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 first indication Hickenlooper was interested in more than just brewing beer came in 2000, when he led a grassroots campaign to save the name “Mile High” and prevent the football stadium from being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Although the campaign failed, the groups compromised, settling on “Invesco Field at Mile High,” an attempt to maintain the economic and cultural value of the name for the city. The future mayor soon became the de facto leader of a populist crusade, as thousands of metro residents voiced their displeasure at seeing the beloved Mile High name treated so callously. Hickenlooper instinctively realized how weary people were with the need to slap a corporate logo on every new stadium and arena from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale.
The genesis of Hickenlooper’s run for mayor can also be traced back to the Mile High controversy. Chris Romer, a politically active investment banker who is also the son of former Gov. Roy Romer, ran into Hickenlooper one morning and started talking up the idea of the barkeep becoming mayor.
Romer remembers Hickenlooper as being taken aback by the notion. “He seemed stunned and amazed and said, ‘Gosh, I never thought of that,’” he says.
In Hickenlooper, Romer saw a unique set of attributes that made him an incredibly appealing candidate. Not only was he boyishly eccentric, Hickenlooper also had a mix of beliefs that could draw in voters from both parties. “I knew he was a social liberal and fiscal conservative,” Romer explains. “The thought had been that a white businessman couldn’t win in Denver, but I knew the guy with the most fire in the belly is the one who usually wins.”
Romer continued pushing the idea over a series of dinners and lunches during the next several weeks. Additionally, the two men talked about the most serious problems facing Denver, including poverty and a struggling school district.
“I appealed to his sense of social justice,” remembers Romer. “I thought the size of the social problems in Denver with the school district and poverty were small enough you could do something about it.”
For the next two years, Hickenlooper set out to discover just what being mayor of a big city entailed. With the help of Chris Gates, president of the National Civic League (and now chairman of the state Democratic Party), he began traveling around the country talking to mayors. Gates arranged for some of the nation’s most highly regarded mayors to talk with Hickenlooper, including Tom Menino from Boston and Martin O’Malley of Baltimore.
At the same time as Hickenlooper’s political ambitions grew, his private life was also transformed. Hickenlooper met a woman who would not only become his wife but also his most important political confidante.
The longtime bachelor readily acknowledges that his 2002 marriage to former Texas Monthly writer Helen Thorpe and the birth of his son, Teddy, two years ago were soul-changing events. Now 52, Hickenlooper is a devoted and loving father, an evolution that surprised some who thought he would always remain one of Denver’s most fun-loving bachelors.
Thorpe had earned a reputation as a formidable political writer when she covered George W. Bush’s run for the White House for the former George magazine. She was introduced to Hickenlooper through mutual friends in Austin. Thorpe still vividly remembers the day she met him – he crashed her birthday party. “He made a great first impression,” Thorpe says. “He arrived with gifts for me and the hostess. He seemed lively and charming and smart.”
Hickenlooper brought with him two CDs as presents, one by Billie Holiday and the other by Louis Armstrong. “He let us pick which ones we wanted; I think I chose Billie,” recalls Thorpe.
During the party, Hickenlooper’s friends told Thorpe that he might run for mayor of Denver. The idea seemed loopy enough that she almost took it as a joke.
Over the next few months the two began dating, and Hickenlooper began traveling around the country to talk with mayors. Thorpe admits to having had mixed feelings about the prospect of a Hickenlooper candidacy. Despite her love of politics, she had never even considered running for public office. “It wasn’t something I would put on my list of things to do,” she says. “But I felt like you can’t stand in the way of somebody else’s dream. I felt ambivalent about it. I was afraid he might win.”
After marrying Hickenlooper and moving to Denver, Thorpe became increasingly involved in the budding campaign. After years of covering campaigns from the press section, she reveled in being an insider.
“I loved the campaign,” she says. “What was fascinating to me after covering campaigns was to finally be on the inside and have a seat at the table when strategy was being discussed.”
Thorpe was a big supporter of the innovative TV ads that are credited with helping Hickenlooper win the election. The ads – which featured Hickenlooper trying on goofy suits at a costume shop, trying to look mayoral, and walking around LoDo giving out quarters to parkers frustrated by high meter rates – were a big gamble, since they played off Hickenlooper’s outsider status. His lack of political experience was widely seen as his biggest liability.
“Some of the folks advising John were unnerved by the ads,” explains Thorpe. “There was a recession and a war about to start, and they worried the ads struck the wrong note. In a campaign people often want to be risk-adverse. That’s not how John thinks. He’s willing to take a calculated risk. That’s a big part of why the campaign was so much fun.”
When they were dating, Hickenlooper and Thorpe often discussed what sort of family life they hoped to create. They both wanted to have children and enjoy a close-knit family circle. Thorpe warned Hickenlooper that politics could be brutal on families and that public officials often had no private life. He promised her that if elected he would be home by 6:30 p.m. at least four nights a week, a promise Thorpe says he’s largely kept.
“He has exceeded my expectations of what is possible for family life,” she says. “He said he’d be home four nights a week and he is. He gets a lot of time with me and Teddy.”
Juggling the mayor’s schedule so he can be home most nights is sometimes difficult, but Hickenlooper has instructed his staff to make that a top priority, fulfilling his vow to Thorpe.
That’s important, since his political future will undoubtedly be determined by consultation with her, his No. 1 adviser.
“I think our lives are perfect right now; I wouldn’t be in a hurry to change them,” says Thorpe. “But if John had a dream to do something else, I wouldn’t stand in his way.”
Romer says it’s virtually impossible to predict what Hickenlooper will decide to do down the road. While most politicians would already be dreaming of the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat, Hickenlooper could surprise everyone.
“John is just as likely to want to go sit on a lake and write poetry as be a U.S. senator,” Romer says laughing.
Still, it’s clear that politics have already changed Denver’s new mayor. Once known for giving witty and even off-color quotes to reporters, Hickenlooper is now far more cautious. But sometimes the daredevil who gambled on opening a brewpub in a destitute part of town still comes through, especially when he considers the astonishing changes in his life over the past few years.
“Sometimes I look in the mirror and think, ‘Is this really me or is this someone else living my life?’” he says. “I’m afraid I’m going to wake up and be a laid-off geologist again.”