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.
The mayor’s quick emergence as a regional leader has inevitably led to talk about his political ambitions. A recent Rocky Mountain News/News 4 poll showed Hickenlooper with a 91 percent approval rating in the city of Denver and 78 percent approval metrowide. The poll also showed the mayor winning a 50 percent favorable rating from Republicans. Numbers like these have set Colorado politicos abuzz, with many seeing Hickenlooper as a potential Democratic Party golden boy in a run for statewide office.
Party Chairman Chris Gates recently included Hickenlooper on a short list of Democrats who would make strong candidates for governor when Owens is forced out of the governor’s mansion by term limits in two years. Republicans mulling the race include state Treasurer Mike Coffman and Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, but even some Republicans say that Hickenlooper would be a powerful contender.
“I think he’d be a great statewide candidate for whatever he wants to do,” says Republican state Sen. Ken Chlouber of Leadville. “I think he’s incredibly refreshing.”
Chlouber believes that Hickenlooper’s blend of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism would strike a chord on the Western Slope. He says Hickenlooper has to stay focused on doing a good job as mayor, but talk will inevitably grow of Hickenlooper as a statewide candidate.
“He’s a different cut and the kind of politician the people in western Colorado appreciate,” adds Chlouber.
That the mayor of Denver could be seen as a strong statewide candidate speaks volumes about the success of Hickenlooper’s short tenure as mayor. When Wellington Webb considered running for U.S. Senate, most observers thought he was too much the urban liberal to go over well in rural Colorado. Similarly, Federico Peña was so closely identified with Denver International Airport and the long controversy over its construction that he wasn’t seen as viable for statewide office either.
For decades, in fact, it was assumed that statewide voters wouldn’t support a Denver mayor in any election. Western Slope voters were thought to be still angry over the water diversions the Denver Water Board engineered more than half a century ago. Rural voters were automatically suspicious of anything to do with the big, bad city, and Denver was seen as too liberal and different from the rest of Colorado for its mayor to be a major player on the state level.
Some believe that Hickenlooper’s popularity might fade in a partisan election. “He has a lot of support from Republicans, but once you run for partisan office that can change,” says consultant Atkinson.
Others are convinced that Hickenlooper already has the job he was born for. Sondermann notes that the mayor emerged from LoDo and is an urban animal, with a keen devotion to art, music, baseball, and other city pastimes.
“I think Hickenlooper’s interests and persona are uniquely suited to the mayor’s office,” Sondermann says. “He’s interested in urban issues. If you scratch Hickenlooper, you get an urban liberal – not on all issues, but on many issues.”
For his part, Denver’s new mayor insists he’s committed to leading the Mile-High City and isn’t looking to expand his resume. “I’ve got so much still to do here in the city,” Hickenlooper says. “I have the best job in the city. You meet the smartest, most passionate people in the region, and you can improve the condition of people’s lives.”
However, Hickenlooper makes it clear he loves being a politician and he won’t rule out a future run for statewide office. And while he’s heard the growing buzz about his future, he insists that “Speculation on what I’m going to do is down the road.”
But Chlouber has been involved in politics long enough to know how quickly a popular and charismatic politician’s star can rise. “I don’t think he’s looking down the road, but the road may be looking for him,” he says.
Off the record, several of Hickenlooper’s friends say he has broached the idea of running for higher office. The mayor reportedly even toyed with the notion of jumping into the U.S. Senate race earlier this year, but was advised that first he needed to be re-elected to a second term as mayor. (The next opening for a U.S. Senate seat will be in 2008, when Sen. Wayne Allard’s term expires.) This summer, Hickenlooper attended the Democratic National Convention, where he made the rounds and met with an all-star cast of party bigwigs, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin – exactly the sort of network that an ambitious political neophyte ought to be building.
Hickenlooper will only say that decisions about the future are “a long way away,” adding that politics is a mercurial business and voters can be unforgiving.
“The world could turn on me like a mongrel dog,” he says.