The Happy Shrewdness of John W. Hickenlooper
Colorado’s popular governor wants to restore people’s faith in government with his unique brand of politics. It’s turning out to be a whole lot tougher than he ever imagined. An exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at Hick’s first year in office.
The Unlikely Prince
The view west from the steps beneath the gold dome of the Colorado state Capitol is breathtakingly incongruous: Across Civic Center Park, Denver’s City and County Building—white and grand with its expansive facade and six stone pillars—is set against the backdrop of the prehistorically magnificent Rocky Mountains. On just about any clear day, students on field trips and tourists mill about the steps, clicking photographs of the panorama. There’s something about seeing that building, painstakingly constructed to represent man’s power, sublimely juxtaposed against those rugged, towering peaks—which simply exist, and which, jagged in all directions, speak to much greater forces—that compels one to reflect. Hickenlooper, Colorado’s 42nd governor, traveled the west-side steps often, and for him a gaze in that direction is a glimpse into his past.
From 2003 until 2011, the City and County Building had been Mayor Hick’s place. It’s where he orchestrated a remarkable two terms after a stunning campaign upset. His victory was especially remarkable because mayor was not only the first elected office Hickenlooper had run for; it was also his first-ever campaign. The guy had never so much as run for student council—an ostensible weakness that, thanks to circumstance and his resilient cowlick of a personality, he turned into a strength.
Denver voters could relate to his geologist-turned-beer-man biography. Like so many wildcatting, pioneer adventurers before him, he’d come from someplace else—the suburbs outside Philadelphia—and staked his claim. He’d experienced failure in the oil and gas game, picked himself up, and struck gold as a brewpub entrepreneur. Just as appealing as what he was, was what he was not: He was not another lawyer. He was not another career politician. He seemed incapable of the same old entrenched backroom political horseshit. More than a few voters almost certainly had been under the impression that Hickenlooper was incapable of even understanding the machinations of the same old entrenched backroom political horseshit.
Refreshingly akin to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Hickenlooper stepped onto the Denver stage emanating a nostalgic golly gee–ness, an ebullient hopefulness, an endearing goofiness, a sense of humor. Hickenlooper was the guy who’d promoted his Denver brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Company, which he opened in 1988, with a running of the pigs in Lower Downtown. The idea grew from the frustrated writer’s love of literature—Ernest Hemingway made Spain’s running of the bulls famous in The Sun Also Rises—and his persistent self-promotion, which could be so unabashedly crass that it was charming. Hickenlooper was the guy whose 40th birthday bash invitations featured him sitting on a Wynkoop barstool, naked except for cowboy boots, bandanas, and a strategically positioned hard hat. Hickenlooper was the guy who, in the early 1990s, offered a $5,000 “bounty” to anyone who could find him a bride, which he ended up explaining (meaning, once again, promoting himself and his bar) on the Phil Donahue Show. In the contemporary wild West, John Hickenlooper at once fit right in and distinguished himself as a character among characters.
Next thing you knew, Hickenlooper was the eccentric bar owner leading the campaign that successfully prevented the city from selling away the identity of Mile High Stadium and helping broker the name Invesco Field at Mile High, which in turn became Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Then the eccentric bar owner who’d helped save Mile High was campaigning for mayor, driving around town on a scooter, putting change in expired parking meters in a campaign ad to show “the fundamental nonsense” of raising meter rates in a down economy. That’s not to say he avoided the controversial issues. As mayor, Hickenlooper, who has a fear of heights, parachuted from a plane in television commercials, twice, in a suit and tie. When financial times were tough, he risked his political capital, not to mention his life, to promote a proposed tax increase, which voters approved.
Voters approved nearly all of the dozen-plus ballot initiatives Mayor Hickenlooper championed; in fact, voters approved of virtually everything Mayor Hickenlooper supported or did. So, too, did the city council, or at least the seven-of-13 majority he needed to get whatever he wanted done. Having inherited the largest budget deficit in Denver history, Mayor Hick slashed city expenses and raised taxes. He achieved the unthinkable by getting city unions to take contract concessions and pay cuts—moves that, had they been simply proposed by another mayor, likely would have prompted a broad range of constituencies to turn out with pitchforks.
Yet through it all, Hickenlooper managed to successfully play the dual role of mayor and city mascot; he somehow managed to stay above the partisan fray, and, according to the polls, he remained damn near beloved—by his fellow Democrats and by Republicans, by the city folk and by the residents of the surrounding suburbs, and by business and by labor. His approval ratings in the metro region rarely dipped below 70 percent, and his approval ratings in some Republican-dominated suburbs were above 60 percent.
He transcended the typical partisan pitfalls because he put the public’s interest above his own. In 2004, Denver police responding to a 911 call fatally shot Frank Lobato, an innocent old guy who was in his bed reaching for a soda can, not a weapon, as the police had thought. The community was outraged. A lawsuit was likely. Some of Mayor Hickenlooper’s advisers told him to stay out of it, to let the process unfold. Instead, the mayor stood before a community meeting and apologized. What had happened was wrong, he said. He felt that saying the city and he were sorry was the very least he could do.
Hickenlooper established a truly independent police monitor, brought in from Portland, Oregon. He pledged to solve Denver’s homelessness epidemic, not by making the indigent feel like criminals with the threat of arrest and imprisonment, but rather by finding them shelter and coordinating city resources and programs to help the homeless become self-sufficient and rediscover their dignity. When Mayor Hickenlooper slashed city salaries, he began by cutting his own by 25 percent.
Mayor Hickenlooper really did seem to adhere to the two principles he had adopted as brewpub entrepreneur, and which had become his political mantras. He began referring to the ideas as his “brand”:
1. The secret to overcoming any challenge lies in finding the alignment of self-interests.
2. There is no margin in having enemies.
National media exalted him. Esquire put him in a fashion spread of politicos, dubbing him one of the “best-dressed mayors in America,” which, as anyone who has ever laid eyes on the man’s wardrobe can attest, was absurd. Time named him one of “The 5 Best Big-City Mayors,” which was equally shocking because the honorific was earned so quickly. At that time, Mayor Hickenlooper was barely two years into his first term, and was recognized along with the likes of New York’s Michael Bloomberg and iconic Chicago boss Richard Daley.
As far as real-life political fairy tales go, it was just about impossible to trump Mayor Hickenlooper. He was a new kind of natural, one of those unicorn-rare, truly apolitical politicians that career politicos so often and so fraudulently claim to be. Hickenlooper’s rise, though, was also Machiavellian, a modifier that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the aw-shucks former barkeep. In the classic tome of political maxims and commentary, The Prince, which Hickenlooper has read and dissected since entering the political world, the Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli argues that the most successful leader is not the traditional hereditary prince, but rather a new kind of a prince: This “leading citizen” achieves office “by the favor of his fellow citizens” and remains mindful of both commoners and nobles alike. “This,” Machiavelli wrote, “may be called a civil principality: nor is genius or fortune altogether necessary to attain to it, but rather a happy shrewdness.”
As Colorado shifted from Republican red to Democratic blue—and as the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Dan Maes, set himself on fire—Hickenlooper emerged as the purplest of brands, the city-slicker Dem whom anyone, even Republicans, could love. Which is why even some of the state’s top Republican rainmakers—like Larry Mizel, the chairman and CEO of home construction giant MDC Holdings, Inc., and Liberty Media president and CEO Greg Maffei—backed Hickenlooper, and why Hickenlooper won the 2010 gubernatorial election by a landslide.
On January 11, 2011, Governor-elect Hickenlooper left the City and County Building, walked across Civic Center Park, and ascended the Capitol’s west-side steps for his swearing in. He counted every step, 663 to be exact. A man who relishes historical trivia, he was conscious of the moment: Only one Denver mayor had ever become governor of Colorado before. As he stood with his hand on the Bible—his wife, journalist Helen Thorpe, and their eight-year-old son, Teddy, nearby—Hickenlooper had perspective on where he had been, and a sense, albeit an academic one, of the unprecedented confluence of challenges in front of him.
The November 2010 election that had been so good for him had not been as kind to his party. For the first time since 2004, Democrats didn’t hold both houses of the Legislature and the governorship. They maintained the majority in the Senate and held on to the executive seat, but Republicans now owned the House. Hickenlooper would have to find a way to persuade this divided General Assembly to agree on the budget at a time when Colorado was facing an approximately $1 billion shortfall, a full 15 percent of the state’s operating costs.
It was also time for reapportionment and redistricting. Based on the data gleaned from the once-a-decade census report, the state House and Senate were expected to agree on a new reapportionment for Colorado’s state voting districts and also to redefine the state’s U.S. congressional districts. That meant the Senate and the House would have to find common ground redefining the fiefdoms of political power in the state and in Washington, D.C., for the next 10 years—decisions that would impact a few of their own careers should any of them want to make a run at D.C. The ultimate turf war was coming, and it seemed inevitable that the process would politicize the precious state budget negotiations along with everything else.
Sizing up the situation to confidants, Hickenlooper described it as a “perfect storm.” In his inaugural speech, however, the governor adhered to his script and to his brand and projected optimism. Not once did he utter the words “Democrat” or “Republican” or even “party.” Instead, he spoke about “partners.” Tipping his rhetorical hat to Senate President Brandon Shaffer, a Democrat, and House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Republican, he said he looked forward to “working together in the best tradition of the West.”
The very next day, January 12, 2011, after the speechifying and the inaugural partying were over, Gov. Hickenlooper boarded the political Tilt-A-Whirl of his first legislative session, spinning into where he was now—early May 2011, the last days of his first legislative session. All of the lingering bills, cuts, and deals that had been proposed and/or opposed by the state’s 35 senators and 65 representatives, along with that state budget of $19.6 billion, along with the hundreds of “Asks” from so many players, public servants, and parasites embedded therein, now would have to, at last, be sorted out. It was that time of the year, when, as one of the governor’s cabinet members put it, “power and politics collide.” It was the first time that Hickenlooper’s apolitical, happy shrewdness—and, dare one say it, the idea that politics can overcome partisan self-interest—was put to a test on the statewide level. Hickenlooper thought if he couldn’t get it done at the state level, how would Barack Obama, or for that matter, any president, ever get beyond partisanship at the national level?