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.
As mayor, Hickenlooper has made education a top priority. Although the mayor has little responsibility for the schools, Hickenlooper has thrown himself into the current effort to reform Denver Public Schools. He campaigned successfully last year to convince voters to pass bond issues for the schools, and he’s formed a close partnership with DPS Superintendent Jerry Wartgow. Hickenlooper has visited more than 40 Denver schools and helped raise private funding to guarantee college educations for students at one of the city’s most troubled schools, Cole Middle School.
“Hickenlooper really cares about kids, and I think the public is responding to that with enormous enthusiasm,” says former City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who has been active in city politics for two decades. “I think his relationship with the schools has been done brilliantly.”
One day this past July, Hickenlooper spent the morning at the elite Kent Denver School campus in Cherry Hills Village. The bucolic setting of Kent, with its red brick buildings and manicured playing fields, is the unlikely setting for a program for gifted students from inner-city middle schools. Known as Summerbridge, the program brings together dozens of students with college potential every summer to study with mentors from local high schools and colleges.
Hickenlooper has a gift for talking with children. He slumps in his seat during the opening presentation like a lanky high school boy, and then asks the Summerbridge students what their plans are for the future. One boy tells him he wants to be a writer like Roald Dahl and stumbles over the author’s name. “I could never pronounce that guy’s name either,” says Hickenlooper sympathetically.
A student asks the mayor why he thinks education is so important. “You all are the future of the city,” says Hickenlooper. “You’ll create the businesses and new jobs for the city. Without that revenue, who will support my retirement?”
The audience laughs. Then Hickenlooper joins the kids on the stage for a rendition of the Summerbridge cheer, slapping his thighs and high-fiving the students.
Hickenlooper’s fun-loving side is no surprise to those who have followed his career. While running the Wynkoop, he became known for antics like sponsoring an annual run of greased piglets through the streets of LoDo.
But even here at Summerbridge the harsh realities of urban politics aren’t far away. Talking to a parent, Hickenlooper refers to the anger many police officers felt after he suspended officer James Turney for 10 months as punishment for fatally shooting Paul Childs, a mentally disabled teen who was brandishing a knife.
“We had 200 police officers protesting on the steps of City Hall last month, and they were chanting ‘Chickenlooper, Chickenlooper.’ I haven’t been called that since second grade,” he says with a smile.
Joking aside, if there is an issue that could sour Hickenlooper’s storybook romance with voters and derail any future political ambitions, it is Denver’s troubled police department. No matter what action he takes, he’ll anger someone – either the police force or the department’s critics. The stakes couldn’t be higher: Other cities have faced riots after police shootings that outraged minority communities.
Stephen Nash is the leader of Denver CopWatch, a local activist group that monitors the police department and often shows up at community meetings with pickets. (Ironically, Denver CopWatch gets some of its funding from the Chinook Fund, the liberal philanthropy that Hickenlooper helped to launch.)
Nash says several members of his group worked on Hickenlooper’s campaign, but they became disenchanted after meeting with the mayor to talk about the police department. Denver CopWatch favors strong civilian oversight of the police department, an idea that is fiercely resisted by many officers. The group is pushing for a powerful civilian board modeled on review boards that have been established in Kansas City and San Francisco.
Instead, Hickenlooper has proposed hiring an independent monitor to watch over the police, an idea that Nash and others dismiss as ineffective. The mayor’s plan calls for giving the monitor authority to review all police department investigations and, in rare cases, launch probes of questionable police behavior. There also would be a volunteer citizen’s review board that could suggest policy changes but in actual practice would have little formal power.
Giving the police monitor access to confidential records would require that Denver voters change the city charter in November. Hickenlooper pushed the City Council to get the proposal on the ballot, annoying some council members, who nonetheless approved it on an 11–2 vote. But activists like Nash dismiss the plan as too little, too late.
“We think it’s just public relations,” he says. “We’ve been closed out of the process. Hickenlooper told us too much police accountability would increase crime rates in poor neighborhoods.”
For its part, the police union says giving civilians the power to discipline officers would demoralize the force. Many officers are as alienated from Hickenlooper as the members of Denver CopWatch are. Mike Mosco, president of the Denver Police Protective Association, says police officers feel the mayor doesn’t appreciate what they do.
“A fair assessment is that the members feel there’s not a clear understanding of the duties and responsibilities of individual officers,” says Mosco, adding that his group is “working towards a less tense relationship” with the mayor.
Hickenlooper’s remarkable ability to reach out to potential opponents may fail him in the standoff between the police department and its critics. But if he keeps talking to the minority communities that are most affected, it may not matter.
Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock represents northeast Denver, where several of the most controversial shootings have occurred. He says Hickenlooper has done a remarkable job defusing the anger in the African-American community that followed the shootings, and the mayor is still popular with most black voters.
“I’ve admired how he’s dealt with this,” says Hancock. “I think he’s handled it with humility, courage, and decisiveness. He’s as pained about what occurred as everyone else in the room. It impressed me he stood up and said he’s sorry for what happened. I’m sure the city attorney told him not to say that. That kind of compassion is what has made him a special mayor.”