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.
One of the metro area’s biggest headaches is its highway system. As the metro population has surged past 2.5 million, traffic has become far worse, and Denver is now ranked as one of the most congested cities in the country. To deal with this problem, all 31 metro mayors have united to support the Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks proposal, which calls for boosting the RTD sales tax to fund a $4.7 billion network of light rail, commuter rail, and express buses.
Hickenlooper is playing a leading role in the FasTracks campaign, speaking up for the proposal almost everywhere he goes, and even appearing in TV ads promoting the measure.
“FasTracks will be the most important thing we vote on for the next 20 years,” explains Hickenlooper. “FasTracks will be the most important investment we make for the first part of the century.”
Hickenlooper and his fellow mayors view FasTracks as crucial in trying to come to terms with mounting gridlock.
Antitax conservatives, spearheaded by the Golden-based Independence Institute, are opposing the transportation plan. The leading critic of FasTracks is Gov. Owens, who has called it too expensive for the number of commuters it would get off the road. But the governor insists his opposition to FasTracks hasn’t affected his warm relationship with Hickenlooper.
“We went to the baseball game last Sunday,” Owens says. “We’re very good friends, but it doesn’t mean we always agree.”
Gov. Owens adds that he and Hickenlooper have each other’s cell phone numbers and talk frequently.
The FasTracks vote is the first time Hickenlooper has been in the position of challenging the governor on a high-profile metro issue, and it may mark his emergence as a more partisan leader. Hickenlooper tries to be diplomatic, portraying the difference with Owens over FasTracks as a simple disagreement – even though it also reveals a basic philosophical divide over how Colorado should deal with growth.
“The governor is a thoughtful, experienced politician,” says Hickenlooper. “There will always be things we disagree on.”
Owens says that he and Hickenlooper had “friendly debates” over FasTracks and that the mayor was disappointed with his position. “He lobbied me hard on it over the past year,” says Owens.
But there is more to the FasTracks debate than meets the eye. Owens has stopped far short of aggressively crusading against FasTracks, and Ciruli notes that the governor could be playing a much larger role in opposing the plan.
“He could campaign against it every day and hold big fund-raisers and put political muscle behind it,” says Ciruli. “He’s not putting all his political capital behind this.”
Ciruli think Owens has muted his criticism not as a favor to Hickenlooper but because he knows many of his own supporters in the corporate world have endorsed FasTracks and made significant donations to the pro-transit campaign.
“Substantial elements of the business community are overwhelmingly committed to this,” says Ciruli.
For his part, Hickenlooper’s star role in promoting FasTracks may be about more than just mass transit. Ciruli says that if metro voters approve the plan, Hickenlooper would have a “substantial feather in his cap.”