Issue: January 2013
Tags: Tom Clark, Teri Ripetto, Susan Barnes-Gelt, Robert White, Nora Pykkonen, Michael Hancock, Masai Ujiri, Karin Sheldon, Jonathan Vaughters, Jim Schanel, Jim Deters, Harvey Steinberg, Dede de Percin, David Wineland, Daniel Junge, Christopher Hill, Charles Burrell, Alan Salazar
Ever wish you could ask the mayor about urban development, or a battalion chief about fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, or a Nobel Prize winner about the nature of reality? In our first-ever Interview Issue, we asked 18 of the city’s brightest, most outspoken leaders and personalities those questions, and many more. Turn the page to hear them speak out—in their own words.
Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief strategy officer discusses the administration’s narrative, the power of technology, and why politics is the most elevated profession. Interview by Maximillian Potter
You’ve got a unique job title. What does it mean?
The chief strategy officer comes from the corporate world. When Hickenlooper first proposed it, I had to Google it to see what it was. In the corporate world, it means somebody responsible for thinking strategically about the corporation’s future. In my case it would be thinking strategically about John Hickenlooper as governor and the administration. The core of that mission, at least in a political, democratically elected office, is handling the legislation, the policy agenda, the governor’s schedule, and the communications about all of that. So that’s what I oversee.
A holistic approach to interdepartmental relationships?
Yes. What I try to think about is: What is the narrative of this administration? What are the 10 or 11 things the governor wants to accomplish? How are we communicating about those things to the people of Colorado? How are we engaging stakeholders in the policy development? How are we handling the political relationships with the Legislature?
What is the narrative of the Hickenlooper administration at this moment?
A business-savvy entrepreneur, who is taking that skill set and applying that to the problems the state faces: economic development, education, energy, health care. It is really a narrative of working together and being above party politics.
Why did you decide to go into politics?
I grew up in the late ’60s and my family was very much invested in John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. That is what my folks talked about at the dinner table—politics.
What was it about those politicians that spoke to them?
My dad is Hispanic and my mom is Anglo-Irish. They got married and grew up at a time when mixed marriages were frowned on. They were drawn to democratic politics in particular by the civil rights movement and the notion that in America you can change things by going to the ballot.
Many parents talked about those things at the dinner table and their kids didn’t decide to go into politics.
Maybe I was drawn because I was always drawn to history and maybe politics is a way of having a seat at history when it is being made. It seemed to me to be a place to make a difference.
What was your first political gig?
I was 14 and I went door-to-door for George McGovern in 1972.
Do you have an enduring memory from campaigning at that time?
Knocking on the door and having a man show up in just his bathrobe. He told me to “fuck off.” I fought back the tears and thought, Well, this is going to be a tough gig. Not much has changed.
What has been your most challenging moment professionally?
Coming out of the closet in the middle of my professional life and wondering whether or not the fact that I had not been open about myself or my sexuality was going to somehow impair my ability to be trusted by other people and continue in my career.
Were you surprised by the reaction?
I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of both people who are close to me and people who just knew of me. Governor Romer, who was my boss at the time, called me after I had given him a letter; basically it said, “Here is my situation governor, if you want to make a change.” He could well have said maybe you should do something different. But he called and said, “Hey, I love you even more now than I did before.” That kind of thing keeps you in the saddle.
When your parents married, it was unusual, and today there is the issue of gay marriage. This has been a part of the governor’s agenda. How have you approached and prioritized the issue of gay rights?
I went to law school, and being a lawyer is being objective. I think part of my professional responsibility is to lay out arguments in an objective way and to try to see both sides. That doesn’t mean I don’t have strong personal convictions. John Hickenlooper has never given me any reason to believe that I couldn’t be directly honest with him. My opinion will reflect a professional judgment about the politics of the situation but also a personal conviction.
Is it challenging for you to maintain a sense of optimism in your line of work?
I’m occasionally pessimistic, but that might have a lot to do with who I am. But I’m just as idealistic today, as optimistic about politics as I was when I started back in the ’80s.
When have you gotten goose bumps and thought, Wow, this is why I do this?
At the end of Hickenlooper’s first legislative session as governor, in the foyer of the Capitol, he held a press conference and said he was going to call the Legislature back for a special session to finish work he said we had to get done. That was the session dealing with civil unions. We had been sabotaged by politics. He started to tear up thinking about gay people who had worked for him in his restaurants and there was just a flood of emotion. When I saw a man do something that was heartfelt—that was a goose-bump moment for me.
What is the most pressing issue for the state right now?
The most pressing issue for Colorado is really a question of whether we can be the state we want to be given the constitutional and fiscal knot we have tied ourselves in.
What are the obstacles to this right now?
One of the obstacles is the fiscal restraints that we are in because of things like Tabor. It’s very difficult for elected officials to move an agenda. The only way you ultimately move big agendas here is by going to the people. I worry a lot about the three E’s of economy, education, and energy.
How has political communication changed over the past couple of decades?
Technology has changed. Communications are more immediate; you can make mistakes easier, and mistakes are more amplified.
In terms of the legislative component of it, any major changes?
Now in politics there are more women, greater diversity. I think that’s been a big plus. In my life, I worked for these men, but the people I have been closest to have been women: Susan Smart, state director for Gary Hart, hired me. Betty Miller, who was Tim Wirth’s district director for many years. She was my boss. And B.J. Thornberry, who worked for Roy Romer. Now I find myself working with another strong woman, Roxane White [Hickenlooper’s chief of staff].
How has politics benefited from that?
I think having less testosterone in the conversation is probably helpful. Most of the women I’ve worked with in politics have had the ability, a greater ability frankly than I’ve seen in men, to check their egos.
What advice would you give to someone who is going into a career in politics?
I have an ancient Greek view of politics: I think it is the most elevated thing you can do professionally. Done right it is about moving all of your community forward and it’s about resolving conflicts. I think that still stands and matters a lot. To me, it’s still a way that we can—I know it sounds cliché—give back to our community and do something really important with our lives.
Do you have a philosophy you abide by?
B.J. Thornberry was Romer’s deputy chief of staff and held a similar position to mine in his office. When she hired me she said: “Alan, our stock and trade is our word. If you have a reputation for being honest and people can trust your word, then you will do well. If you get a reputation for not being honest, not being straight with people, then you won’t do well.”
Will we ever see a President Hickenlooper?
I hope so.