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.
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.
The Unlikely Prince
The view west from the steps beneath the gold dome of the Colorado state Capitol is breathtakingly incongruous: Across Civic Center Park, Denver’s City and County Building—white and grand with its expansive facade and six stone pillars—is set against the backdrop of the prehistorically magnificent Rocky Mountains. On just about any clear day, students on field trips and tourists mill about the steps, clicking photographs of the panorama. There’s something about seeing that building, painstakingly constructed to represent man’s power, sublimely juxtaposed against those rugged, towering peaks—which simply exist, and which, jagged in all directions, speak to much greater forces—that compels one to reflect. Hickenlooper, Colorado’s 42nd governor, traveled the west-side steps often, and for him a gaze in that direction is a glimpse into his past.
From 2003 until 2011, the City and County Building had been Mayor Hick’s place. It’s where he orchestrated a remarkable two terms after a stunning campaign upset. His victory was especially remarkable because mayor was not only the first elected office Hickenlooper had run for; it was also his first-ever campaign. The guy had never so much as run for student council—an ostensible weakness that, thanks to circumstance and his resilient cowlick of a personality, he turned into a strength.
Denver voters could relate to his geologist-turned-beer-man biography. Like so many wildcatting, pioneer adventurers before him, he’d come from someplace else—the suburbs outside Philadelphia—and staked his claim. He’d experienced failure in the oil and gas game, picked himself up, and struck gold as a brewpub entrepreneur. Just as appealing as what he was, was what he was not: He was not another lawyer. He was not another career politician. He seemed incapable of the same old entrenched backroom political horseshit. More than a few voters almost certainly had been under the impression that Hickenlooper was incapable of even understanding the machinations of the same old entrenched backroom political horseshit.
Refreshingly akin to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Hickenlooper stepped onto the Denver stage emanating a nostalgic golly gee–ness, an ebullient hopefulness, an endearing goofiness, a sense of humor. Hickenlooper was the guy who’d promoted his Denver brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Company, which he opened in 1988, with a running of the pigs in Lower Downtown. The idea grew from the frustrated writer’s love of literature—Ernest Hemingway made Spain’s running of the bulls famous in The Sun Also Rises—and his persistent self-promotion, which could be so unabashedly crass that it was charming. Hickenlooper was the guy whose 40th birthday bash invitations featured him sitting on a Wynkoop barstool, naked except for cowboy boots, bandanas, and a strategically positioned hard hat. Hickenlooper was the guy who, in the early 1990s, offered a $5,000 “bounty” to anyone who could find him a bride, which he ended up explaining (meaning, once again, promoting himself and his bar) on the Phil Donahue Show. In the contemporary wild West, John Hickenlooper at once fit right in and distinguished himself as a character among characters.
Next thing you knew, Hickenlooper was the eccentric bar owner leading the campaign that successfully prevented the city from selling away the identity of Mile High Stadium and helping broker the name Invesco Field at Mile High, which in turn became Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Then the eccentric bar owner who’d helped save Mile High was campaigning for mayor, driving around town on a scooter, putting change in expired parking meters in a campaign ad to show “the fundamental nonsense” of raising meter rates in a down economy. That’s not to say he avoided the controversial issues. As mayor, Hickenlooper, who has a fear of heights, parachuted from a plane in television commercials, twice, in a suit and tie. When financial times were tough, he risked his political capital, not to mention his life, to promote a proposed tax increase, which voters approved.
Voters approved nearly all of the dozen-plus ballot initiatives Mayor Hickenlooper championed; in fact, voters approved of virtually everything Mayor Hickenlooper supported or did. So, too, did the city council, or at least the seven-of-13 majority he needed to get whatever he wanted done. Having inherited the largest budget deficit in Denver history, Mayor Hick slashed city expenses and raised taxes. He achieved the unthinkable by getting city unions to take contract concessions and pay cuts—moves that, had they been simply proposed by another mayor, likely would have prompted a broad range of constituencies to turn out with pitchforks.
Yet through it all, Hickenlooper managed to successfully play the dual role of mayor and city mascot; he somehow managed to stay above the partisan fray, and, according to the polls, he remained damn near beloved—by his fellow Democrats and by Republicans, by the city folk and by the residents of the surrounding suburbs, and by business and by labor. His approval ratings in the metro region rarely dipped below 70 percent, and his approval ratings in some Republican-dominated suburbs were above 60 percent.
He transcended the typical partisan pitfalls because he put the public’s interest above his own. In 2004, Denver police responding to a 911 call fatally shot Frank Lobato, an innocent old guy who was in his bed reaching for a soda can, not a weapon, as the police had thought. The community was outraged. A lawsuit was likely. Some of Mayor Hickenlooper’s advisers told him to stay out of it, to let the process unfold. Instead, the mayor stood before a community meeting and apologized. What had happened was wrong, he said. He felt that saying the city and he were sorry was the very least he could do.
Hickenlooper established a truly independent police monitor, brought in from Portland, Oregon. He pledged to solve Denver’s homelessness epidemic, not by making the indigent feel like criminals with the threat of arrest and imprisonment, but rather by finding them shelter and coordinating city resources and programs to help the homeless become self-sufficient and rediscover their dignity. When Mayor Hickenlooper slashed city salaries, he began by cutting his own by 25 percent.
Mayor Hickenlooper really did seem to adhere to the two principles he had adopted as brewpub entrepreneur, and which had become his political mantras. He began referring to the ideas as his “brand”:
1. The secret to overcoming any challenge lies in finding the alignment of self-interests.
2. There is no margin in having enemies.
National media exalted him. Esquire put him in a fashion spread of politicos, dubbing him one of the “best-dressed mayors in America,” which, as anyone who has ever laid eyes on the man’s wardrobe can attest, was absurd. Time named him one of “The 5 Best Big-City Mayors,” which was equally shocking because the honorific was earned so quickly. At that time, Mayor Hickenlooper was barely two years into his first term, and was recognized along with the likes of New York’s Michael Bloomberg and iconic Chicago boss Richard Daley.
As far as real-life political fairy tales go, it was just about impossible to trump Mayor Hickenlooper. He was a new kind of natural, one of those unicorn-rare, truly apolitical politicians that career politicos so often and so fraudulently claim to be. Hickenlooper’s rise, though, was also Machiavellian, a modifier that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the aw-shucks former barkeep. In the classic tome of political maxims and commentary, The Prince, which Hickenlooper has read and dissected since entering the political world, the Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli argues that the most successful leader is not the traditional hereditary prince, but rather a new kind of a prince: This “leading citizen” achieves office “by the favor of his fellow citizens” and remains mindful of both commoners and nobles alike. “This,” Machiavelli wrote, “may be called a civil principality: nor is genius or fortune altogether necessary to attain to it, but rather a happy shrewdness.”
As Colorado shifted from Republican red to Democratic blue—and as the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Dan Maes, set himself on fire—Hickenlooper emerged as the purplest of brands, the city-slicker Dem whom anyone, even Republicans, could love. Which is why even some of the state’s top Republican rainmakers—like Larry Mizel, the chairman and CEO of home construction giant MDC Holdings, Inc., and Liberty Media president and CEO Greg Maffei—backed Hickenlooper, and why Hickenlooper won the 2010 gubernatorial election by a landslide.
On January 11, 2011, Governor-elect Hickenlooper left the City and County Building, walked across Civic Center Park, and ascended the Capitol’s west-side steps for his swearing in. He counted every step, 663 to be exact. A man who relishes historical trivia, he was conscious of the moment: Only one Denver mayor had ever become governor of Colorado before. As he stood with his hand on the Bible—his wife, journalist Helen Thorpe, and their eight-year-old son, Teddy, nearby—Hickenlooper had perspective on where he had been, and a sense, albeit an academic one, of the unprecedented confluence of challenges in front of him.
The November 2010 election that had been so good for him had not been as kind to his party. For the first time since 2004, Democrats didn’t hold both houses of the Legislature and the governorship. They maintained the majority in the Senate and held on to the executive seat, but Republicans now owned the House. Hickenlooper would have to find a way to persuade this divided General Assembly to agree on the budget at a time when Colorado was facing an approximately $1 billion shortfall, a full 15 percent of the state’s operating costs.
It was also time for reapportionment and redistricting. Based on the data gleaned from the once-a-decade census report, the state House and Senate were expected to agree on a new reapportionment for Colorado’s state voting districts and also to redefine the state’s U.S. congressional districts. That meant the Senate and the House would have to find common ground redefining the fiefdoms of political power in the state and in Washington, D.C., for the next 10 years—decisions that would impact a few of their own careers should any of them want to make a run at D.C. The ultimate turf war was coming, and it seemed inevitable that the process would politicize the precious state budget negotiations along with everything else.
Sizing up the situation to confidants, Hickenlooper described it as a “perfect storm.” In his inaugural speech, however, the governor adhered to his script and to his brand and projected optimism. Not once did he utter the words “Democrat” or “Republican” or even “party.” Instead, he spoke about “partners.” Tipping his rhetorical hat to Senate President Brandon Shaffer, a Democrat, and House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Republican, he said he looked forward to “working together in the best tradition of the West.”
The very next day, January 12, 2011, after the speechifying and the inaugural partying were over, Gov. Hickenlooper boarded the political Tilt-A-Whirl of his first legislative session, spinning into where he was now—early May 2011, the last days of his first legislative session. All of the lingering bills, cuts, and deals that had been proposed and/or opposed by the state’s 35 senators and 65 representatives, along with that state budget of $19.6 billion, along with the hundreds of “Asks” from so many players, public servants, and parasites embedded therein, now would have to, at last, be sorted out. It was that time of the year, when, as one of the governor’s cabinet members put it, “power and politics collide.” It was the first time that Hickenlooper’s apolitical, happy shrewdness—and, dare one say it, the idea that politics can overcome partisan self-interest—was put to a test on the statewide level. Hickenlooper thought if he couldn’t get it done at the state level, how would Barack Obama, or for that matter, any president, ever get beyond partisanship at the national level?
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.
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?”
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.
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.
One afternoon I asked Hickenlooper why he wanted to be governor. He told me that when he was in high school, or rather his second high school, the Haverford School, which is a private academy outside Philadelphia, he was a pitcher on the varsity baseball team. “What I loved about pitching is not being the center of attention,” he told me, “but that I was involved in each play. I was integrally involved in each play, each pitch. Whereas everyone else on the baseball diamond is standing around a lot of the time. So it wasn’t necessarily being the center of attention, as it was the center of the action.” I suggested that there wasn’t much difference between the center of the action and the center of the attention. Hickenlooper smiled and said, “It’s true.”
He was born and raised near the tony Philadelphia suburbs known as the Main Line. The Main Line is the Merion Cricket Club and the Devon Horse Show; it’s Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges; it’s names like Mellon, Biddle, du Pont. It’s some of the oldest, WASPiest money in the country. It’s The Philadelphia Story. Yet Hickenlooper was born and raised in Lower Merion, on the border of the Main Line; his town marked the transition from the posh horse shows and country clubs to the grittiness of West Philadelphia. He lived in both—and neither— worlds, which may explain why there’s no pretense to Hickenlooper. One of the very few overt hints of Main Line privilege is his use of the word “rather,” which he pronounces like a Great Gatsby character from East Egg, drawing out the long “a,” as in, I’d rahther be governor than mayor.
He’d tell you that his resilience comes from his mother, Anne. She was already a widow when she met his father, John Hickenlooper. Her first husband, a World War II fighter pilot, had been shot down twice. Both times he was captured by the Germans, and both times he escaped and continued to fly missions, only to come home and die while on a routine transport assignment. Just days before getting out of the service, a plane he was flying got caught in an electrical storm, and he died in a crash.
A widow with two small children, Anne moved in with her parents until she married Hickenlooper, a Cornell University–trained mechanical engineer. He had flat feet, a bad back, and terrible vision, any of which made him ineligible to serve in the military as his two older brothers had done. By the time their son, John, had turned five, his father had been diagnosed with cancer. The young boy watched as his mother tended to his father, the nonstop changing of sheets and preparing for the linen service.
A childhood memory that he calls one of the 10 most “revelatory moments” of his life happened when his mother informed him she would be unable to attend one of his school performances. Standing on the landing of the stairwell in their home, young Hickenlooper shouted at his mother, complaining for all the house to hear: “You never come to any of my school plays. You never come to my stuff.” He remembers that his older brother, Sydney, a half-sibling from his mother’s previous marriage, grabbed him and pushed him against a wall, and, face-pressed-to-face, said, “How do you think that makes your father feel?” In that instant, Hickenlooper says, he began to appreciate empathy.
After his father’s death, some of the troubles Hickenlooper had been having were exacerbated. He was dyslexic (although he didn’t know it at the time), and he required speech therapy in third grade. A quintessential gangly dork with thick glasses, just like the father he’d barely known, Hickenlooper wasn’t varsity material at Lower Merion High School. To compensate, or perhaps draw attention away from his shortcomings, he would wise off. This got him beat up. He was so bullied at Lower Merion that his mother pulled him out of the public high school and, thanks to the roughly $250,000 Hickenlooper’s father had left her, she enrolled him in the Haverford School. He was eventually accepted at both Princeton University, in New Jersey, and Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and opted for the latter because the school had accepted him first.
Hickenlooper spent most of the next 10 years in college. During his freshman year, as he put it, “I almost had...no, I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, but I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t sleep.” There was a girl, his first love, who didn’t love him back. Fostering friendships was a challenge. He was briefly prescribed lithium. With his mother’s help, he spent the summer volunteering with a Quaker youth group in Maine that turned a sardine factory into a school. He took a semester off from Wesleyan and worked as a teaching assistant at the school.
He returned to college and took as many blow-off classes as he could. “I couldn’t figure out what to do,” he says. “I never took a science class. Never took a math class.” He became an English major—did some creative writing, music, jazz theory. “All this kind of weird stuff. Anything that didn’t require me to do heavy reading. I’m taking electronic music. I’m taking the design and construction of stained glass windows.”
Just before he graduated, in 1974, Hickenlooper discovered geology. He audited a friend’s class. The subject was leach fields; it had to do with how developers could juice the test methodology for drainage fields in order to perhaps sell someone a home on land that looked dry and stable but became a swamp during the spring. “It was so fascinating and so pragmatic,” he said. Hickenlooper stayed at school for another four years and got his master’s in earth and environmental science; along the way he became engaged to an anthropology student who owned a parrot and studied witches. Hickenlooper ended up having more in common with the parrot. The engagement ended when he accepted a job with Buckhorn Petroleum in Denver.
It was a dream gig. It was 1981, and Hickenlooper was driving a company car and earning $27,000 a year, which was more than his mother’s third (and final) husband, a Harvard graduate, was making. He was not only flush, but he was also in love again, this time with a Swedish girl he’d met while on a vacation in St. Croix. Her name was Ellinor, but everyone called her Nalen. Again, there was a short-lived engagement. As Hickenlooper explained it, “I was ambitious. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was driven. All she wanted was me and a house and a dog and, at some point, kids.”
In 1986, Hickenlooper found himself laid off but got a severance package worth a little more than $100,000. He bought a 1967 red Chevy Malibu convertible. He drove to California. Still the aspiring writer, he and a friend took a chance at writing scripts. They managed to get one read by a producer for the hit television show Moonlighting, which starred Bruce Willis. Just as Hickenlooper and his writing partner were hearing encouraging responses to the script, the show was canceled. Hickenlooper got another idea that seemed almost as crazy as writing for TV: opening a brewpub in an old warehouse in the run-down LoDo section of Denver.
It would be a brewpub restaurant that specialized in all-natural, small-batch beers. He found investors and did it on the cheap. He called it Wynkoop Brewing Company. Within five years, he had pubs all over the state and all over the country. His second was Cooper Smith’s Pub & Brewing in Fort Collins, then the Phantom Canyon Brewing Company in Colorado Springs. Along the way he bought a few local places like Wazee Supper Club and the Pearl Street Grill. He created local partnerships that opened brewpubs like Wynkoop in cities such as Omaha, Des Moines, Green Bay, Wichita, and San Francisco.
The business model was to take the same all-natural craft brew and historic-building idea and partner with local investors. It worked, until it didn’t. The business expanded too quickly. Hickenlooper didn’t have control over all of the out-of-state operations; some of the partners in other cities did things differently than Hickenlooper, and he ended up with some “strugglers,” prompting him to sell off his interest in almost all of the out-of-state businesses. As mayor, he put the management of the bars and restaurants, along with all of his business interests, in a blind trust. By the time he’d run for governor—in what was perhaps one of the strongest signs that he’d given up business and committed himself to politics—Hickenlooper had sold off all of his interests in the brewpubs except for Cooper Smith’s and the Beach Chalet in San Francisco.
On the conference table in his office, Gov. Hickenlooper keeps a pitcher of water and pint glasses with “Wynkoop Brewing Company” frosted on them. He’s always referencing the bar in stories. He finds all kinds of ways to link political situations to his experiences at Wynkoop. The bar is located on the southeast corner of 18th and Wynkoop streets, but that isn’t necessarily why Hickenlooper chose the name. In the beginning, it was merely one on a list of potential names: the Iron Horse Brewing Company, the Union Station Brewing Company, the LoDo Brewing Company, and even Hickenlooper’s.
Hickenlooper didn’t want a name that elicited strong, preconceived notions. He wanted a name that was a blank slate, such that his unique business and the community could define the brand. For many months, Hickenlooper carried a list of eight names with him around Denver and would ask people in local pubs and restaurants what they thought of them. People either loved or hated the Hickenlooper name; some thought it sounded made up, like Fuddruckers. In his informal polls around town, Wynkoop rarely ranked first or last; it almost always ranked somewhere in the middle, which meant Wynkoop, then, was perfect.
As Hickenlooper researched the name, he learned that it had belonged to a man named Edward Wanshaer Wynkoop. In 1861, Wynkoop enlisted in the Colorado first cavalry. He was a flamboyant guy. Thinking that his uniform was too bland, he had his future wife put in some red stitching, like the Indians who would adorn themselves with war paint.
By the mid-1860s, Wynkoop had met and befriended Cheyenne Principal Chief Black Kettle. Believing there was peace to be brokered and a potential end to the regional wars between the white men and the Indians, Wynkoop arranged a meeting between Colorado’s Gov. John Evans and Colonel John Chivington. Wynkoop thought the meeting had gone well and that his ability to broker a behind-the-scenes meeting just might have quietly changed things for the better.
Shortly after that meeting, however, Chivington took 250 men, surrounded Chief Black Kettle’s camp near Fort Lyon, and attacked the peaceful community. Outraged, Wynkoop spearheaded investigations that proved Chivington had killed hundreds of unarmed women and children in what became know as the Sand Creek Massacre. The politics and prejudices of the time overpowered the rights and the truth, and no charges were ever filed against Chivington.
Wynkoop, who was born in 1836 in a Philadelphia suburb, came from a well-off family and attended the finer schools of Pennsylvania. He was a charismatic speaker, learned the political game quickly, and long had a reputation for attempting to broker peace behind the scenes, despite, it would seem, overwhelming odds against him.
Hickenlooper says that when he named Wynkoop, he didn’t foresee a political career for himself. Edward Wynkoop, he told me, was clearly a guy who knew what he wanted to do from a very young age, whereas Hickenlooper clearly did not. Wynkoop spent his teen years studying rhetoric and politics, while the young Hickenlooper avoided heavy reading and preferred to be on the pitcher’s mound.
“I threw a junk ball,” he told me. “A big slow curve. I had perfect control but never threw faster than 64 miles per hour. The opposing team would stand at the cage and drool. Then I’d throw these big curves. And it would just drop; it would come right at their head, real slow, and then drop at the inside of the plate and they didn’t have a chance.”
Late morning, Friday, May 6, 2011 | The Longest Day
as the governor’s suv arrived back at the Capitol after the Colorado Law Enforcement Memorial service, GEO was about to be defunded, the budget was in a precarious position, and Hickenlooper was attempting to facilitate a civil agreement on the redistricting maps.
One of the greatest challenges for the map talks was that, as most everyone inside the Capitol was aware, Shaffer himself almost certainly would be running for U.S. Congress. But heading back into the Capitol that Friday morning, the governor hoped the speaker and the president had made progress. “There’s always hope,” he said as the SUV pulled up at the west-side steps. He had removed his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. The chipper and charm had returned to his face.
A trooper stood inside the lobby by a nondescript, open side door directly to the governor’s chambers. Hickenlooper entered the doorway and found the would-be map-makers still there, but they were calling it quits. They had been at the table the previous day from 9 a.m. until around 6 p.m.; today they’d arrived again before 9 a.m. It was now about 11 a.m.
Tensions were high. McNulty left feeling frustrated. Throughout the talks, McNulty said he believed Shaffer was putting his own political aspirations above everything else and was merely looking to redistrict, as it were, the deck in his own favor. The idea that these two guys were going to come to an agreement had been extraordinarily unlikely, as Hickenlooper’s advisers had noted. There was also the Scott Martinez factor.
Martinez was a high-profile Democratic operative and redistricting whiz kid. Before Ritter had left office, it was Martinez who’d gone to Ritter’s administration and successfully encouraged the governor to get what was then the Democrat controlled Legislature to pass a law that would enable the courts—in the event these map talks ended up there—to have the most freedom to interpret the census data in a way that was most favorable to Democrats.
During that day-and-a-half of meetings in Hickenlooper’s office, Martinez, who was working the controls of the laptop programmed with data and map-making tools, advocated for a new map that favored the Democrats as a whole, knowing, of course, that if he didn’t get what he wanted in that room it would move to the courts, where he himself had laid the legal groundwork that put the odds in the Democrats’ favor to get the map they wanted anyhow. And so the talks ended that Friday morning with McNulty and Shaffer disliking each other more than ever before, and neither one of them feeling especially warm and fuzzy toward Gov. Hickenlooper.
Afternoon, Friday, May 6, 2011 | The Longest Day
“Did you hear the one about the chicken and egg?” the governor asked me. We were standing in the antechamber to his office. I replied that I had not, but said I supposed it had something to do with which one came first. Hickenlooper flashed a mischievous grin at me, his eyes widened and lit up, and he went on with his joke:
“So the chicken and egg are in bed together. They’re feeling frisky, and they start to go at it. The chicken and egg, they’re rolling around under the covers until all of a sudden there’s a”—and here the governor uttered a lamely crescendoing ah-aH-AH meant to sound orgasmic, but which sounded more like an incipient sneeze—“an exclamation of great release, and then the chicken rolls onto his back, lights a cigarette, takes a big drag and exhales.” The governor mimed the smoking action. “And then the chicken says, ‘Well, I guess that answers that question.’ ”
He looked at me until I smiled and conveyed that I got it. With a setup that both anticipated the audience’s thoughts and turned them upside down, and with the perfect combination of cerebral, New Yorker–esque cartoonish imagery and crass hilariousness, the joke was quintessential Hickenlooper. It was both the oddest and rightest time for him to tell a joke. Senior staff began entering his office. There was another situation. It seemed that Hickenlooper had told the joke like taking a gasp of air before diving in again.
There’s never a good time for an emergency meeting, but this one came at an especially inopportune moment. There were only three business days left until the end of the session; that was, unless the governor failed to broker a budget deal and chose to trigger the extended special session. That would be a whole different kind of mess. Still, 17 senior members of Hickenlooper’s 36-member cabinet had filed in and settled around the “kitchen table.”
Among them: Roxane White, Alan Salazar, RD Sewald, Henry Sobanet, and Eric Brown; also the executive director of the department of local affairs, Reeves Brown, whose expertise on statewide outreach would be critical to the discussion, and Lieutenant Governor Joseph Garcia. They had been expecting to gather later in the day for what had been billed on various schedules as a 3 p.m. “all-staff ice cream social,” which, considering the current circumstances, seemed laughable.
“This is like having walking pneumonia,” Hickenlooper said, starting off the meeting. “I did not expect this would be something to define the administration.”
“This” was SCR-1, a moniker that sounded like a label on a bottle of penicillin for a venereal disease; or depending on the perspective, maybe it sounded like a fitting name for a venereal disease. SCR-1 was a bill, formally titled Senate Concurrent Resolution 11-001. If passed, SCR-1 would do several things: It would require that for a citizen-initiated ballot proposal to amend the state constitution, the measure would have to pass with at least 60 percent of the people’s vote. The current standard was a 51 percent simple majority. SCR-1 also would mandate that any ballot measures that had been passed before this new supermajority criteria would only require a simple majority standard to be repealed.
Hickenlooper believed SCR-1 was a good idea. Early in the session, Senate President Shaffer had championed SCR-1, and the state’s business community was behind the bill. It had seemed a foregone conclusion that SCR-1 would pass without much resistance. If it did pass, it would then go to the people for a vote in 2012.
But during these last days of the session, Hickenlooper got a visit from Kelly Brough and Daniel Ritchie. Brough, who had been a chief of staff to Hickenlooper when he was mayor, was now the head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver, was now with the Colorado Forum, a powerful group of business leaders. The two came representing the “Five Families,” which is the inside-the-dome phrase for five big-business special-interest groups: the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, Colorado Concern, National Federation of Independent Business, and C4.
Brough and Ritchie sat down at Hickenlooper’s table and said they still would support SCR-1 if he got behind it, but there was a complicating factor: the so-called Dodge Amendment, an initiative put forth by Cliff Dodge, a Republican operative with close ties to Tea Party favorite Tom Tancredo. Dodge threatened that if SCR-1 made it to the ballot, he would run a citizen-initiated ballot measure that would employ almost exactly the same language as the SCR-1 proposal, but apply it to taxation. If the Dodge Amendment—already the nonexistent proposal was so real that it had a name—were to pass, the General Assembly would have to get a 60 percent supermajority vote from the people to raise taxes. Dodge and his supporters believed that the real motive behind SCR-1 was to undo the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which places some of the toughest restrictions in the country on Colorado’s Legislature and governor when it comes to raising taxes.
Brough and Ritchie wanted the governor to know that even if he was fully behind SCR-1, the Five Families would divert some of their funds to fight the Dodge Amendment. Hickenlooper knew that SCR-1 had a better chance of success if the business community was fully behind it. The result of all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering created the feeling that the players were in an old Western and everyone was pointing guns at one another, waiting for someone else to blink.
So now the question from the governor’s staff was: Was Hickenlooper really behind SCR-1? At that moment, Shaffer had the bill ready for vote on the Senate floor. He, too, wanted to know where Hickenlooper stood on the issue. “It’s a hard sell,” the governor said to his team. “Voters will hear a pitch that we’re taking away their votes.” But one cabinet member speculated that if Hickenlooper put his political capital behind SCR-1, it would “define our brand.”
White took a poll among those in the room. Excluding the governor, who did not vote, 14 staffers raised their hands in favor of moving ahead with SCR-1; two were against, and one abstained. “We have a governor with high approval ratings,” Lt. Gov. Garcia said as the group absorbed the vote count. “I think we need to do this. Otherwise, people will wonder what the heck Hick stands for, and there’s nothing bigger.”
Hickenlooper knew well that the thing he was most criticized for, both inside and outside the state Capitol, was not often enough picking a side, not taking a stand. The governor was well-aware, too, that some of his own staffers sometimes felt that way. One day, during an appearance on the Mike Rosen radio talk show, a caller asked Hickenlooper about an issue making its way through the Legislature, and he’d said, “I have been consistent in my position of not taking a side on this issue.”
The way Hickenlooper saw it, there was a right time and way to put his oft-untied shoe down. This was his first year on the job. There were things he wanted to accomplish; ballot reform was not necessarily the top priority. He needed to be disciplined and mindful of what it could mean if he put one issue above all others. His near-perfect record on ballot initiatives as mayor didn’t just happen. Besides, there were other ways of getting things done behind the scenes that didn’t necessitate picking a fight. Divisiveness was exactly the sort of thing he was hoping to change about government. At the head of the conference table, Gov. Hickenlooper didn’t so much as flinch at Garcia’s comment.
There were a few moments of quiet, then Reeves Brown spoke. Referencing the time Mayor Hickenlooper parachuted from a plane to promote a city ballot initiative for a tax increase, which was very similar to the SCR-1 strategy, Brown said, “The question is: Are you going to jump out of the plane for this?” The governor responded politely, but definitively, “One of my mentors once told me, ‘You only sell your equity once.’ I’m not jumping out of a plane on this one.”
Wednesday, May 11, 2011 | The Last Day
On what was supposed to be the last day of the session, it indeed looked as if the budget was going to implode. Only weeks earlier, the governor had attended a luncheon hosted by the conservative business group Action 22. During a question-and-answer period, a member of the audience asked him what he wanted the legacy of his first year to be. Without hesitation, he answered, “I want to have a balanced budget passed with bipartisan support. I think that is the most important thing, and we’re going to do it.”
Never mind the jumping from planes, Hickenlooper had a long-term agenda that included balancing the budget, health care, water issues, economic development, and education. Though he would never acknowledge this publicly, and probably would cheerfully downplay it, there was the possibility that his education plans in particular might require a tax increase. Yet before he could pursue any of that, Hickenlooper believed he needed to give the public evidence that he and the General Assembly could make difficult decisions, use their current resources efficiently, and prove they could get along better than the legislators in Washington, D.C. Otherwise, there was no way the public would support the agendas Hickenlooper quietly envisioned for his next three, and possibly seven, years.
Reconciling the approximately $1 billion budget shortfall had been no small feat. Hickenlooper had made many unpopular decisions. As a parent with a son of his own in public school, he’d cut $229 million from the state K–12 budget. He’d consolidated and/or closed a number of state agencies and operations: He’d merged the Department of Natural Resources with the Division of Wildlife and had shut down a prison in Fort Lyon, a move that was having a devastating economic impact on that community.
Hickenlooper and his team had visited the prison and the community several times to assure the residents of Fort Lyon that they were not forgotten and that the Hickenlooper administration was doing everything possible to find a second life for the prison. Hickenlooper didn’t publicly detail his administration’s efforts to save Fort Lyon, but they were extensive. There were biweekly strategy sessions of senior staff, representatives of the Colorado congressional delegation, and community leaders, who pursued both public and private sector solutions—everything from repurposing the prison as a facility for veterans with addiction issues to selling the property to Christian Anschutz, who was considering turning the facility into a training center for natural disaster response teams.
Meanwhile, the Hickenlooper administration was re-evaluating state employee contracts and hiring rules with the intention of dramatically restructuring all agencies.
Hickenlooper loves to tell stories. It’s one of the things he acknowledges he’s good at, and he is. These stories can seem like digressions from the matter at hand, but actually are nonfiction parables directly applicable to the moment. One of his favorites involves his struggles to open Wynkoop. In particular, he loves telling the story of the toilets. A friend of Hickenlooper’s was rehabbing an old 1920s mansion on the north edge of Cheesman Park. The friend told Hickenlooper that if he removed six toilets, he could have them for $25 each. Old porcelain toilets were exactly what Hickenlooper wanted for Wynkoop, and he couldn’t refuse. He took two of his employees to help him remove the six beauties bolted into the floor. Upon closer inspection, Hickenlooper realized the toilets were full—as in, full of years-old dried feces. Apparently, homeless people had been living in the house.
Hickenlooper was undeterred. There, among the flies and maggots, he saw opportunity. He and his two guys spent most of the day unscrewing the rusted bolts, carrying the toilets to a pickup truck, and driving them back to Denver. At a local outdoor car wash, they set about cleaning them. The three men put on rubber gloves and with hammers began whacking away at the crust on the waste caked in the bowls, breaking it up and then scooping it out—and Hickenlooper gets downright giddy telling this part—“by hand.” When they went to install the toilets, Hickenlooper confronted a most unanticipated reality. It turned out the toilets weren’t an exact plumbing match for Wynkoop. Once installed, they would often clog.
Ten years later, as the chief executive of the state of Colorado, Hickenlooper was learning that legislative politics on a statewide level were not unlike whacking away at layers of shit, only to realize the deal was not nearly as perfect as it had first appeared. In pursuit of getting a balanced, bipartisan budget passed, after all of their efforts on GEO, Hickenlooper’s team had given up on trying to push for the funding, hoping to circle back to the agency’s dwindling coffers in the next session. Every department, every service had cut its budget. All of this had taken the better part of half a year. It began the moment Hickenlooper was elected, and required thousands of hours of negotiations and an incalculable amount of psychic energy and strategizing and promises made, balancing all kinds of plates on all sizes of sticks.
A good bit of the Hickenlooper administration’s work had been done in an effort to be sensitive to Speaker McNulty and President Shaffer’s relationship. And now, because these two couldn’t get along, couldn’t so much as even have a face-to-face discussion, it looked like Hickenlooper’s first session was going to end with a budget implosion, forcing him to enact a special session.
Ostensibly, the issue between the speaker and the president was this: Speaker McNulty wanted a law passed that would allow check-cashing businesses to charge more for their services. Meanwhile, Shaffer’s Senate had approved a little thing called the Rules Bill and sent it to McNulty’s House. The Rules Bill establishes the administrative guidelines for the operation of all state agencies, including spending—thus it would have a dramatic impact on the budget. House Republicans—McNulty—slipped in an amendment that would benefit those check-cashing, payday-lending constituents and sent it back to the Senate for final approval. The Senate rejected the amendment and sent the bill back to the House. McNulty and Shaffer were playing a game of chicken, not only with each other, but also with Hickenlooper and with the budget. If the Rules Bill did not pass, the math necessary for the budget would not add up. The bipartisan budget, and everything Hickenlooper believed went along with it, would be toast.
The night before the meeting with Shaffer, Hickenlooper and his team made an effort to avert the special session. With Salazar, the governor had gone to the Third Floor to visit Speaker McNulty. In the speaker’s office, McNulty poured two glasses of whiskey. The governor put his feet up on the guest side of the desk and said, “So, how do we fix this?”
Hickenlooper genuinely believed McNulty cared about doing the right thing for good government. Truth was, Hickenlooper was growing to like McNulty quite a bit. McNulty felt the same way. He trusted the governor. He never feared Hickenlooper would stab him in the back, as he told me, but added, “I know he has stabbed me in the gut looking in my eyes a few times. But that’s OK, he’s looking at me.” The governor appealed to McNulty’s sense of altruism and petitioned him to let go of the check-cashing, payday-lending deal so they could get the budget passed with bipartisan support. As McNulty and Hickenlooper finished their drinks, the speaker was leaning toward capitulating, but it seemed as if something was still holding him back.
Not long after Hickenlooper’s meeting with McNulty, one of Salazar’s chief legislative liaisons, Christine Scanlan, went to the Senate floor, talked to just about every representative, and did a vote count—and learned that even if Shaffer had allowed McNulty’s bill to go to a vote, it wasn’t going to pass, which she communicated to McNulty’s chief of staff. Meanwhile, Eric Brown gave a sound bite to Denver Post reporter Tim Hoover, and Salazar texted with the Post’s editorial page editor, Dan Haley.
The next morning, before Hickenlooper summoned Shaffer, the Post ran Hoover’s story on the front page. Haley tweeted: [email protected], do you really want to waste your political capital helping payday lenders? It’s a no-win.” The Capitol was now buzzing with tweets and chatter about the standoff, many of them directed at McNulty.
There’s another story the governor is fond of telling, and like the Wynkoop story, this one centers on a brewpub, the Phantom Canyon Brewing Company in Colorado Springs. The Phantom Canyon is a high-ceilinged, old time–type saloon on a downtown corner. Hickenlooper acquired many of the bar’s furnishings at auction, including the bar itself, which has fossils embedded all over it. Hickenlooper thinks the bar is subversively hilarious: There, in the town where James Dobson’s Focus on the Family is based, where creationism is gospel, is a bar of fossils that span 6.37 million years of evolution.
Hickenlooper talks about how the financing fell through before construction on Phantom Canyon had started. Based on the advice of his general contractor from the Springs, Hickenlooper asked the subcontractors if they would become investors. His pitch was straightforward: If the financing for Phantom fell through now, they would all be up a creek, but if they pulled together, the pub would open and there likely would be a payoff, and then some. Just about all of them—the HVAC technician, the electrician, and the plumber—said they were in. What Hickenlooper saw next amazed him. Now that everyone had skin in it, “the place got built with the right, though not necessarily the most expensive, products.” Why go with an expensive ceiling fan that doesn’t provide light, his electrician told him, when there is a model of fan that works just as well and comes with a light? The Phantom opened as planned, and all of the contractors received a healthy return on their stock.
With the pressure firmly on McNulty, now Hickenlooper was looking for buy-in from the Senate president. On that last day, Brandon Shaffer entered Roxane White’s office, and the door shut behind him. The governor, seated behind White’s desk, was quietly seething. Hickenlooper would have preferred to do this in his own office, but Eric Brown had a media crew in there waiting to interview the governor. In what was a bit of strategic theatrics, as Shaffer approached the desk, Hickenlooper’s entire legislative team—Alan Salazar, RD Sewald, and Christine Scanlan—gathered behind him.
Hickenlooper took a very different approach with Shaffer than he had with McNulty. The governor reminded Shaffer that if he were to run for national office, it wouldn’t look good for him if his leadership couldn’t help get a balanced budget passed. The governor conveyed that if the press were to get the idea that the budget didn’t work out because of Shaffer’s petty tactics, well, there wouldn’t be much that Hickenlooper and his team could do to stop them.
After Shaffer left the room, Sewald suggested to Salazar and Hickenlooper that the reason McNulty was still reticent to give up on his bill and was holding up the budget with the Rules Bill was because perhaps he thought the governor, playing partisan ball, had only gone to him and asked him to, in effect, surrender, and had not leaned on Shaffer. Sewald suggested that he go to McNulty and share with him that the governor had just laid into the Democratic Senate president. Salazar and Hickenlooper agreed this was a “brilliant” move; Sewald found the speaker and delivered the information.
By midafternoon, the legislative leadership gathered at Hickenlooper’s conference table: McNulty and Shaffer, along with the House minority leader, Sal Pace, and the Senate minority leader, Mike Kopp. It was an awkward meeting that may have lasted all of 15 minutes, but the point was that McNulty withdrew the Republican amendment to the Rules Bill. By that evening, the final pieces of Hickenlooper’s first budget passed with 80 out of 100 votes. Judging from the margin alone, the general public might have gotten the idea that the 2011-12 legislative session was one of unprecedented bipartisanship and cooperation. Before joining with much of the rest of the Capitol at a local bar for an end-of-session celebration, much of Hickenlooper’s senior team gathered in a conference room for a drink. The sighs of relief were literal and many. Communications director Brown congratulated Hickenlooper, who sincerely said, “I didn’t really do that much.”
Coming Out of His Corner
At the end of his first year on the job, before heading into his second legislative session, the governor and members of his senior staff, including Roxane White, Alan Salazar, Eric Brown, Christine Scanlan, RD Sewald, and Henry Sobanet met over a period of days to write the governor’s State of the State address. Like any State of the State, the speech would cover what goals the governor had in mind for himself and for the state moving forward. Among those goals was passing legislation that would legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. There was no denying it was one of Hickenlooper’s goals; however, there was much debate among his staff about whether to include it because, the thinking went, it may be “off-brand” for the governor, meaning “too divisive” or “too toxic” an issue to address in that moment.
The first time the phrase found its way into a draft of the speech, Hickenlooper wasn’t in the room. Alan Salazar told the rest of the senior staff gathered around the governor’s conference table that he’d like to see it get in there. He said he believed they had made a mistake by not putting it in the first State of the State. He said it was the right thing to do, and, he added, the press was often criticizing the governor “for not being bold enough.”
How and when the governor ought to handle this issue was a tricky one for Salazar, more so than for any of the other senior staff members. Salazar grew up in Denver, attended Catholic school, and for a time wanted to be a priest. He married a woman he met in high school. Two years after the couple’s son, Josh, was born, Salazar realized he could no longer fight the fact that he was gay. Having a child, and the idea of raising that son to be true to himself…well, Salazar felt that if he couldn’t be honest with himself and those he loved the most, that would be the saddest hypocrisy. He told his wife, then gradually came out to his family, friends, and colleagues. He submitted a resignation letter to his boss at the time, Gov. Roy Romer, who refused to accept the letter and could not have been more supportive.
Salazar’s tendency to fret, his commitment to putting the larger political agenda of the administration above any one issue, was part of why he had not made more of a push to have it included in the first State of the State. It had seemed like too much too soon, but now felt like the right time. Roxane White agreed, as did everyone else present. They knew no matter how the governor mentioned it in the speech, it was going to be controversial. Perhaps, although it was absolutely what they did not want, it would even be the lead story of the next day’s news.
Scanlan suggested that Hickenlooper should say it was time for “gay marriage.” The semantics were quickly rejected as “too loaded.” After hours of wordsmithing, it was White who came up with the line that Hickenlooper, when he returned to the room, agreed struck just the right note of politics and compassion, and which he felt respected all of the realities and considerations involved.
“We don’t believe we should legislate what happens inside a church or place of worship,” Hickenlooper said on January 12, 2012, to the combined Assembly, “but government should treat all people equally. It’s time to pass civil unions.” There was a long moment of resounding applause, a standing ovation from Democrats, and mostly seated silence from Republicans. The moment foreshadowed Hickenlooper’s second legislative session, as Shaffer’s Senate passed the civil unions bill, and, on the last day of the regular session, McNulty’s House refused to allow the bill to come to a vote.
And so, on the afternoon of May 9, 2012, the governor took a deep breath and exited his office in what had become his typical manner—moving briskly, slightly disheveled, no tie—and walked to a podium that had been set up for him in the foyer of the Capitol, near the west-side steps. The marble-walled room was packed with people—media and Capitol staff—with lights and cameras trained on him. For a prolonged few seconds he looked down at the podium, then he took another deep breath, and lifted his eyes. It was clear to anyone who knew him that he was about to wing it.
Politically, the stakes for Hickenlooper were arguably the highest they had ever been. In the year since his first legislative session, he had quietly stacked achievements into an impressive record. He’d lured a handful of companies to Colorado, like Arrow Electronics, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of electronic parts. General Electric had agreed to open a solar-panel plant in the state. Hickenlooper had brokered an agreement between the environmental community and the oil and gas industry, which resulted in the most comprehensive disclosure rules of any state regarding the chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Very quietly and very much behind the scenes, he persuaded the likes of Pete Maysmith, of Colorado Conservation Voters; Dan Gross regional head of the Environmental Defense Fund; executives of the Halliburton company; and representatives of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association that there was an alignment of self-interests for them in helping craft these new mandates.
Hickenlooper’s second budget passed with an even larger majority than his first: 94 out of the 100 legislators voted “yea.” If there were any other state legislatures in the union performing in a more outwardly bipartisan fashion than Colorado, there weren’t many. In the bureaucratese of Hickenlooper’s Long Bills, there were advancements made in Colorado’s health-care system—in particular, funding a Colorado Health Exchange system to make affordable insurance available to individual citizens and small businesses. And the governor, indeed, was able to overhaul the rules governing the state personnel system. In May of this year, GEO, which is now called the Colorado Energy Office, finally got its funding.
Hickenlooper had also endured his first considerable policy setback. He had invested a tremendous amount of energy and political capital in trying to persuade the Legislature and relevant parties to privatize a state-chartered worker’s compensation insurance fund. Pinnacol Assurance offers worker’s compensation insurance to workers and businesses that might not otherwise be able to afford a plan. The agency is a state asset that had been valued at more than $300 million, and its management had been besieged by bad press for a corporate retreat that had all the characteristics of a classic boondoggle. Hickenlooper wanted to take the agency private, with the state getting a 40 percent ownership stake and a yearly dividend of $13.6 million that would go to an education fund and economic development efforts.
The governor spent six months working with financial experts on crafting a deal in which the state would use a substantial portion of the proceeds of the sale and create a fund that would make college education a reality for more, if not every, Coloradan. The Pinnacol deal was complicated and affected myriad constituencies—including the business community. There was tremendous resistance, and Hickenlooper ultimately walked away from it.
But his popularity had increased. According to a nonpartisan poll by Public Policy Polling, Hickenlooper was the second most popular governor in the United States, behind Mississippi Republican Haley Barbour. That meant he was the most popular governor in the country from a purple, swing state—and thus, perhaps, the most influential.
As a sign of Hickenlooper’s growing stature, he and his wife, Helen Thorpe, were President Obama’s guests at the Kennedy Center Honors event in December 2011. There was chatter in the media that Hickenlooper would make a terrific vice president—maybe even, dare one say it, a president. Hickenlooper and his team had downplayed such talk with the canned line that he might like to be commissioner of Major League Baseball.
One of the lessons Hickenlooper had taken away from his first year on the job was that his knack for building relationships, which had served him so well in business, and then as mayor, was more important to him now than ever. He remained convinced that the more he could involve himself in whatever the issue was, the more he could directly communicate with the various parties, the better chance his agenda had for success. His read of the Pinnacol failure was that he delegated too much of the stakeholder outreach to his staff, and that he, himself, should have done more. It was the opposite of his effort to successfully negotiate the fracking regulations: Despite Alan Salazar’s advice to the governor to leave the middle-man diplomacy to his staff and to stay out of the negotiations, he put himself smack-dab in the middle of the issue and “did his own staff work.”
By that time next spring, when the second session was ending with McNulty denying a vote on civil unions, the colorful bowl of apples on the conference table of Hickenlooper’s office was gone, and instead, in one corner, a new painting had been hung. It was of a pair of worn boxing gloves within a framework of carrots and sticks. In other words, if the whole carrot-and-stick idea of motivation doesn’t get the job done, maybe a left hook, albeit a padded one, will. And as he stood at the podium in the foyer that afternoon this past spring, after the House had failed to vote on civil unions, Hickenlooper was about to make it clear that he’d tied on his proverbial boxing gloves. It was obvious to anyone, even those who don’t know him at all, that he was not reading from a script, and, in fact, there wasn’t a script.
“Last night,” he said, “we had a moment of historical significance in the state of Colorado, when the bill legalizing civil unions died in the House. And there were a lot of questions about how that happened: Was there enough time, was there not enough time? Along with that bill, 30 other bills died.… So we’ve decided without question, we intend tomorrow to call for a special session.”
In a special session, which would last three days, the governor and his staff set the agenda for topics he wants the Legislature to revisit. Civil unions would be among the issues considered and, hopefully, voted upon. Hickenlooper gave further explanation.
“I think there is”—and here he fought back tears—“I mean, I spent a long time in the restaurant business, and a lot of people that helped us create that business didn’t have the same rights as everybody else.” His voice cracked. “I’m a little bit sleep deprived so that emotions come a little bit too quick to the surface,” he said. “I had a call yesterday from one of them who just asked, ‘If not now, when?’
“So our goal is to make sure we do everything we can to make sure there is a fair, open debate on the floor of the House and Senate and the issue gets discussed, that we allow people the chance to vote on it, and we move forward, we move this entire state forward to make sure, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ and we want to make sure that arc continues moving forward.” He scratched his right cheek with his right hand. The foyer erupted with applause.
In the hours and days that followed, Speaker McNulty said the Democratic Senate and Hickenlooper were engaging in partisan politics, and that the governor was unfairly forcing this issue back onto the General Assembly. McNulty said the public cared about jobs and the economy. In response, Hickenlooper said he did not want to get into the issue of blame; he believed everyone involved had the best intentions and that he hoped only that the House would give the issue fair debate.
What Hickenlooper did not say is that his legislative team had done everything it could to ensure the bill made it through three bipartisan committees. And he also did not say his administration felt it had an agreement with McNulty: If the bill made it out of those committees, McNulty would do what he could to get it to a vote, and, still, he refused—and he did so knowing it had the votes to pass.
In the special session, McNulty again saw to it that the civil unions bill did not come up for a vote and—this time—ensured its death in committee. Hickenlooper wasn’t surprised. Nor would he have been surprised if the House had voted to pass or vote down the bill. He’d thought through all of the potential scenarios. What Hickenlooper knows now is that going into the forthcoming statewide elections, the Democratic base, along with socially progressive Republicans, have never been so determined to unseat right-wing conservatives. That the Democrats will win at least two seats and take back the House is almost a certainty. Before Hickenlooper signed the executive order for the special session, and before he walked out to give that speech, without a script, he didn’t say anything about selling his equity; there were no groups to discuss his jumping out of a plane. He just did it. He saw it as the right time to do the right thing. He was, oh, you know, having the time of his life.