Trump, Nukes and Weed: Colorado’s Brewpub Governor Opens Up
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he could be setting up a private bar in the Oval one day.
It’s hard to keep your seat when speaking with John Hickenlooper — thanks to his tall (but true) tales. The eclectic interests of Colorado’s governor are reflected in his past, moments like when he claims to have convinced the Fray’s lead singer, Isaac Slade, to keep his band in the Centennial State, to his account about the “running of the pigs,” a Hemingway-esque retelling of how Denver fills its streets with frolicking swine. His past lives include time as a photography student and aspiring writer, a petroleum-industry geologist and a brewpub entrepreneur who somehow parlayed that into a career as mayor, governor … and, perhaps, future White House resident?
Time will tell, but meanwhile Hickenlooper is focusing on keeping his 4.5-million-strong state afloat amid a population boom that has it adding 100,000 people annually in recent years. With huge economic investment coming in, and the country’s lowest unemployment, many governors would like to be in his position — but, as Hickenlooper tells OZY, even good fortune presents its own challenges. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your state’s staggering growth reminds me of The Great Gatsby, in terms of its mixing of new and old wealth. How do you manage that mixing in Colorado?
Gov. John Hickenlooper: If you’re going to use Gatsby, you better stick with it, because it’s also corrupt wealth. It’s not just new and old wealth; it’s new and old ways of thinking about how to do things [mixing]. With so many new people coming in, it’s remarkably beneficial in many ways — but you’re also on the cutting edge of change. It comes with its own curses; there’s no antidote to rapid growth.
I never sued anybody, and nobody ever sued me. That’s my style. Candidate Trump was involved in 3,500 lawsuits in the previous 15 years at every level.
People say that young people came here because we legalized recreational marijuana. It’s exactly backwards. First, so many young people came here — that’s why they all voted, and that’s why we legalized recreational marijuana. I was against it. You don’t want to be in conflict with federal law — it’s no fun. Plus, you have to create a regulatory framework from scratch, when it has never been done before. It’s pretty daunting. We were very worried we would see spikes in consumption, spikes in teenage use — all these things we haven’t seen. So I have to say that things are nowhere near as dire as many predicted.
What are your thoughts on President Trump’s threats toward North Korea?
Hickenlooper: When North Korea listed a few cities that they could reach with nuclear weapons, Denver was on that list. I worry that we don’t seem to have a plan on how to de-escalate that situation and get it back to a diplomatic relationship. Almost always in diplomacy, when you negotiate or maneuver into a better place for your country, they [the other country] are usually in a better place too. And I worry sometimes that the president doesn’t want North Korea to have any sort of a win.
How have you managed to constantly reinvent yourself in your career?
Hickenlooper: I was in and out of Wesleyan University for nine years. One thing I really learned is how to communicate, and I learned how to learn. When I got laid off as a geologist and couldn’t find work for a few years, I ended up opening a brewpub down in what is now called LoDo, lower downtown Denver. I never knew how to run a restaurant. But I knew how to go to a library, knew how to write a business plan. And that’s, I think, the primary role of any good high school experience or a four-year education. You’ve got to learn how to learn, and you’ve got to be a good citizen.
How would you rate Trump’s foray into politics, considering his similar lack of political experience?
Hickenlooper: It’s true that we both came from the private sector with essentially no experience in executive political management, political leadership. A couple differences: I ended up with over 200 investors in all my businesses, over a million customers a year, and I was never in a lawsuit. I never sued anybody, and nobody ever sued me. That’s my style. Candidate Trump was involved in 3,500 lawsuits in the previous 15 years at every level. He was suing, they were suing. That style is very hard to use in political leadership — to be successful, you have to come together.
People say the president should be someone you want to have a beer with — and you used to be the one serving them up. Are we going to see you in the hunt in 2020, and how do you make that decision?
Hickenlooper: The minute I start talking about running for president, running for Senate in 2020, not only am I distracted, but also my Cabinet and senior advisers become distracted. And I think we sell ourselves short.