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.
Just a decade ago, Denver was a different place. City officials were struggling to lure people back after decades of losing population to the suburbs. After the courts ordered Denver’s public schools to begin crosstown busing for racial desegregation in the 1970s, thousands of white residents fled to suburban school districts. State voters – motivated by suburbanites who feared being absorbed into the Denver school district – approved the so-called Poundstone Amendment in 1974, which effectively banned Denver from annexing land into the city.
“The Poundstone Amendment was motivated by racial issues,” notes Ciruli.
The result was a bitter standoff between Denver and the suburbs. Many city dwellers thought their suburban neighbors were racists. The division had a partisan cast, since Denver was a heavily Democratic city (as it still is), while the suburbs were largely Republican. Striking back in anger, Denver changed the city charter to require all municipal employees to live in the city limits, making it impossible for suburbanites to get a job at the airport or city hall.
While much of central Denver stagnated, the suburban population exploded, growing by leaps and bounds. Many feared Denver might follow the sad decline of Rust Belt cities like Detroit, a decayed center city ringed by affluent suburbs.
John Hickenlooper was destined to play an important role in reversing this trend, although neither the future mayor nor anyone else could have predicted it at the time. In 1988, with the city still mired in its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the laid-off geologist took a big gamble by renting an empty warehouse at the corner of 18th and Wynkoop streets to open a newfangled bar known as a brewpub. People who’ve been around LoDo a long time still remember the scruffy former oil company employee scouting the neighborhood in a beat-up car with his friends and their dogs in the back seat.
At the time, Lower Downtown was a dreary last stop for winos and derelicts, and a place where many people were afraid to go at night. But LoDo’s designation as a local historic district in 1988 proved to be a turning point for all of central Denver. Just as visionaries like Hickenlooper saw LoDo as a diamond in the rough and took a chance on renovating the old warehouses, a wave of newcomers to Denver started to see the historic neighborhoods that ringed downtown as attractive places to live. During the 1990s the dramatic white flight from the city ended, and thousands of people wanted to live near downtown, many of them drawn by the nightlife in LoDo. In many neighborhoods housing prices doubled or tripled, and Denver’s population began growing again for the first time in decades. These newcomers to the city eventually became a big part of Mayor Hickenlooper’s political base.
“Denver is a different city than it was, and the mayor really understood that when he ran for office,” says Greg Kolomitz, president of CRL Associates, a political consulting firm. “He has a feel for the new Denver. They’re younger and upwardly mobile professionals. They live in LoDo, Lowry, Stapleton, and Highland. They look at a problem and say, ‘How do you solve it?’ The mayor has connected well with those people.”
Just as the political and economic makeup of central Denver has changed dramatically in the past decade, so has the reality of life in the surrounding suburbs. Those changes may play just as important a role in Hickenlooper’s political future.
This new reality was on display this past summer, when the mayor delivered his first “State of the City” address on the steps of the Galleria at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The speech is an annual event that brings out much of Denver’s civic leadership. But this year, there were some new faces seated in the front rows: Ed Tauer, the new mayor of Aurora, and Gov. Bill Owens – two people who would not likely have been invited to a similar gathering by former Mayor Wellington Webb.
Hickenlooper has worked hard at reaching out to the suburbs and even across the political aisle to a Republican like Owens. (Though Denver’s mayoral elections are officially nonpartisan, Hickenlooper, like all Denver mayors going back 40 years, is a Democrat.)
“Previous mayors’ popularity usually stopped at the city limits,” says political analyst Eric Sondermann. “It shows the power of a fresh face to change the dynamics of the relationship.”
Denver’s suburbs were once almost entirely white, largely affluent, and reliably Republican. Today, many of the older suburbs have started to look more like Denver, with ethnically diverse populations, decaying neighborhoods in need of renovation, and schools struggling with students who often speak little English. Suburbanites now look at their doorsteps and see the urban issues that once seemed very far away.
“We’re a first-tier suburb that grew up after World War II,” says Lakewood Mayor Steve Burkholder. “We have more in common with Denver than we do with Highlands Ranch or Parker. The issues are aging infrastructure, affordable housing, transportation.”
Even before he was elected in June of 2003, Hickenlooper had started contacting suburban leaders, meeting with many of them to talk about the problems facing their communities. More than any mayor in memory, Hickenlooper has worked diligently to build good relationships with Denver’s neighbors. The mayor is constantly speaking at suburban get-togethers, relentlessly pushing the message that Denver’s fate is inextricably linked to places like Aurora, Lakewood, and Englewood.
“On so many issues, many of our most important challenges extend beyond any political boundary,” says Hickenlooper. “If Aurora or Douglas County has a drought and they have to suspend construction permits and it gets into Time magazine, that affects the value of every home in the area. Denver has an interest in making sure Aurora doesn’t run out of water.”
For those who’ve known Hickenlooper since the days when he was behind the bar at the Wynkoop, it can be startling to see him in a pressed suit, standing rather awkwardly next to the sorts of people who wouldn’t have set foot in the LoDo of the 1980s. But even with a bodyguard, power tie, and shined shoes, Hickenlooper still exudes the boyish enthusiasm his friends love and audiences find endearing.
Ciruli was in the audience when Hickenlooper spoke to an economic development meeting in Parker. Like much of Douglas County, Parker is dependent on a fast-dropping aquifer for most of its water supply.
“No Denver mayor had ever been invited to speak to them,” says Ciruli. “His line was that if the suburbs go dry, Denver suffers too. They loved it and they loved him.”
One of Hickenlooper’s first actions after taking office was to travel to California with Owens to try and woo high-tech employers. Hickenlooper is fond of pointing out that it makes no sense to have 40 different municipalities each trying to lure out-of-state companies, and that the metro area must work together to create new jobs.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of Hickenlooper’s new relationship with the suburbs was the agreement the city reached with Aurora earlier this year to cooperate on development of the 1,800-acre HighPointe at DIA project. HighPointe will include an 18-hole golf course, office parks, extensive housing, and retail centers. The project is in both Denver and Aurora, and the two cities agreed to work together on planning and design, and possibly even share tax revenues from the project.
This caused heads to turn at both city halls, since it was well-known that Wellington Webb and former Aurora Mayor Paul Tauer disliked each other and would have been unlikely to work together on such a plan. But Aurora had also gotten a new mayor – Paul Tauer’s son, Ed, took office last November – and Hickenlooper and Ed Tauer immediately struck up a friendship.
“I enjoy spending time with him,” says the younger Tauer. “John is willing to think outside the box. There’s a willingness to say, ‘Let’s try something new.’ As a businessperson, he understands you need to look for win-win situations. He was very open to talking to us about HighPointe.”
Political consultant Katy Atkinson sees the HighPointe agreement as marking a watershed in relations between Denver and the suburbs. “The deal he cut with Aurora was really major,” she says. “I can’t remember a mayor who’s had this good of a relationship with the suburbs.”
Ciruli adds that Hickenlooper’s background in the tourism industry – he was on the board of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau for over a decade – inevitably shapes his thinking.
“When you’re in the tourism industry like Hickenlooper, you think about the whole region,” says Ciruli. “He’s a businessman, he’s not a politician who thinks about boundaries. His life experience is to deal with the whole metro area.”