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Hickenlooper discusses state of the Democratic Party on Slate Political Gabfest appearance

Author: Ernest Luning - June 9, 2017 - Updated: June 9, 2017

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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, talks with panelists David Plotz, Ruth Marcus and Emily Bazelon at a taping of the Slate Political Gabfest podcast on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, at the University of Denver. (Photo courtesy John Hickenlooper via Facebook)
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, talks with panelists David Plotz, Ruth Marcus and Emily Bazelon at a taping of the Slate Political Gabfest podcast on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, at the University of Denver. (Photo courtesy John Hickenlooper via Facebook)

Gov. John Hickenlooper talks about the future of the Democratic Party, coping with face-blindness and why he believes attack ads make it difficult to move on after hard-fought elections in this week’s episode of the Slate Political Gabfest podcast, which posted online Thursday night.

The two-term Democrat also talks about whether he’s running for president, gives a shout-out to Department of Regulatory Agencies Director Joe Neguse — the youngest cabinet member in state history, he says — and compares digesting each day’s news with getting seasick while being tossed about on the open water.

Hickenlooper joined panelists David Plotz, Emily Bazelon and the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus — a last-minute substitution for podcast regular John Dickerson, host of CBS’s Face the Nation, who had to miss the taping in order to cover former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee — for the second of three segments of the weekly show, taped Wednesday night before an audience at the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts.

After the trio first discusses the Comey hearing, Plotz introduces Hickenlooper — his interview starts 25 minutes into the hour-long podcast —  and apologizes for botching the governor’s last name several times when promoting the Denver appearance. He also says the panelists aren’t going to ask about marijuana, to which Hickenlooper replies, “Hallelujah!” as the crowd cheers.

Marcus opens by asking what advice the governor has for listeners who want to “preserve equanimity when politics seems so disruptive” — Bazelon interjects, “and toxic.”

Recalling a jaunt on a sailboat when he was a teenager, Hickenlooper says, “Within an hour, I was green to the gills. It seemed endless. You couldn’t tell which way you were lurching back and forward, and you always felt a little bit nauseous.”

Saying he wasn’t exactly comparing that rough ride to current events, Hickenlooper concludes that the antidote is to stay focused. Growing up, he notes, he learned from his resilient mother to “[keep] our focus on trying to move the ball down the field, push the boulder up the hill. Random acts of kindness are going to make a big difference right now and in the years to come.”

Marcus then asks about the Democrats, pointing out the massive losses the party has suffered in the nine years since Barack Obama was first elected president, including control of both chambers of Congress, numerous governorships and hundreds of statehouse seats. “What the heck happened, and what are you guys going to do about it?” she says.

“I’m from the big-tent school,” Hickenlooper answers. “Democrats are always going to be — civil rights, social justice, protecting the planet is going to be the core of what we do, but we need to get back to doing things that move, that improve the opportunity for all Americans. I think a lot of it’s going to be about jobs and trying to figure out — when did Democrats ever protect red tape and bureaucracy? We should be for making government smaller but more effective and get rid of the red tape, so more people can start small businesses and hire more people. Isn’t that part of the Democratic Party?”

Saying she doesn’t think Democrats are exactly “standing up for red tape,” Bazelon disputes his premise, suggesting that framing it the way Hickenlooper has makes it sound “like all regulations are expendable.”

“That’s the opposite of what I meant,” Hickenlooper says, maintaining that middle-of-the road voters don’t hear that when he makes the argument. “Red tape is when you have excessive regulations,” he says, and then brings up Neguse, adding, “and you should seek him out.”

It turns out the DORA director and his staff recently finished going through the state’s 19,000 regulations with an eye toward eliminating the unnecessarily burdonsome ones. Hickenlooper says he asked Neguse what he’s going to do now that he’s finished. “He said, ‘We’re going to go through them again.’ Democrats should be the party about efficiency and excellence. We believe in government, let’s make it work.”

Marcus says she agrees it’s a laudable goal but adds, “There’s a lot of energy in the Democratic Party that is way on the left and doesn’t want to hear about your big tent.” The energy in the party’s base, she says, has different aims.

Hickenlooper calls it “a genuine and serious conflict,” and says he doesn’t have an easy answer. But then he notes that he’s old enough to have marched on Washington against the Vietnam War and helped mobilize campus shutdowns “to protest the war, to organize, to speak our minds” back in the early 1970s.

“There was a lot of conflict within the party. What people forget is, we did all this incredible activity — and in 1972, Richard Nixon got 60 percent of the vote. It’s because we were fighting against each other more than we were trying to say, ‘I don’t agree with you completely, but we do share these core values about civil rights and social justice and protecting the planet — let’s make sure we get our allies into office, and then we’ll try to persuade them to become stronger on things where we disagree.’”

Claiming she’d lose her credentials as a journalist if she didn’t ask, Marcus wants to know if Hickenlooper is thinking about running for president — a suggestion he’s batted down numerous times this year even while seeming to keep the door open a crack.

Bazelon chimes in, “You’re in the small, select company of Democratic purple-state governors.”

“And 25 other candidates,” Hickenlooper shoots back. “You just got through giving a litany of reasons why I would not be acceptable for many of the people most active in a primary.”

Then, even as Bazelon protests “it’s a yes-or-no question,” Hickenlooper proceeds to extoll the virtues of Colorado, including the state’s current 2.3-percent unemployment rate — only four states have ever recorded a rate that low, he says — and suggests that Colorado might want to be the healthiest state in addition to the thinnest. After talking up the state a few more ways — “We try to have a balanced life here. It’s a big deal” — the governor gets to the answer about a possible presidential campaign.

“The moment I start forming a PAC, the moment I say I’m interested, not only am I distracted, but my cabinet, everyone who’s working for me is not going to work on the three or four things that I think are going to be national models for what states can do. I have my little calculator — my handheld shows I have 481 days left in this administration. We’re going to push on every single one of those days.”

The audience fills the theater with cheers and applause.

Plotz then brings up a revelation Hickenlooper made almost in passing in “The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics,” the memoir he co-wrote with Maximillian Potter that published last year. He wants to know how a politician can get through the day with face-blindness — “prosopagnosia” is the name of the cognitive disorder, although Hickenlooper says he doesn’t suffer from its extreme form.

The governor says he uses clothing, haircuts, other clues to identify people, adding that if he’s watching a movie featuring two blonde actors, for instance, or two similarly styled brunette actresses, he can’t tell them apart. “We could spend two hours, and if I see you at Starbucks the next morning, I wouldn’t recognize you. It’s what it is. It’s a real medical condition — I swear to heaven, it is a medical condition.”

One way to overcompensate, Hickenlooper says, is to be super-friendly to everyone. “You get in the mindset that every person you meet is a friend,” he says. “That’s not a bad place to start a conversation.”

The panelists then ask how the governor deals with the revenue-limiting Taxpayer Bill of Rights, saying it was a hot topic of conversation with the audience before the show started taping.

“One thing that works well — it’s not a good solution — is to get your tax increases on a local basis,” Hickenlooper says. “Statewide initiatives — it’s amazing and alarming how many people are suspicious of any intent, no matter how well you document the need and how efficient you’ll be at solving the problem — statewide initiatives are very difficult. Local initiatives, you can get done. You have to be transparent, you have to be accountable, you have to show exactly how the money’s going to be spent.”

But that creates an ironic situation, Hickenlooper says, where localities that can least afford tax increases — the ones that have the most difficulty overcoming the effects of TABOR — are often the ones that support TABOR the most.

“That doesn’t help those lower-income communities, often out on the eastern plains, the rural parts of the state,” he says. “They’re getting the short end of the stick. And that’s who TABOR really punishes. And what’s ironic is some of the strongest supporters for TABOR are those same rural Coloradans who feel that somehow it’s protecting them from people in the cities or people in the Capitol who are out to take something from them.”

A solution he learned in the restaurant business, Hickenlooper says, is [articularly helpful in politics: “When you want to try to persuade someone of something they don’t believe in now, the best way to persuade them is not to tell them what you think or why what they think is wrong. The best way to persuade anyone of anything is to listen to them, and just keep repeating what they said and try to put it in different terms and reframing it. After three years of trying,” he says, “we passed something this year called the hospital provider fee, right? It allows us to move the cap of TABOR that keeps the state from spending – it’s an artificial cap, that even as the state grows, we’re not allowed to spend all this money. This will increase it by about $800 million.”

It’s difficult, long work, he says.

“When someone’s really upset, if you repeat their exact words to them again and again, it is amazing how it brings people back into their normal frame of mind, and they’re much more willing to examine things from a different perspective,” Hickenlooper says.

“I think, in all honesty, one of the big problems with attack ads and the vitriol we live in all the time is (that) after campaigns, people feel so bitter after an election that they won’t take the time to listen,” he says. “The person they were supporting has been so attacked and unfairly maligned, they figure, I’m not even going to pay attention to these guys. That cuts both ways. We’re working on it. Colorado, I would argue — the most collaborative state in America.”

Then the crowd cheers, and the panelists thank the governor and say he’s welcome to appear on the podcast any time he wants. Plotz  then brings listeners a word from a sponsor — it’s an app that organizes lots of magazines in one place — before moving on to the show’s final topic, issues surrounding data privacy on cell phones.

— Ernest.Luning@coloradopolitics.com

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.