Shortly after the November 2010 election, a journalist asked Colorado’s brand-new governor a question: Can I embed with you during your first year in office? His intent was to show Coloradans how this particular governor and his administration really worked, which would mean he would need full access to the governor’s daily routine. Almost nothing would be off limits.
It was an audacious request. Indeed, the request was all the more bold because this was not just any journalist: it was Maximillian Potter, 5280’s executive editor, whose relentless investigative reporting has made him a two-time National Magazine Award finalist.
To his credit, John Hickenlooper, who had made transparency a key part of his campaign for governor of Colorado, said yes. The conventional wisdom around the Capitol was that the neophyte politician was making a huge mistake. For weeks, insiders approached me furtively, all asking the same questions: What’s Hickenlooper thinking? What’s the upside for him? What’s he going to do when this blows up in his face?
For a time, Potter might have wondered if the project was going to blow up in his own face. Many of Hickenlooper’s staff members opposed the idea of a reporter having exclusive access; some openly protested Potter’s presence. Eventually, the governor’s senior staff called a meeting in which any member of the team could confront the intruder. “So there I was with about 20 of the governor’s staffers, some of the smartest people in Colorado politics, all grilling me,” Potter recalls. “Essentially what it came down to was me saying, ‘Look, your boss already made this decision, so we should probably find a way to coexist. If you’re really committed to public service and transparency, you shouldn’t have anything to hide.’ By the end of the year, many of those same people were saying that they’d like me to stick around.”
When his time reporting on the governor had ended, Potter took nearly six weeks to map out the story on a series of index cards pinned to the huge corkboard that covers one of his office walls. That was followed by two months of writing and rewriting.
The roughly 18,000-word narrative that emerged is easily the longest story we’ve ever published and is undoubtedly one of the most important. (“The Happy Shrewdness of John W. Hickenlooper” begins on page 94.) It’s a portrait that is by turns flattering and critical of Colorado’s 42nd governor. Above all else, it tells the tale of a successful businessman and popular mayor who ran headfirst into a recalcitrant Legislature that had no intention of giving the new governor carte blanche. Hickenlooper realized quickly he would have to pick his battles. For a time, this gave rise to critics who said Hickenlooper didn’t stand for anything except his own popularity. The question of what he ultimately chose to stand up for sets the stage for the remainder of Hickenlooper’s time as governor and forms the primary plotline of Potter’s compelling story. I’m betting you won’t be able to put it down.