Being John Hickenlooper

In just 15 months, he’s healed long-standing rifts within the city and beyond. Is it any wonder that Denver’s neophyte mayor is already being talked about for higher office? November’s mass-transit vote will be the first test of his regional appeal.

November 2004

The crowd had come out to see Mayor John Hickenlooper on a hot night in July, angry over the police shooting of an unarmed man in his bed at the housing project across the street. More than 200 people were packed into a meeting room at the Inner City Parish in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and the audience was growing louder and angrier as each speaker gave voice to the frustration that pervaded the breezeless auditorium.

“I am tired of black and brown folks being killed when they don’t deserve to,” says the Rev. Reginald C. Holmes of the Denver Ministerial Alliance, his voice dropping into a mournful hush. “We keep going through this over and over again.”

At the front of the room sits the family of Frank Lobato, the innocent man gunned down by a cop who mistook a soda can for a gun. A man in the crowd stands up and points at Lobato’s son and two daughters. His face is flushed and his hands are shaking. “We want the man who murdered their father to be put behind bars!” he yells, and many in the room applaud.

Glenn Morris, a CU-Denver professor and local leader of the American Indian Movement, steps to the microphone, smoothing his long, gray hair and invoking a Native American blessing. Morris says he wants to speak to the “5,000-pound elephant” stalking the room: the threat of violence that everyone knows is a real possibility as the anger builds.

“Mr. Mayor, you’re the boss. How long does the administration believe this can continue to happen before there’s civil unrest in this community?” asks Morris.

Behind him at the circular table shared by all the speakers sits Hickenlooper, looking pale and tense. He has taken a big risk by being here – several speakers have said they can’t remember a mayor of Denver who showed up at a similar event – and it’s not clear how the crowd will react. He stands to speak and is immediately booed by some in the audience.

Community activist LeRoy Lemos steps forward and asks for people to be civil. “It says a lot that Mayor Hickenlooper is here to take the heat,” he tells the audience.

The first thing Hickenlooper does is something so simple it might not seem surprising, except in a litigious society where every word is weighed in dollars. “Attorneys tell you never to apologize,” says Hickenlooper. “[But] we’ve put our foot down. I can find no human reason not to express the sorrow the city feels. I want to publicly apologize on the most profound level.”

The mayor goes on to promise that the investigation into Lobato’s killing will be open to the public. “No one wants to get to the bottom of this faster than I do,” says Hickenlooper. “I don’t pretend this is an answer to your frustration. I want to make sure we get all the facts. We want to have a process that makes sure this never happens again.”

Many of the activists in the black and Hispanic communities are pushing Hickenlooper to allow more civilian oversight of the police department. The mayor has responded with a proposal to hire an independent auditor who will be charged with watching over the department, an idea his critics say doesn’t go far enough. Hickenlooper tells the audience the idea is still evolving.

“It will not be an auditor limited to monitoring policies and procedures – we’ll go well beyond that,” he explains. “This issue is how do we learn from other cities.”

Hickenlooper’s comments are brief, but many in the audience applaud as he leaves the podium. There is no issue in Denver more volatile than the series of police shootings under dubious circumstances that has angered minority neighborhoods during the past few years. It was a tough crowd for a new mayor still finding his way, but Hickenlooper managed to convince many in the audience that he’ll try to do the right thing.

Coming from any other politician, this might seem like spin. But after a little more than a year in office, Hickenlooper has shown a remarkable ability to heal old wounds – between black and white, between city and suburbs – and his popularity has soared both in Denver and beyond the city limits. The mayor’s astonishing debut has silenced those who once dismissed him as a political dilettante whose business success as the city’s best-known barkeep had gone to his head. And now Hickenlooper seems to be rewriting the political rule book for mayors of Denver. All the old assumptions – a Denver mayor could never win support in the suburbs, a Denver Democrat could never appeal to out-state voters, a white mayor could never attract enthusiastic minority backing – are now open to question. And many think a new statewide political star has emerged from a brewpub on Wynkoop Street. Fifteen months into his first term in an elected office, John Hickenlooper has emerged as Colorado’s most intriguing politician, and Democratic and Republican strategists alike are already talking about his prospects for higher office, perhaps even a run for governor as soon as 2006.

“I think someday in the future he’d be a strong partisan candidate,” says Denver political consultant and pollster Floyd Ciruli. “We’ve seen people like Arnold Schwarzenegger who can excel quickly statewide. People today are happy to look outside the box. It’s the right time for Hickenlooper.”