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.

August 2012

5280.com ExclusiveRead our Q&A with the writer Maximillian Potter, check out a slideshow of his behind-the-scenes images, and get his take on the First Couple's separation.


Morning, Friday, May 6, 2011 | The Longest Day

During those crazy last days of his first legislative session, there was a bowl of red apples in the middle of the long conference table in his office. The fruit added much-needed color and life, and somehow brought a sense of hope, to the otherwise stodgy executive chambers, with their wood-paneled walls and meager natural light, which came in shafts through wooden blinds and illuminated the floating dust. On that morning a little more than a year ago, five men were seated at the table. One of the men had a laptop open with a map of the state of Colorado on the screen. The computer was plugged in to a projector that put the map on a much larger screen at one end of the table.

The men would point at the map on the large screen and talk at one another; occasionally one of them would move his hand in a slicing motion, as if carving a honey ham. The men then would sit back, look at the map, look at one another, and say nothing. Sometime just after 9 a.m., not long after this group had sat down, he reached over them, plucked an apple from the bowl, and wished them luck. He told them if they were able to figure this out it would go a long way to restore the public’s confidence in government. Then he left them in his office.

Hoping he had sufficiently appealed to their “better angels,” which is one of his favorite phrases, he exited the state Capitol building in what had become his typical manner: through doors near his office, moving briskly, disheveled—one of his scuffed shoes untied, the back of his shirt untucked—and behind schedule. Carrying a white binder and chomping on the apple, he descended the stone steps to his SUV, which was at the ready with a state trooper in jacket and tie behind the wheel.

“How’s it going, Governor?” the trooper asked. “Oh, you know,” the governor said, “having the time of my life.” The line is another of Governor John Wright Hickenlooper’s favorites, his default response almost anytime anyone asked him how things were going with the new job. And he said it that morning as he often does, in a tone frosted with chipper and charm that could mean he’s being either completely sincere or completely sarcastic, and which unmistakably conveys he’s not about to elaborate.

In the SUV he opened the white binder and studied the contents: a briefing and suggested comments for his appearance at the Colorado State Patrol Training Academy in Golden. Hickenlooper likes to speak extemporaneously. When he does, most of the time, he’s a charming, self-deprecating hit. There have been times, however, when, in the words of one of his senior staffers, he’s “stepped on his crank.” His top advisers breathe a little easier when he has talking points, and it was all there on the page: “You are delivering the memorial address for the seven officers being added to the Colorado Law Enforcement Memorial. The Colorado Law Enforcement Memorial was created in 1979, and has 243 names engraved in the memorial of officers who died in the line of duty. The seven names they are adding today include one recent officer death as well as six historical officer deaths.”

When we arrived in Golden, the spring sun was unseasonably warm. The asphalt lot was packed with cars. Formations of uniformed law enforcement officers stood at attention, and rows of folding chairs faced a podium, every seat filled. The governor lifted a tie from the SUV’s center console. Hickenlooper doesn’t usually wear a tie. He takes great pride in not wearing a tie. He thinks ties are “off-brand.” Like much of what he does, it’s strategy to perpetuate the image of him as the beer man who Forrest Gumped his way into politics, and specifically to avoid looking like a politician who now strategizes to look like the beer man who Forrest Gumped his way into politics. Here, though, a tie was necessary as a gesture of respect. Hickenlooper fashioned the knot, shouldered closed the SUV door, and started across the blacktop.

He stopped abruptly. “Suntan lotion.” He wanted to know if there was any in the SUV, but everything about the way he said it—so much talk about how his wife had been on him about making sure he applied sunscreen—made it seem as if that was not the reason he stopped. Instead, it appeared what he really needed was a moment, a little time to allow the GPS of his mind to recalibrate to his current coordinates. The trooper informed the governor that it was a “negative” on suntan lotion. I offered that I had some in my bag. Hickenlooper pivoted and returned to the SUV. He slathered on the cream, leaving faint white streaks on his face. He buttoned the top button of his shirt and marched off. His tie knot was loose, near the second button of his shirt.

Seated in the front row was a woman, a blonde wearing glasses. Her eyes were red, and her eyeliner was streaked by tears. She held a tissue and leaned against a trooper who was as tall and as sturdy as a ponderosa pine. The woman personified the mood. Per the briefing, this was Heather, and her husband, Samuel, was the officer killed recently in the line of duty: A suspected car thief fatally shot deputy Brownlee on November 23, 2010.

Adhering to the talking points, Hickenlooper first thanked politically key people on hand. He eventually got to the part where he was to acknowledge the details of the deaths of Brownlee and the six other honorees—the most important part of the speech—and it was here that he veered off script.

The governor noted that Blackhawk City Marshal Robert Clark died in 1869 in the territory of Colorado while serving an arrest warrant for a man who assaulted a cook, and that Las Animas County Sheriff Juan Tafoya had been killed in 1872 while trying to protect saloon patrons. Hickenlooper, who had made himself a millionaire several times over as a brewpub entrepreneur, looked up from the podium. It would have been obvious to anyone who knew him well that he was about to wing it. “The fact that both of these two people died protecting restaurant owners or tavern owners,” he said, “is a coincidence that has nothing to do with my background.”

You could almost hear the needle scratch off the record and feel the world bump to a stop. It seemed many of us in attendance were of the same mind: Did he just attempt…a joke? Hickenlooper paused. He slowly rubbed his right thumb across his left cheek. The thought bubble over his head was bright as neon: Well, that didn’t go over like I thought it would. Matter-of-factly, Hickenlooper returned to the prepared facts. “Trinidad Officer John Solomon was killed….” He closed his remarks, doves were released, and, mercifully, it was over.

In the SUV, even before he clicked on his seat belt, he said, “Were you listening? Did you hear me try to make a joke?” He was disgusted with himself. The SUV was uncomfortably quiet. From the backseat I said, “I think it’s clear you meant well.” Hickenlooper cocked his head and I could see his left profile. He was perspiring, drained of color, his chipper and charm now absent; the faint, white suntan lotion streaks still visible on his face. He resembled a ghost of himself. Just then he noticed he’d never snugged up his tie knot. “I went out there like this?” He pushed his head against the headrest. “What was I thinking?”

The fact was that Gov. Hickenlooper was thinking many things. There was the Upstairs, the Asks, GEO, the Exit Ramps, the Brand, the Five Families, SB-159, SCR-1, the speaker and the president, the JBC, planes and not jumping, the maps, the future—his and the state’s—to name just a few. Almost all of these things would have sounded like a bunch of meaningless bureaucratese to most people outside the Capitol. But, jargon aside, Hickenlooper knew each of these things actually meant a great deal to every resident of Colorado.

Of course, all of it was tied to the money—the budget. The budget was everything to Hickenlooper, and not simply because of practical necessity. Hickenlooper believed passing a balanced budget with bipartisan support was the key to beginning to restore the people’s faith in state government—and to his ability to govern. He saw it as the foundation of his administration. Whatever lofty, altruistic agendas he had in mind didn’t have much of a chance if he couldn’t muster a bipartisan foundation on which he could build his legacy.

And on that day, only four months into his first term, none of it was going his way. Although Hickenlooper would never admit such things publicly—because he believed a part of his job was to project optimism, because optimism, like despair, can be contagious—there were private moments like this one when he wondered if he was really going to be able to pull off this governor thing the way he wanted. The trooper shifted the SUV into drive and, more to himself than to anyone else, said, “Back to the Capitol.” Yes, back to the big gold dome—back to Hickenlooper, oh, you know, having the time of his life.