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.
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: “@RepMcNulty, 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.”