Why you should care
The people of Colorado have maintained a steadfast approval of John Hickenlooper as their leader, but the friendly governor’s latest risks may end his political career — or launch him to the White House in 2016.
Could the secret to our country’s partisan political gridlock be solved by a bartender’s logic?
Colorado is a politically diverse state, almost evenly split amongst Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Geologist-turned-brewpub-owner-turned-politician John Hickenlooper has been skillfully adept at running the state while maintaining mostly high approval ratings throughout his career as mayor and as governor. However, a recent gun-control recall and his stance on the death penalty could put his political future in jeopardy, even as whispers of a run at the national stage circulate.
Known for a self-deprecating, good-natured, goofball humor, Hickenlooper maintained a positive attitude even in the face of multiple tragic events in Colorado during his public life — devastating floods, rampant wildfires and the mass shooting in Aurora, to name a few. Under his administration, Colorado has legalized marijuana, recognized civil unions and passed a bill doubling the renewable energy requirement for rural cooperatives. While these might sound like the policies of a very liberal politician, on the flip side he also supports fracking, has the support of a number of wealthy Colorado Republican businessmen and is most lauded for his handling of the economy. It’s a balancing act that many a politician would envy.
In fact, his ability to broker deals on divisive issues and cater to the Democratic base while maintaining support and approval from Republicans and Independents has brought him national attention and rumors of a White House run in 2016 . How does he do it?
Well, for one thing, Hick, as he is known, is likable, bold and pulls stunts. He jumped out of a plane when he was mayor of Denver in 2005 to promote a statewide tax reform measure. He took a shower with his clothes on to show that he dislikes dirty politics. He wore a blue bear costume to ask for an increase in tourism promotion funds. Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market Colorado advocacy group, says that although he doesn’t like the result, he’s never seen anyone who “has been able to sell debt and taxes as well as Hickenlooper,” adding, “He has pixie dust when it comes to getting people to vote on raising taxes.” Pixie dust is a phrase many use to describe the Hickenlooper effect, both as a compliment and an insult.
Lessons from his former lives still come in handy. “You learn in the first six weeks of running a brewpub, there’s no margin in having enemies,” says Hickenlooper. ”There’s no value in getting in the crossfire with someone. No matter how unreasonable that customer is, you will do everything in your power to mend the fence.”
Hickenlooper also likes to get people to just talk with each other: environmental groups and Halliburton, for instance. His ability to negotiate led to a compromise in December 2011, when he brokered a deal between environmental groups and the oil and gas industry on fracking disclosure. The Colorado rule requires oil and gas drillers disclose all of the chemicals they pump into the ground. Hickenlooper even famously drank Halliburton’s fracking fluid.
What the governor is most passionate about is education, and and in a phone interview his excitement about the bill was palpable. “I think this is the most comprehensive education initiative in the history of the United States,” he says. If he’s right, the reform would place Colorado on the cutting edge and lead the way for national changes to public education. While the reform framework bill was signed this past May, including plans to add radical transparency to teacher performance rankings and alter public school financing, Coloradans must still vote to approve a tax hike needed to fund and implement the plan. It’s on this controversial ballot measure, Amendment 66 , that Hickenlooper’s fortunes might rest.
Colorado’s Amendment 66
Amendment 66 would fund a recently passed Senate bill implementing education reform across public schools in the state by creating a two-tiered state income tax system, raising the flat 4.63 percent tax to 5 percent or 5.9 percent depending on a household’s taxable income.
The uncertain fate of his education initiative marks the latest in a string of issues this year where the governor’s famous ability to compromise has given way to his personal investment. Criticized for taking too long to endorse the tax hike , opponents say this is too high a tax increase for a bill that is short on reform. Hick’s supporters point to his endorsement of the tax hike as more evidence he is willing to risk re-election in exchange for what he believes in. Until this past year, Hickenlooper has been compared to Teflon, with his approval ratings riding high . But his stance on renewable energy requirements, his indefinite delaying of Nathan Dunlap’s execution and his landmark gun-control bill (which cost two Dems their seats) have caused his approval rating to fall to 48 percent according to an August Quinnipiac poll .
”The image of John Hickenlooper and the reality of John Hickenlooper are two very different things,” says Jon Caldara. He contends that while people believe Hickenlooper to be a centrist, the legislation that has passed this past year consisted of the most “hard-edged progressive agendas” he’s ever seen. Caldara calls Hickenlooper an “urban-centric governor of Denver” who is “out of step” with Colorado.”
Owen Loftus, communications director for the Colorado GOP, agrees with Caldara’s assessment. He says Hickenlooper was able get away with avoiding tough decisions when he had a split legislature (the Colorado House switched from Republican to Democratic majority in the last election cycle), but now he can no longer be seen as bipartisan. ”He was able to sit back and watch the two chambers duke it out and send a bill to his desk. It usually ended up being a bill that everyone liked, that wasn’t too controversial.”
Another way to interpret his leadership style is that he knows when to work behind-the-scenes. Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper’s chief strategy officer, says Hickenlooper’s critics need to understand he’s not the type of person to organize a parade, stand in front, take the flag and tell everyone where to march. He’s more likely to quietly organize it, state that it’s “our” parade and share the parade with other leaders. “He’s less inclined to say this is the direction we are going to go, folks.” The majority of Colorado seem to appreciate this: 57% of voters in a recent poll say he has strong leadership skills.
For transparency’s sake, Hickenlooper let journalist Maximillian Potter embed with him for 11 months. Potter was so inspired by the governor, he ended up working for him. “I saw this guy and his administration at it’s best and at it’s worst. At it’s best it was nothing short of fucking inspiring. At its worst it was still pretty kickass.”
When Hick ran for mayor of Denver in 2002, he was seen as a good-natured, regular guy who was the antithesis of a career politician. He won decisively and went on to win his 2010 gubernatorial campaign by a landslide . The moderate Democrat enjoyed a lot of financial support from wealthy Colorado Republicans, including Larry Mizel, Fred Hamilton and Greg Maffei. Steve Bach, mayor of the largely conservative Colorado Springs, says Hickenlooper is a compassionate, accessible leader who gives helpful advice when needed, and who showed a “true interest” in building a relationship. “We’ve been through two epic fires, we’ve had severe flooding, and he has been just absolutely superb at helping us,” says Bach.
Is Hickenlooper a stunt-man who is secretly a weak leader, or will he turn Colorado into a state that’s more of a bellwether than California? Does he have surreal good luck that’s running out, or does he genuinely connect with people? Will he plough forward toward a possible 2016 vice presidential spot or be left behind in the (pixie) dust? November’s vote may indicate how he’ll fare in next year’s re-election.
Then again, if anyone can find common ground on the education bill, it’s Hickenlooper. “He’s very hands-on,” says Salazar. “He will dive into doing his own staff work in order to solve a problem. The fracking disclosure rule was a good example. We were carefully plotting steps one, two and three, and John wanted to get to step three. He just picked up the phone and talked to the people he thought were decision-makers and just kind of cut through everything.”
Hickenlooper grew up with a mild form of dyslexia and said this might have contributed to why he likes to talk through political issues rather than just read about them. “First rule: Listen. Ask questions; repeat their words back to them. And you ask them to say it again in different ways again and again. A) Hearing someone else say their own words always calms someone down. B) Once you listen to someone, what they are saying wasn’t what they thought it was,” explains Hickenlooper. And then comes his mantra: ”The best way to persuade someone to do something is to listen to them.”