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.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010 | Ritter’s Out
Hickenlooper’s public persona could lead one to believe the governor easily opens up to a stranger and quickly surrenders his trust. Twenty years ago, when he was tending his own bar and shooting the breeze with his customers, that was mostly the case. Hickenlooper the politician is a different story. He lets very few people close to him and subscribes to the idea that real trust is earned through shared experience. No members of Hickenlooper’s team are closer to him than Roxane White and RD Sewald. And on a winter night two-and-a-half years ago, the two of them had been invited by executives of Xcel Energy to take in a Denver Nuggets game at a Pepsi Center suite.
Sewald picked up White at her home in southeast Denver around six. They’d made it only about a mile on Evans Avenue when their phones started ringing and vibrating in unison. White begged Sewald to keep his eyes on the road while she checked her texts. There were many, but all were variations of the same thing: Ritter’s out. Sewald raised an eyebrow. For real? It wasn’t official, but the sources were good. A few of them already wanted to know if Hickenlooper was in.
Sewald pulled his Saab over at the intersection of University Boulevard and Evans, near Pete’s University Park Cafe, to check on what sort of intel was coming in on his phone. When he was six, Sewald witnessed his father fall down the stairs of their home and suffer a fatal head injury. With the insurance money, his Mexican-American mom partnered with family and opened La Loma, a Mexican restaurant in northwest Denver. Growing up in the restaurant business, Sewald met all walks, including politically wired people, bold-face names like the late Denver political godfather Paul Sandoval, who quickly saw that Sewald was sharp, personable, able to quickly size up people and situations. And in politics, when it comes to moving something through city council, or the state Legislature, that’s what matters. With Sandoval’s help, Sewald went to work in Denver city politics. He was a community affairs director for city auditor Dennis Gallagher when Mayor Hickenlooper spotted Sewald and his ability to manage personalities in politics.
Parked under the glow of the lights of the Pete’s Cafe sign that night, White called Mayor Hickenlooper. His wife, Helen Thorpe, answered and said the mayor was on another call and would call her ASAP. Hickenlooper often makes fun of his chief of staff for being “a control freak” and for priding herself on getting information before he does. For awhile, there was a knock-knock joke he’d tell and say it was just for her:
“What do you mean who’s there? Why don’t you know who’s there?”
This, however, was one of the times when Hickenlooper was already in the know. By the time White called Hickenlooper, he’d already gotten a call from Gov. Ritter, who gave the mayor the news and nudged Hickenlooper to run for the position he’d be vacating.
It was a given that word would spread quickly, and inevitably other hopefuls would announce their candidacy for governor. If Hickenlooper was interested, and White and Sewald had reason to think he was, decisions would have to be made quickly. White and Sewald figured they may as well go to the game until they heard from the mayor. They were swarmed as they walked into the suite.
Among the first to greet them were Mike Beasley and Chris Castilian. Beasley was a prominent lobbyist and former director of regional government affairs for Xcel. He had been a legislative aide to Republican Gov. Owens, who’d preceded Ritter. Castilian also had worked with the Owens administration as deputy chief of staff. He was now the regional government relations manager for the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. Word was spreading, and fast. They’d already heard that Ritter had decided not to run for reelection, and the Republican operatives didn’t necessarily think it was a bad idea for Hickenlooper to run.
White’s phone rang. The mayor wanted to meet. She and Hickenlooper agreed they should include the mayor’s director of communications, Eric Brown, and his wife, Thorpe, in the discussion.
Within the hour, the group convened at Hickenlooper’s home in Park Hill. In the kitchen, they gathered around the center island, opened a few beers, and started talking about the “what ifs.” The tight-knit group that gathered in the kitchen on that night knew Hickenlooper had faced this same decision before. Five years earlier, at the end of 2005, Gov. Owens was term limited out of office. At the time, Mayor Hickenlooper’s approval ratings in the metro area were astonishing. There were the Esquire and Time love fests. This magazine ranked him the second most-powerful person in Denver. Local business and civic leaders had started a “Draft Hick” campaign.
U.S. Senator Michael Bennet was then Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, and Cole Finegan, who is the current Obama finance co-chair for the state of Colorado, was Hickenlooper’s city attorney. Both men advised him to stay put. He was wildly popular, but he’d only been mayor for two years, which meant he’d only been an elected official for two years. At that point, they reminded him, he’d only been through one campaign. All of those supporters who’d voted for Mayor Hickenlooper and who had come to love Mayor Hickenlooper might feel betrayed if he ran for a higher office so soon.
Even after hearing from the likes of Bennet, Finegan, and others, Hickenlooper decided he would run for governor. To him, it seemed, he’d been doing so well as mayor that he was cut out for this sort of thing, and he figured you don’t get many chances to run for governor. So on a February night in 2006, he and a couple of advisers wrote a speech announcing his candidacy. The plan was that the following morning he would announce it to the media. Instead, Mayor Hickenlooper arrived at the City and County Building the next day with a changed mind. He’d decided, he felt, that Bennet, Finegan, and the others were right after all. The speech seemed hollow. The press, which had never been informed of exactly what he was going to say, reported that Hickenlooper announced that he would not run for governor; there was too much work for him to do as mayor.
That was then. In the time it had taken Sewald to drive from the Pepsi Center to Hickenlooper’s house, White had roughed out an agenda for the meeting. Mayor Hickenlooper’s chief of staff position had become a launching pad for political powerbrokers—Bennet, Finegan, and Kelly Brough, who went on to head the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. But Hickenlooper ranked White the best of them all. She was a different kind of COS than any of those he’d had before. She was big on creating lists and checking things off those lists. Her childhood home near Missoula, Montana, was a farm. Nobody got fed until the animals got fed. Her parents weren’t only farmers: Her mom had three master’s degrees and was a teacher, and her father was a professor at the University of Montana. Time was not meant to be wasted; it was meant for getting things done.
Her father died when she was 13, and White was sure she didn’t want to die in small-town Montana. There were tasks she could do to get out. She graduated first among her 82 high school classmates, and she earned a speech scholarship to Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. After studying Gandhi, Pope John Paul, and the Dalai Lama, White sought out jobs wherein she served society’s least fortunate. In 1994, after college and graduate school, she and her husband moved to Denver, and White eventually took a job as executive director of Urban Peak, a nonprofit for the homeless and runaway teens. She led the struggling nonprofit into an unprecedented expansion, which was a big reason Hickenlooper had hired her to head the city’s Department of Human Services, and, ultimately, why he asked her to serve as his chief of staff.
White’s conscience was another thing Hickenlooper valued. For all of his untied, untucked-ness, Hickenlooper is remarkably self-aware. He recognizes he’s got a temper and that he sometimes has a blind spot for the people most in need. Hickenlooper expects White to give him the equivalent of an ear-flick whenever he flirts with losing sight of advocating for, as White puts it, “the last and the least.” Mayor Hickenlooper’s plan to dramatically reduce homelessness, which was so successful it became a model for cities around the country—that was White. Her approach is the same for government work as it had been since her childhood: Make a list, get it done.
By the time White and Sewald arrived at Hickenlooper’s home, White had a list. It included a timeline. Discuss how and when all of the necessary steps would occur. There was the question of who else would run. Former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff? Former U.S. senator, and current Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar?
Another issue was Hickenlooper’s day job: How would he manage Denver while he was campaigning? Ultimately, though, White said to Hickenlooper that he himself had to answer the question. As White, with her master’s degrees in social work and divinity, put it to the mayor: “Is this what you feel you are called to do?” She invoked that word, “called,” very carefully: In religious vocations it means not so much one’s making a choice as one feeling they have no choice. It implies destiny.
The mortgage meltdown. The Big Three crisis. Too big to fail. A U.S. Congress that couldn’t seem to shoot straight. Colorado’s own dire financial straits. State governments seemingly falling apart. Even the circumstances under which Gov. Ritter was leaving office, amid allegations of impropriety and conflicts of interest. It all pointed one way: People were losing faith in institutions, and they appeared to be losing faith in government most of all.
Raised on the periphery of the Episcopal church, Hickenlooper isn’t a man who subscribes to any particular organized religion. But he does believe in God, and whenever he thinks about Him, he often finds himself remembering that time when he was a young boy and had asked his mother if she believed. He was almost 10 years old, and his father had died a couple of years earlier after a prolonged and painful bout with intestinal cancer. His mother’s response to his question was: “If there was a God, he wouldn’t have caused such a good man like your father to suffer the way he did.”
Hickenlooper’s interpretation of calling may not be the same as White’s, but he understood the significance of the question, and they discussed it that night and over the following days. Mayor Hickenlooper believed that now, after seven years and nearly two full terms, his handling of city politics had demonstrated that a politician—politicians—can lead without making enemies, by aligning self-interests. He believed he was uniquely qualified to govern the state in a way that would transcend partisan politics. He could do his part to restore people’s trust in government, at least in Colorado. It was clear to both White and Hickenlooper that, yes, he had been called.