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.
Thursday, May 5, 2011 | The Goose Chase, The Map & The Long Bill
Around 9 a.m. a handful of reporters from the Capitol press corps gathered outside the waiting room of the suite of executive offices that includes the governor’s chambers and the offices for many of his senior staff. The press doesn’t typically gather in front of the executive offices. They know better, especially during the legislative session when there are so many committee hearings and debates about bills and pending votes.
But the reporters had heard something was happening inside the governor’s office. They were talking amongst themselves, and one of them, Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post, was at the center of the group, holding a notebook and appearing especially unhappy.
Inside the executive chambers, Eric Brown stood in the doorway of Alan Salazar’s office. “What’s up?” he said to Salazar. “Are we doing press for the Long Bill signing?”
“I don’t think so,” Salazar said. “Check with Henry. There are some issues with the bill.”
The mood that morning was palpably tense and frenetic. Staffers were hustling from closed-door office to closed-door office. It seemed as if everything was happening very quickly, yet in slow motion with the volume on low.
“Lynn’s on to the meeting,” Brown said to Salazar.
“What does she know?” Salazar asked.
If Hickenlooper’s motivation in getting McNulty and Shaffer together in his office was to create a media-free cocoon where they could have candid discussions without the fear of reporter’s blogs and tweets commenting on their every word—and that was Hickenlooper’s motivation—Salazar had to think fast to preserve that environment. Colorado state sunshine laws mandate that, when two or more state officials from the same body are gathered to decide state policy, the meeting should be open to the public and the press. But, as it turned out, this was not one of those instances.
Brown read aloud the email Bartels had sent. Meeting. Governor’s office. Brandon. Frank. Maps. “She’s waiting outside,” Brown said. “Says she wants an answer.” Mayor Hickenlooper hired Brown in 2009, shortly after the Rocky Mountain News shut down. When Brown was with the paper he had been, at times, Bartels’ editor, and he had been her editor when she covered Hickenlooper’s mayoral campaign. In those days he wanted her to get the story; now, not so much. “What should I tell her?” he asked.
Salazar rolled his eyes. “You know Lynn,” he said. “In a few minutes, I’ll walk outside. I’ll walk upstairs to the third floor, and she’ll follow me and ask me questions. I’ll do a few laps, keep her busy for awhile.”
With the exception of the financing of political campaigns, there may be nothing in all of American politics more inherently corrupt and asinine than the process of congressional redistricting. Every 10 years, after the latest census report, in response to population changes each state redraws the borders of its congressional districts to ensure that its communities receive proportionately appropriate representation. Sometimes a state experiences a population decrease and loses a seat, and other times a state experiences enough of a bump that it merits additional representation, as was the case in 2000 when Colorado picked up its seventh seat.
In theory, according to the Colorado Constitution, the state Legislature is charged with the responsibility of redistricting. Both the House and Senate appoint their own committees tasked with producing a map that gets put to vote in their respective chambers. If, say, the Senate passes a map, as with any other bill, that Senate-approved map would then move to the House for a vote, and if passed in both chambers, it would be sent to the governor for his signature or veto.
In reality, that never happens. Political turf is power, and neither party wants to give up any. So each side proposes wildly different maps comprised of absurdly shaped congressional districts that make sense only to those who engineer them solely to reinforce influence while creating the illusion of compromise. Partisanship and self-interest dooms the whole thing before it begins. The Legislature ultimately fails to come to an agreement and the decision moves to the courts. So it goes, too, with reapportionment of the state voting districts. Those were already on the way to the courts, but because they’re parochial rather than national, they don’t generate as much political interest.
The Legislature’s attempt to redraw a new map based on the 2010 census numbers was shaping up to be yet another quixotic joke. Shaffer’s Democrat-controlled Senate had appointed three Democrats to its five-member committee, and McNulty’s Republican-controlled House put three Republicans on its committee, and, go figure, no one could agree on anything. The “discussions” in the chambers on the Third Floor over the proposed maps had gotten so vitriolic, so hostile, that on that very Thursday, state Senator Greg Brophy got into a fierce argument with one of his colleagues and walked out of the Senate hearing.
Salazar and other members of the governor’s senior staff advised Hickenlooper that redistricting was “high stakes” and that it would be difficult to get the Legislature to agree on a bill. Gov. Hickenlooper nevertheless asked McNulty and Shaffer to come together in a neutral place, his office, to attempt to talk things through. Away from the shouting and the media’s instigation, Hickenlooper proposed, there might be an alignment of self-interests that could be struck.
That morning, McNulty had arrived alone. Shaffer brought with him a youthful Denver Democratic lawyer, Scott Martinez. They sat down at Hickenlooper’s conference table, with the bowl of shiny red apples between them. Shaffer and Martinez were on one side of the table; McNulty sat across from them and was joined frequently by Salazar, who was conscious of keeping balance. The governor occasionally visited, too, seated at the head of the table. Everyone involved had agreed that everyone there would have to duck in and out to tend to other business. All of the parties agreed that whatever happened in that room stayed in that room, unless of course an agreement was struck, and maybe even then no one would speak of what exactly happened. (In subsequent briefings and discussions that the governor and his senior staff would have, details of the map meetings emerged.)
At the same time, members of the House and Senate redistricting committees were attempting to move maps, along with other last-minute bills, through chambers. A map circulating on the Third Floor showed some promise, as it made what some legislators may have perceived as concessions to the Republicans, and which might have made for a nice conversation-starter in the governor’s office. That particular map, however, like so many others, did not last long.
“Brandon started off by saying his people were going to blow up that map today,” Hickenlooper said. “Brandon told Frank that he was sorry.” The governor was talking to his chief of staff, Roxane White, and budget director, Henry Sobanet. It was midmorning now and Hickenlooper had just left the redistricting meeting in his office and hustled down to the other end of the hallway, where he’d simultaneously knocked on and opened the closed door to White’s office, where he found White and Sobanet at a small meeting table. Along with them were a couple of staffers. They’d been waiting for Hickenlooper.
On the table was a thick stack of paper, a version of the Long Bill. Aside from the state constitution, the Long Bill is arguably the most important document in the state government, as it contains detailed explanations for what will be the state budget as approved by the Legislature for the next fiscal year. Traditionally, when the Long Bill gets the governor’s signature—and that’s what Hickenlooper had arrived to do—it means all substantive issues have been resolved and therefore a press conference would make sense. That was not the case with this Long Bill.
“For a few moments, after he heard Brandon,” Hickenlooper said, “McNulty sat there, didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to do. He sat there and then said, ‘Let’s get to business.’ To his credit, he was ready to get down to work. So who knows?”
Eric Brown had done as Salazar instructed him to do when the two spoke at Salazar’s office: Brown had checked with Sobanet on whether there would be a press conference that day for the Long Bill signing. If Sobanet had his way, there would not be a press conference, as he now explained to the governor: “My recommendation is we do not have a press conference celebrating togetherness, since we’ve not really done that,” Sobanet said in his conservative, understated way.
The issue was the financing in the Long Bill was short by about $70 million. Though a relative sliver of the roughly $19.6 billion total package, the actual dollar figure didn’t really matter. There could be no gap, no discrepancy. Sobanet’s—and thereby Hickenlooper’s—budget was contingent on the General Assembly passing a couple of last-minute bills, which in turn would allow the numbers to fall into place. Speaker McNulty and President Shaffer couldn’t seem to agree on anything, which was creating myriad problems. Hickenlooper and his team had to sort it out in the next five days, three if you discounted the weekend.
Sobanet believed a press conference would only exacerbate tensions; he suggested the governor should sign the bill quietly, without fanfare. Salazar entered the room and recommended the governor also include “a letter of admonition” with the bill, which would convey to the legislative leadership, and everyone else who was paying attention, that if they did not pass the necessary bills, there would be consequences—namely, the governor would restrict spending on projects that were dear to both Republicans and Democrats.
As Sobanet and Salazar made their cases, Hickenlooper sat across the table, appearing as if he were mentally scouring every word. When they were finished, Hickenlooper nodded in agreement, picked up the pen, and began signing page after page. “What is an admonition, really?” He looked up and smiled, his joke conveying he thoroughly understood the strategy and approved. By including the letter of admonition, Hickenlooper said as he signed, “Somebody will figure out that what we’re saying is….” A staffer from Sobanet’s budget office finished the sentence: “Don’t fuck with me.”
As he signed away, Hickenlooper matter-of-factly gave a command. He directed White to have the governor’s legal department draw up an executive order that would force the Legislature to extend this session into a “special session.” “Just in case,” he said. Apparently the governor had decided to add another potential consequence should the Legislature insist on not casting the votes his way. In his first session of his first year on the job, the guy who didn’t believe in making enemies had just set in motion the legislative equivalent of the nuclear option.