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.
Coming Out of His Corner
At the end of his first year on the job, before heading into his second legislative session, the governor and members of his senior staff, including Roxane White, Alan Salazar, Eric Brown, Christine Scanlan, RD Sewald, and Henry Sobanet met over a period of days to write the governor’s State of the State address. Like any State of the State, the speech would cover what goals the governor had in mind for himself and for the state moving forward. Among those goals was passing legislation that would legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. There was no denying it was one of Hickenlooper’s goals; however, there was much debate among his staff about whether to include it because, the thinking went, it may be “off-brand” for the governor, meaning “too divisive” or “too toxic” an issue to address in that moment.
The first time the phrase found its way into a draft of the speech, Hickenlooper wasn’t in the room. Alan Salazar told the rest of the senior staff gathered around the governor’s conference table that he’d like to see it get in there. He said he believed they had made a mistake by not putting it in the first State of the State. He said it was the right thing to do, and, he added, the press was often criticizing the governor “for not being bold enough.”
How and when the governor ought to handle this issue was a tricky one for Salazar, more so than for any of the other senior staff members. Salazar grew up in Denver, attended Catholic school, and for a time wanted to be a priest. He married a woman he met in high school. Two years after the couple’s son, Josh, was born, Salazar realized he could no longer fight the fact that he was gay. Having a child, and the idea of raising that son to be true to himself…well, Salazar felt that if he couldn’t be honest with himself and those he loved the most, that would be the saddest hypocrisy. He told his wife, then gradually came out to his family, friends, and colleagues. He submitted a resignation letter to his boss at the time, Gov. Roy Romer, who refused to accept the letter and could not have been more supportive.
Salazar’s tendency to fret, his commitment to putting the larger political agenda of the administration above any one issue, was part of why he had not made more of a push to have it included in the first State of the State. It had seemed like too much too soon, but now felt like the right time. Roxane White agreed, as did everyone else present. They knew no matter how the governor mentioned it in the speech, it was going to be controversial. Perhaps, although it was absolutely what they did not want, it would even be the lead story of the next day’s news.
Scanlan suggested that Hickenlooper should say it was time for “gay marriage.” The semantics were quickly rejected as “too loaded.” After hours of wordsmithing, it was White who came up with the line that Hickenlooper, when he returned to the room, agreed struck just the right note of politics and compassion, and which he felt respected all of the realities and considerations involved.
“We don’t believe we should legislate what happens inside a church or place of worship,” Hickenlooper said on January 12, 2012, to the combined Assembly, “but government should treat all people equally. It’s time to pass civil unions.” There was a long moment of resounding applause, a standing ovation from Democrats, and mostly seated silence from Republicans. The moment foreshadowed Hickenlooper’s second legislative session, as Shaffer’s Senate passed the civil unions bill, and, on the last day of the regular session, McNulty’s House refused to allow the bill to come to a vote.
And so, on the afternoon of May 9, 2012, the governor took a deep breath and exited his office in what had become his typical manner—moving briskly, slightly disheveled, no tie—and walked to a podium that had been set up for him in the foyer of the Capitol, near the west-side steps. The marble-walled room was packed with people—media and Capitol staff—with lights and cameras trained on him. For a prolonged few seconds he looked down at the podium, then he took another deep breath, and lifted his eyes. It was clear to anyone who knew him that he was about to wing it.
Politically, the stakes for Hickenlooper were arguably the highest they had ever been. In the year since his first legislative session, he had quietly stacked achievements into an impressive record. He’d lured a handful of companies to Colorado, like Arrow Electronics, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of electronic parts. General Electric had agreed to open a solar-panel plant in the state. Hickenlooper had brokered an agreement between the environmental community and the oil and gas industry, which resulted in the most comprehensive disclosure rules of any state regarding the chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Very quietly and very much behind the scenes, he persuaded the likes of Pete Maysmith, of Colorado Conservation Voters; Dan Gross regional head of the Environmental Defense Fund; executives of the Halliburton company; and representatives of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association that there was an alignment of self-interests for them in helping craft these new mandates.
Hickenlooper’s second budget passed with an even larger majority than his first: 94 out of the 100 legislators voted “yea.” If there were any other state legislatures in the union performing in a more outwardly bipartisan fashion than Colorado, there weren’t many. In the bureaucratese of Hickenlooper’s Long Bills, there were advancements made in Colorado’s health-care system—in particular, funding a Colorado Health Exchange system to make affordable insurance available to individual citizens and small businesses. And the governor, indeed, was able to overhaul the rules governing the state personnel system. In May of this year, GEO, which is now called the Colorado Energy Office, finally got its funding.
Hickenlooper had also endured his first considerable policy setback. He had invested a tremendous amount of energy and political capital in trying to persuade the Legislature and relevant parties to privatize a state-chartered worker’s compensation insurance fund. Pinnacol Assurance offers worker’s compensation insurance to workers and businesses that might not otherwise be able to afford a plan. The agency is a state asset that had been valued at more than $300 million, and its management had been besieged by bad press for a corporate retreat that had all the characteristics of a classic boondoggle. Hickenlooper wanted to take the agency private, with the state getting a 40 percent ownership stake and a yearly dividend of $13.6 million that would go to an education fund and economic development efforts.
The governor spent six months working with financial experts on crafting a deal in which the state would use a substantial portion of the proceeds of the sale and create a fund that would make college education a reality for more, if not every, Coloradan. The Pinnacol deal was complicated and affected myriad constituencies—including the business community. There was tremendous resistance, and Hickenlooper ultimately walked away from it.
But his popularity had increased. According to a nonpartisan poll by Public Policy Polling, Hickenlooper was the second most popular governor in the United States, behind Mississippi Republican Haley Barbour. That meant he was the most popular governor in the country from a purple, swing state—and thus, perhaps, the most influential.
As a sign of Hickenlooper’s growing stature, he and his wife, Helen Thorpe, were President Obama’s guests at the Kennedy Center Honors event in December 2011. There was chatter in the media that Hickenlooper would make a terrific vice president—maybe even, dare one say it, a president. Hickenlooper and his team had downplayed such talk with the canned line that he might like to be commissioner of Major League Baseball.
One of the lessons Hickenlooper had taken away from his first year on the job was that his knack for building relationships, which had served him so well in business, and then as mayor, was more important to him now than ever. He remained convinced that the more he could involve himself in whatever the issue was, the more he could directly communicate with the various parties, the better chance his agenda had for success. His read of the Pinnacol failure was that he delegated too much of the stakeholder outreach to his staff, and that he, himself, should have done more. It was the opposite of his effort to successfully negotiate the fracking regulations: Despite Alan Salazar’s advice to the governor to leave the middle-man diplomacy to his staff and to stay out of the negotiations, he put himself smack-dab in the middle of the issue and “did his own staff work.”
By that time next spring, when the second session was ending with McNulty denying a vote on civil unions, the colorful bowl of apples on the conference table of Hickenlooper’s office was gone, and instead, in one corner, a new painting had been hung. It was of a pair of worn boxing gloves within a framework of carrots and sticks. In other words, if the whole carrot-and-stick idea of motivation doesn’t get the job done, maybe a left hook, albeit a padded one, will. And as he stood at the podium in the foyer that afternoon this past spring, after the House had failed to vote on civil unions, Hickenlooper was about to make it clear that he’d tied on his proverbial boxing gloves. It was obvious to anyone, even those who don’t know him at all, that he was not reading from a script, and, in fact, there wasn’t a script.
“Last night,” he said, “we had a moment of historical significance in the state of Colorado, when the bill legalizing civil unions died in the House. And there were a lot of questions about how that happened: Was there enough time, was there not enough time? Along with that bill, 30 other bills died.… So we’ve decided without question, we intend tomorrow to call for a special session.”
In a special session, which would last three days, the governor and his staff set the agenda for topics he wants the Legislature to revisit. Civil unions would be among the issues considered and, hopefully, voted upon. Hickenlooper gave further explanation.
“I think there is”—and here he fought back tears—“I mean, I spent a long time in the restaurant business, and a lot of people that helped us create that business didn’t have the same rights as everybody else.” His voice cracked. “I’m a little bit sleep deprived so that emotions come a little bit too quick to the surface,” he said. “I had a call yesterday from one of them who just asked, ‘If not now, when?’
“So our goal is to make sure we do everything we can to make sure there is a fair, open debate on the floor of the House and Senate and the issue gets discussed, that we allow people the chance to vote on it, and we move forward, we move this entire state forward to make sure, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ and we want to make sure that arc continues moving forward.” He scratched his right cheek with his right hand. The foyer erupted with applause.
In the hours and days that followed, Speaker McNulty said the Democratic Senate and Hickenlooper were engaging in partisan politics, and that the governor was unfairly forcing this issue back onto the General Assembly. McNulty said the public cared about jobs and the economy. In response, Hickenlooper said he did not want to get into the issue of blame; he believed everyone involved had the best intentions and that he hoped only that the House would give the issue fair debate.
What Hickenlooper did not say is that his legislative team had done everything it could to ensure the bill made it through three bipartisan committees. And he also did not say his administration felt it had an agreement with McNulty: If the bill made it out of those committees, McNulty would do what he could to get it to a vote, and, still, he refused—and he did so knowing it had the votes to pass.
In the special session, McNulty again saw to it that the civil unions bill did not come up for a vote and—this time—ensured its death in committee. Hickenlooper wasn’t surprised. Nor would he have been surprised if the House had voted to pass or vote down the bill. He’d thought through all of the potential scenarios. What Hickenlooper knows now is that going into the forthcoming statewide elections, the Democratic base, along with socially progressive Republicans, have never been so determined to unseat right-wing conservatives. That the Democrats will win at least two seats and take back the House is almost a certainty. Before Hickenlooper signed the executive order for the special session, and before he walked out to give that speech, without a script, he didn’t say anything about selling his equity; there were no groups to discuss his jumping out of a plane. He just did it. He saw it as the right time to do the right thing. He was, oh, you know, having the time of his life.