The Happy Shrewdness of John W. Hickenlooper
Colorado’s popular governor wants to restore people’s faith in government with his unique brand of politics. It’s turning out to be a whole lot tougher than he ever imagined. An exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at Hick’s first year in office.
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.”