oil-and-gas company geologist who lost his job in his mid-30s, then opened the state’s first brewpub in 1988. He became Denver’s mayor at a boyish 51 and will leave the governor’s office in January 2019 a month short of his 67th birthday.
A year before he was elected mayor in 2003, Hickenlooper was married for the first time to writer Helen Thorpe and a few months later came the birth of their son, Teddy, who is now 15.
He split, amicably, from Thorpe in 2012.
Last year, he married Robin Pringle, 26 years his junior, after dating for a year.
Hickenlooper learned early in life that there are no sure things.
When the future governor was in kindergarten, his father, a steel mill boss, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and lingered for two years. His mother spent much of that time at the hospital, and she worked to instill values in her four children.
As the governor saw his special session crumbling without a fix, he spoke of his mother’s “code” after he, as a boy, hit a ball through a neighbor’s window. When she asked who was responsible, he was compelled to own it.
“You apologize, then you fix it,” he said. “It seems our government should treat our citizens no less fairly.”
From then to now, Hick seems far from finished serving.
The future, to him, however, was the 469 days he had left in office that blustery day in Denver.
He knows the number because it’s counting down on his Google calendar. He pulls out his phone to show it.
“That’s how many days we have left to get through,” he said.
No thanks on second banana
When Hick hooked up with Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the moderate who took Trump head-on in the last GOP primary, to work on a bipartisan healthcare proposal, it got people to thinking about a post-partisan ticket.
Forget it. Hick said, in perhaps his clearest rejection so far about making history with a bipartisan ticket.
“We’re not going to run for anything,” he said.
They might share on policies, but they won’t share a ticket, Hickenlooper assured Colorado Politics.
“He would never be No. 2. Neither would I,” Colorado’s governor said.
So that’s a no to a vice-presidential slot.
If Hickenlooper has a plan, he is pretty good at convincing you he doesn’t.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Run a bar?
“I don’t think so,” Hickenlooper replied. “There might be a bar somewhere in the future, maybe a partnership in a bar.”
He said he has several projects that he hopes will define him.
Jobs and trails
The first big idea the governor has to finish is what he calls “Colorado the Beautiful,” a plan to get people outside, to ensure there’s a green space within a 10-minute walk of every kid and an interactive, personalized database of trails Hickenlooper has been pushing for years.
“I think it’ll be a catalyst, a real motivator for people to get out and hike more and bike more,” Hickenlooper said.
His biggest idea is apprenticeships to help secure good-paying jobs for those young people who don’t get a college degree. Hick said most young people still don’t get a college degree. “Yet we’ve told all these kids that unless you go to college you’re a failure, essentially,” he said.
A junior in high school who enrolls in the program could go to work in banking, insurance, cyber security or advanced manufacturing, as examples. Three days a week they could work and two days a week take classes at a community college related to that work.
Along with a high school diploma, they would have a year of transferable college credit, along with a taste of income and responsibility from their job, Hickenlooper said.
“I think this is one of the most important things I’ve ever worked on and an amazingly powerful solution,” Hickenlooper said.
Colorado is the first state to work on a database, called Skillful, to inventory the experience and training someone has and show them the skills they need for the job they want, plus where they might go to get those skills.
The idea is so good the New York-based Markle Foundation, Microsoft and LinkedIn have put $25 million behind its development.
But the clock is ticking.
“I’ve got 469 days to prove we have a model that’s worthy of being a national model,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper said he doesn’t have to be a senator, a vice president or president to keep something like that going.
“You could also run a big foundation,” he suggested.
Would he consider that?
“Yeah, sure,” Hickenlooper said. “I think one thing mayors and governors do is they sometimes run foundations, they sometimes run hospitals and universities, big, complex operations that require you to keep a number of balls in the air.”
Hickenlooper has never been a typical Democrat, or a typical politician. He is aggressively pro-business, so he doesn’t usually follow his party’s green dogma on oil-and-gas regulation.
When legislative Democrats talked of repealing the death penalty in 2013, the Democratic governor said he wasn’t on board, giving it no chance despite majorities in the House and Senate. At about the same time Hickenlooper refused to carry out the death penalty on murderer Nathan Dunlap, leaving that decision to the next governor.
Now the governor is considering commuting Dunlap’s sentence to life in prison, based on new information about Dunlap’s mental health when he murdered four people inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993,
“Our affable governor has turned this decision into a Rubik’s Cube he cannot solve,” Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler told Colorado Politics in April. Brauchler, who sought the death penalty against Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, is running for governor next year.
Jesse Mallory, the state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, worked for Republicans at the Capitol for six years and 10 months, leaving as chief of staff for the Senate GOP in May.
“I tell people on the left and the right this: He’s a very pragmatic guy. He’s pro-business. He’s very socially liberal and a lot of other things we might not see eye-to-eye on, but I’ve found him to be a guy willing to find compromise,” Mallory said.
Scott Wasserman was Hickenlooper’s deputy chief of staff before becoming president of the left-leaning Bell Policy Center last year. He said the governor is a bit of a rebel, but an earnest dealer and a big-picture dreamer.
“Gov. Hickenlooper is the first one to challenge the status quo and the last one to give up on a big impossible idea,” Wasserman said. “He’s also a big believer in the political center and has an uncanny ability to sense just how far the citizenry is willing to go.
“If he has any soft spot, it’s that he believes in the better angels of his opponents, even when they’re acting in disingenuous ways that deserve a forceful rebuke.”
Learning tough lessons
Hickenlooper easily admits he could have done some things better. Being mayor prepared him to be governor no better than his time behind the bar prepared him to be mayor.
“The mayor of Denver is almost a king,” he said.
The City Council needs nine out of 13 votes to override the mayor, and the mayor runs city government, determining whose trash gets picked up when, he cited as an example. “You always have five allies,” he said in a tone like giving away a secret.
The percentages are much more challenging with 100 legislators.
“As mayor I never had to work that hard with the legislative body. Here it’s almost the opposite,” he said.
He said he is intensely proud of 80 or 90 percent of the work his departments have gotten done, but he thinks about the times he might have helped push his agenda a bit harder. He didn’t do that often enough during his first term as governor, he admits.
Hickenlooper said he could have possibly pushed through sliding-scale scholarships for low-income students. He said of the billions of dollars the state spends annually on K-12 education, he felt a few million was a good investment in lower-income students.
“If I’d been more aggressive from the beginning and really gone to the mat and really horse-traded on what other people needed, it took me three or four years to realize that,” he said.
At the end of the last session, Republicans sought to lay blame on Hickenlooper for the legislature’s failure to pass a major transportation funding bill, a key priority from the outset.
Hickenlooper could have proposed a bill himself, rather than rely on Democratic House Speaker Chrisanta Duran and GOP Senate President Kevin Grantham to do that work. He didn’t.
Senate Republicans balked at asking voters to approve a sales tax for roads, while Hickenlooper said he was agnostic on plans.
After the session, he told Colorado Politics he would be more personally involved in the 2018 session, his last as governor.
Leaving his mark
Hickenlooper is facing unemployment for the first time since he lost his job as an oil-and-gas company geologist the day after the Fourth of July in 1986.
“We’re only in these jobs for a certain amount of time, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “If we didn’t have term limits I think Wellington Webb would still be mayor of Denver.”
That would mean Hickenlooper might still be pouring suds in his LoDo pub.
“The reason I ran for mayor back then is I thought people had to believe in government,” he said. “And all my customers didn’t. They were sitting there (saying) every elected official was a bum, and I kept saying, ‘This is America. They are us.’
“That drove me. But do more people believe in government than they did 15 years ago? No. I don’t think they do. I think if you compare Colorado to other states, we have more, but not that we don’t have a lot of haters in Colorado, because I think that’s been part of the currency of the world over the last 20 years.”
Hickenlooper said he’s tried to put business and Colorado’s great outdoors in the same political environment.
Under Hickenlooper, Colorado was one of the fastest-rebounding states from the recession. Colorado has been a top-five state for job growth since 2012, and last summer WalletHub picked it as the second-best state, behind Washington, to start a business.
“What I’ve tried to say is we have to make Colorado the most pro-business state in the world with the highest environmental standards and highest ethical standards,” Hickenlooper said.
“If I’m going to look at a legacy I would want to see job creation, attracting entrepreneurs and small businesses to the state, and big business; you need a whole ecosystem.”
That’s why the apprenticeship and website ideas are so important to him. They link people trying to better themselves with employers who want to grow, which in turn grows the economy and tax base.
“This program can work with people who have lost their jobs when they’re 50,” Hickenlooper said.
Or an out-of-work ex-governor?
“Exactly,” he shouted raising and shaking both hands above his shoulders. “Only if it was in place now!”