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.
By the last week of the session in May, I’d been with Hickenlooper and his team practically every day for two months, and I would be there for nine more. Everyone on the governor’s staff understood my access to Hickenlooper and his senior team. His security detail had grown accustomed to me being a part of its daily plan. I’d walk into meetings with Hickenlooper and his staff, exchanging nods, smiles, and almost-smiles with his advisers, legislators, lobbyists, whomever. Sometimes the governor gave visitors a short explanation of who I was. Sometimes, he did not. In meetings with staff, the governor himself would refer to me and say, “Go ahead and talk, he already knows all of our secrets.”
I’d put in my request to Hickenlooper shortly after he won the gubernatorial election. I’d asked if he would allow me to embed with him and his administration for the first year of his first term. My pitch to him was: Based on his success with the city and with his style of politics, why not let people see how Gov. Hickenlooper does with statewide politics? At the time, he was also talking publicly a great deal about making his administration as transparent as possible. For two months, my request and follow-up inquiries received no firm answer. Then, in late January 2011, RD Sewald, the governor’s director of government and community affairs, invited me to a holiday dinner that Sewald hosts annually.
The gathering was, as it usually is, at Pete’s Central One, on the sleepy corner of South Pearl Street and Alameda Avenue. The party took up the small, upstairs room. Sewald’s old friends, most of them politically wired, and a handful of new guests, were there. Sewald’s seating arrangement just happened to put me next to the governor. About two hours into the dinner and after a few drinks, including at least a couple of shots of whiskey with the governor, Hickenlooper turned to me and said, “So you want to embed with us?” I started to reiterate the written queries I’d sent to him through his intermediaries and hadn’t gotten far when he said, “I think it’s a great idea. I’m all for it.”
The ground rules, which had been discussed already with his chief of staff, Roxane White, and communications director, Eric Brown, were not many. One: There may be times when an outsider would not be comfortable having me around, or there may be a personnel issue that is sensitive; if so, I would agree to leave without protest or agree that names involved would remain off the record. Two: This was not a story about the governor’s wife and son. Three: Whatever information I would learn would be embargoed until at least six months into the second year of Hickenlooper’s term.
Beginning on April 1, 2011, I received the daily and weekly schedules for the governor and White, and sometimes others, and was free to wander about and through their daily happenings and drop in on other staff. I traveled with them often. In total, I spent the better part of 11 months with them. Roughly one percent or less of what I was privy to was off the record.
The seating that night at Pete’s Central One was no coincidence. Sewald had arranged things so the governor could give me an informal sniff test before he made his final decision. The delay in responding to my request also allowed a writer from the New York Times Magazine to report a feature on Hickenlooper, which served as something of a curtain-raiser to his first term.
“He’s a virtuoso goofball, and he’s much more inclined toward accommodation than confrontation,” Frank Bruni wrote in the Times Magazine. “Might there be a national example and lesson in his stubborn cheerfulness? Something that politicians elsewhere—mired for so long in the same old battles and grudges and confronted, as a result, with such profound voter cynicism—could use to their advantage? Maybe affability trumps austerity. Maybe it’s the smartest card to play.” The reality is that Hickenlooper is much more than a virtuoso goofball, and affability is merely the top card in his deck. And there was no time in all of the months I’d spent with him when that was more evident than in the final days of his first session, in his pursuit of passing a bipartisan budget.