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.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011 | Beside the Point
It was quiet in his chambers and Hickenlooper had a few minutes to himself. Seated at the head of his conference table, he gnawed on a fingernail as he turned the pages of his white binder, reviewing the daily schedule and the briefings he’d been given the night before. His light brown hair was still damp from his morning shower, giving it a reddish tint, and his fair skin was irritated slightly from his morning shave.
In February, Hickenlooper had turned 60. Aging bothered him. It wasn’t just that it compelled him to confront his own mortality; rather, he believed being perceived as youthful was an asset to a politician. If he’d had his way, his birth date would be expunged from his Wikipedia entry. Lately, too, he’d been talking about going on a diet, which seemed preposterous. Tall and thin, he appeared put together of parts that were all sharp angles and that had all the structural sturdiness of balsa wood—upon first impression it was fair to wonder how much pressure or stress he could withstand. Hickenlooper has long known that people initially tend to underestimate him, to discount him. Over time, he has used that to his advantage, for no one ever sees him coming.
“I spoke to Pete Maysmith. About Senate Bill 159.” The voice came first, then the knock on the threshold of Hickenlooper’s open door. It was the governor’s senior-most adviser on policy and communications, Alan Salazar, who’d arrived for his scheduled “daily” with the governor. Three other staffers were trailing him. Salazar’s tone was the contrived calm he uses to signal to the governor that what Salazar is saying is red-zone important. Hickenlooper closed the binder and tuned in.
A slender, soft-spoken man with almond-colored skin and the wisp of a black goatee, Salazar is the most experienced member of Hickenlooper’s team when it comes to gubernatorial politics, or, really, politics of any kind. For years he was the deputy chief of staff and policy director for Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, and then for more than a decade served as chief of staff to U.S. Representative Mark Udall, which is where Salazar was when Hickenlooper lured him away. Despite his years of experience, or rather because of them, Salazar considers it his professional responsibility to anticipate worst-case scenarios. On this matter, though, his concern was well-founded: The Senate Bill 159 (SB-159) thing was serious, so serious it had the potential to infect budget negotiations and devastate the new governor’s legacy before he even had a chance to finish hanging pictures on the walls of his office.
Salazar and his entourage pulled out chairs and landed around the governor, like birds fluttering to rest on a branch. In his inaugural speech, Gov. Hickenlooper had talked about how he’d found himself sitting at kitchen tables around the state while campaigning. Reading from words Salazar helped write, he said: “The kitchen table is where household decisions are made. It’s where parents write grocery lists and kids do their homework. It’s where families share their laughter and concerns, their joys and sorrows. There, in the heart of a family’s home, you could hear the heartbeat of Colorado.” Now, Gov. Hickenlooper’s conference table had become the state’s kitchen table.
The issue at hand was the Governor’s Energy Office, which was at the center of the SB-159 predicament. GEO, as it’s known, is the state agency responsible for cultivating Colorado’s green-energy economy. Hickenlooper’s predecessor, Bill Ritter, created the department in response to President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Of that $787 billion stimulus package, hundreds of millions of dollars were earmarked to incentivize renewable-energy business. Job creation, energy independence, and the environment: The green economy trifecta had become a holy trinity of Democratic Party strategy, especially in Colorado. In his inaugural speech, Hickenlooper had made a point of thanking Ritter “for defining Colorado as the epicenter for renewable energy.”
Much of GEO’s initial funding had come from the federal stimulus package, but the agency had been transitioning to state dollars. Ritter and the General Assembly had mandated that a percentage of tax revenue generated from the state gaming industry go to support GEO. But, whereas Ritter had the benefit of Democrats controlling both chambers, Republicans now controlled the House and wanted to “broaden” GEO’s mission beyond alternative energies to include big, traditional oil and gas efforts. Never mind that such industry was anathema to the agency’s founding mission.
It just so happened that the small group of legislators who comprise the Legislature’s bipartisan Joint Budget Committee—which is intimately involved in the budgeting process—had defunded GEO. According to SB-159, the state agency would get none of the tax revenue from state gaming. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House had passed House Bill 1312 to “reorganize” GEO and proposed funding the new entity, which would consider mining for natural gas and clean coal.
Hickenlooper had begun to quietly support the Republican vision of GEO because he genuinely believed in natural gas and clean coal. As far as Hickenlooper was concerned, as long as the energy is safely acquired, “everything should be on the table.” But Hickenlooper’s support of the Republican plan only infuriated Democrats and environmentalists like Pete Maysmith, head of the Colorado Conservation Voters.
Now, the Democratic Senate would not support the Republican-proposed bill, and the Republicans were not going to support funding for a green-only GEO. It appeared as if just about every legislator involved was prepared to let GEO die rather than broaden its mission. If that happened, green industry might get the idea that Colorado was no longer open to their business after all, and Democratic Party leaders, not to mention everyone else at the Capitol, might get the idea that Gov. Hickenlooper couldn’t get relative peanuts—$2.3 million out of the $19.6 billion state budget—for his own Democratic base.
“They feel,” Salazar said, referring to Democratic legislators, “like they want to send the message that you can’t spring shit on them.” Salazar lifted his chin and nodded, as if gesturing toward the sky, only he was gesturing toward the Second Floor and Third Floor, which is where the House and Senate members have their offices and where the House and Senate chambers are located. “I think this is a little of the Upstairs trying to sow their oats.”
“Have you ever eaten oats?” the governor said. “They make you fart and they make you burp. Maybe they don’t know that?”
As far back as when he was a gangly nerd, struggling socially—getting, as he puts it, his ass beat at school—he discovered that a joke could diffuse tension, could distract people, if only for a moment, from the fact that he wasn’t the greatest student or athlete. Making someone laugh allowed him time to catch up to, and often outthink, everybody else.
“Well, sir….” Salazar lowered his head. The joke got the better of him and he forced a smile. Although he was one of the newer additions to Hickenlooper’s team of close aides, he knew his boss well enough to know that there was no need to say anything more.
Alan Salazar’s deputy and the administration’s head of legislative affairs, Christine Scanlon, jumped in. She explained that the JBC claimed it didn’t know it had lost the funding. The idea that the six legislators who comprised the JBC did not know they were defunding GEO confounded logic, but Hickenlooper latched on to this narrative. He sat upright in his chair, eureka-like. “If they didn’t know what they were doing, it’s not our problem.” Hickenlooper thought he saw a way out, an Exit Ramp—yes, let’s go with the idea that the JBC made an honest mistake—without anyone making enemies.
Salazar gently rolled a pen on the table with both hands and said, “I think that’s the context we want to keep around. They should own this.”
“They do own this,” Hickenlooper snapped.
Salazar continued to roll the pen and spoke carefully. “They feel you own part of this.”
“No, no, noooo,” Hickenlooper said. There was the elevated defensive petulance, the temper that he abhors in himself. “Once we found out, we expressed concern and Christine was yelled at.” As the governor finished speaking it was obvious he immediately regretted allowing his temper get the better of him.
There was a quiet pause. The only person at the table who had not yet said anything was the governor’s budget director, Henry Sobanet. Sobanet, who resembles a turtle, rarely pokes his head from his shell to say anything. But when he does—because he brings the informed view of a Republican who served as Gov. Bill Owens’ budget director, and because he’s as skilled with politics as he is with a spreadsheet—everyone listens. “Governor, your general premise that we don’t have anything to apologize for is correct.” What Sobanet had diplomatically left unsaid was: But that is beside the point.
As one of the governor’s staffers would put it later, “There was plenty of blame to go around” for the GEO mess, and that included the governor. Hickenlooper had figured if GEO broadened its mission to things Republicans liked, it might just get its funding after all, although Democrats and environmentalists wouldn’t be particularly happy about the agency’s expanded scope. The move didn’t work, and now everyone involved was pissed—at the governor.
As Salazar had said, the Upstairs, particularly the Democrats, was sending Hickenlooper the message you can’t spring shit on us. But Hickenlooper’s advisers knew the Legislature was sending Hickenlooper another message, too, which was: You may have been able to have your way with city council, but you’re on this side of Civic Center Park now. The governor crossed his arms behind his head, leaned back in his chair, and said, “Sooooo, how do we fix this?”