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Photograph by Chayce Lanphear

Governor John Hickenlooper: The Exit Interview

Geologist. Brewpub owner. Mayor. Governor. Presidential hopeful. We look back at the (mostly) charmed political life of the man we all know as Hick.

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One sunny morning this past summer, Governor John Hickenlooper and I had breakfast at Sassafras American Eatery, the funky-cool Southern spot on East Colfax Avenue, a block east of the Capitol. The governor was running a few minutes late; even so, he was ebullient and relaxed, joking as he sat down. Wearing a jacket but no tie, the wiry 66-year-old ordered pecan pancakes, gave me a hard time about my health-conscious yogurt and granola, and then spent the next 30 minutes talking about his time as governor, the issues his successor will have to negotiate, and his potential run for president of the United States. At the end of the meal, I picked up the check. On the receipt, our server had written in blue ballpoint pen: “Thank you for everything you do! Keep fighting the good fight!”

The message felt somehow appropriate: Hickenlooper’s tenure as governor—and before that, his time as mayor of Denver—has been defined by his unusual likability, his bipartisan rhetoric, and his less than fully polished persona. But given the intense political divisions in the country and the governor’s impending departure from office come January 8, 2019, the note also seemed as if it could be a campaign slogan for Hickenlooper’s continued political aspirations. Would he attempt to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Cory Gardner? Or would he, as many people have speculated, run for the highest office in the land?

The governor and I met four times over the course of seven months: We spoke in the governor’s office in the Capitol this past winter. I interviewed him at the Denver Athletic Club, after he finished a game of squash, in the spring. Our third meeting, at Sassafras, took place in August, and we met briefly at the Capitol in September so I could ask a few follow-up questions. In all, we spoke for a little more than two and a half hours. Reflective, occasionally wonky, ever the raconteur, and undeniably ambitious, Hickenlooper responded to my questions with candid answers—many of which tell us much more about the man we think we already know so well.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

5280: The end is in sight—what comes next for you? Are you going to run for president in 2020?
John Hickenlooper: We haven’t made our mind up. There are a couple more hurdles that we’ve got to figure out. You can’t do it halfway; if you do it, everybody’s got to be on board, everybody’s got to be 100 percent. I’ve spent a good amount of time talking to really smart people, and I’m still sort of an amateur in terms of how politics operate in the big leagues. And yet there is something about the amateur that at this moment in history is kind of appealing. So I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. One thing I see is how much room there is for me to grow as a person. I think that’s part of what creates successful campaigns, for a candidate to be able to grow.

What do you mean by that?
That was something Roy Romer told me when I was first running for mayor. He said, “It doesn’t matter what age you are—you’ve got to open yourself up to new things and to grow emotionally as a person. Your relationships, your ideas, how to implement your ideas.” This was eight months before I announced I was going to run, and I still hadn’t made up my mind. He had a beach house in Santa Monica, a little condo, and we were sitting there. He was very generous with his time, and he said to me, “It doesn’t matter what office you’re running for. The people who win the campaign are generally the people who grow the most during the campaign. You should open yourself up to it.” It was good advice.

You’re clearly moving forward, deliberately. You started a political action committee called Giddy Up—
That’s really the next step in the process of evaluating a national campaign. You raise a few hundred thousand dollars, which allows you to travel, to help support other campaigns and build relationships in that process. It allows you to hire some policy people to think things through. We’ve really focused on the success Colorado’s had. We haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about how we can communicate this to other states so that they get some of the same benefits [we’ve had].

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You’re not planning to make a final decision on a campaign until after you leave office?
Yes, February or March.

Is running something you feel called to do?
I do feel a certain calling. Part of the process is to try to meet with all the other potential candidates and see who they are, and, my gosh, they’re a bunch of remarkable people. Men and women who have huge achievements and remarkable leadership skills. But you kind of wonder—I mean, all the stuff I’ve experienced in my life, the good and the bad. [Having to attend] 62 funerals: Was there a reason why that happened to me? Was there a reason why my mother was widowed twice? Did that kind of help us learn to raise ourselves, in a funny way? Was there a reason why I was the kid in third grade who everyone would tease, taunt, and pick on? [Is that why] I developed this instinctive empathy for people who are left behind or marginalized in some way? You begin to feel sometimes that you are being called in a religious way.

It sounds like there’s a larger meaning for you, especially if you’re putting it in the context of your whole life.
There is—though, again, you’ve got to make sure. It’s almost like the doctor’s oath: “First, do no harm.”

Tell me about your toughest day or toughest period of days in office.
I think probably the hardest one was Nathan Dunlap [who was on death row for murdering four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s in Aurora in 1993]. You go through the soul-searching part of it, and you end up changing what you believe with the full knowledge that there are a lot of people who passionately disagree and they’re going to be very upset. So then you have to decide: Do I feel sufficiently strongly about [giving him a temporary reprieve] that I’m willing to endure losing [support]—I think I lost eight or 10 approval points in the space of a month. Do I want to take that? And talk about people hating you. True, true vitriol. People were furious. But you set the framework by which you’re going to make the decision, and the deeper you get into it, the more you become aghast that you could have ever believed the other way. I don’t think I did a very good job navigating the whole situation. I take the lion’s share of the blame myself.

You got criticized from both sides on that decision.
Yeah, of course. When you’re the governor or the mayor, especially the governor, you are the custodian of our way of life. You’re the commander in chief. You’re the head of state police. You appoint all these judges, you’re in charge of the rule of law, which is an essential part of this country and being American. I thought it would be more respectful of those juries and those district attorneys and all the work that they had done to say, “I’m going to give him a temporary reprieve, and we’ll see if and when the citizens in Colorado are willing to get rid of the death penalty.” And then I explained all the reasons why the death penalty is so stupid. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time, as my grandfather used to say.

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If you were to do it differently, what would you do?
Well, that’s a tricky thing. I’m not sure I’d do it differently. I think that was an inelegant solution to a problem where there was no elegant solution.

I would imagine the assassination of Tom Clements would be right up there, too, in terms of difficult days.
You know, that was so surreal. That wasn’t as hard because it was just so incomprehensible. It just didn’t compute. And then a day and a half later, they’re showing me the pictures of the shootout down in Texas and the mug shot. I didn’t recognize the kid, but I recognized his name. Evan Ebel…that’s who did this? Because there can’t be two Evan Ebels. Of course, the reason I hired Tom Clements [as head of the Colorado Department of Corrections] was because of Evan Ebel’s dad, Jack, who’s an old friend of mine. He would go visit Evan at least every other week, often every week, and Jack saw his son’s mental health going downhill. Because he got in fights, they had put him in solitary, or ad seg [administrative segregation]. Jack was the one who really showed me in graphic detail what a stupid system it is to have so many people in solitary confinement. And so Tom Clements got hired to get people like Evan Ebel out [of solitary]—and he was successful. He had already gotten like 90 percent of the people who were in ad seg redeployed or reassigned. And it was just this cruel, cruel irony that Evan Ebel killed the person who was trying to help him the most.

I’m curious to know what you’ve learned over the years about working with people who have different political views or agendas.
I think we’re fortunate in Colorado that it hasn’t gotten to the level of bitterness or partisan fighting [of Washington, D.C.]. For me—and you learn this in the restaurant business—when somebody is unhappy or disagrees with you, oftentimes the best thing you can do is repeat [their point of view] back to them using their own words, just so they really feel that they’re heard. Once they feel heard, then you have this connection and can figure out how to solve the issue.

Photograph by Chayce Lanphear

Can you give me an example from your time as mayor or governor?
When I was mayor—I’d been mayor for a couple of years by 2005—I made a careless comment about the archbishop at that time, Charles Chaput, who’s very conservative. He took issue with something I’d said in a newspaper article, and he made a comment about me, and so I was going to make a comment about him. Instead, I called him up, and we got to talking. He invited my wife and me for dinner. We started having dinner every three or four months. I mean, on certain things we just disagreed.

Fundamentally, I imagine.
Fundamentally disagreed. But we talked about all manner of things. And he became—in terms of addressing homelessness, poverty, the effects of poverty in education, affordable housing—one of my best allies. He became someone I would ask for advice. He was really one of the critical people [I consulted] when I was dealing with the pending execution of Nathan Dunlap.

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So rather than having a battle through the press, you simply called him and actually had a conversation?
Right. Sometimes those small gestures make all the difference in the world.

That almost seems quaint in light of the sparring going on in Washington, D.C., doesn’t it?
The federal government is like this behemoth, this gigantic organism. And, when something’s that large, it depends, to a large extent, on certain traditions.

These are the norms we keep—
Yes, the norms of behavior. And when you break all of those and put in someone who’s that disruptive, it makes it hard for the enterprise to function. I think that’s part of the challenge: Even the people who agree with the policy ideas that are being proposed by President Trump are frustrated by the lack of order and the inability of Congress to compromise on difficult issues. It is a difficult situation. You know, the idea was to drain the swamp; it almost looks like they’ve begun irrigating it.

While we’re talking about national issues, tell me about your relationship with Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich and the impetus for you two to put forth your proposed health-care exchange fixes last year.
I’d always admired him. Heck, he was the chair of the House Budget Committee in 1995. He’s been on Meet the Press 42 times.

How many times have you been on?
Twice. But I was very concerned after the Trump inauguration that the administration was going to completely disembowel the Affordable Care Act. I thought it’d be very useful to have a Republican and Democratic governor—hopefully a group of Republican and Democratic governors—who would agree on the core principle that you don’t roll back coverage. You try, at least in a small amount, to improve coverage every year or to improve quality every year. You never roll back coverage. And then you can also try to control costs. So, I called Kasich up and initiated this notion that we could work together and could really come out and make a stand. And we did. I think of anything I’ve done on a national level, it got more attention from more different kinds of people.

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You’re trying to work across partisan lines, clearly, but what do you think about the future of the Democratic Party?
Democrats are always going to be the party of social justice and civil rights. My whole generation, we’re the elder statesmen now; I’m kind of the end of the baby boomers. But the baby boomers— I’m talking about people in their 70s and even up to 80, people like Gary Hart—thought they were going to change the world. In the 1960s, we closed down college campuses, marched on Washington, did all that stuff. Everybody forgets that Richard Nixon won in the largest landslide up to that point in history. I think this new group of millennials is every bit as idealistic. I think there are a lot of similarities between the baby boomers and the millennials.

Here’s a question that has national implications: Colorado has had two of the most infamous mass shootings in modern history. You made a big push on gun control legislation, but a lot of the conversation in the United States—and the votes in the Colorado General Assembly—are along party lines. How do you get movement on that issue?
You pick out the things that generally everyone agrees on and you make a battle for those. If it’s just politics, you should be able to win. Universal background checks: 84 percent of American voters believe in universal background checks. If we can do it, why can’t everybody else do it? There are so many guns in our culture right now. It’s like CO2 in the atmosphere—no matter what we do, there are going to be repercussions for generations. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do some things. You do the basic stuff, like red flag bills. Again, almost no one argues with red flag bills. Almost nobody.

And yet a red flag bill failed in the Legislature here earlier this year. Why is that?
The gun lobby is very strong in Colorado, like most of the Rocky Mountain states, and they felt this was the camel’s nose into the tent. Maybe this was OK, but this was the first step to taking away our guns. They drew that line in indelible ink.

Do you think the Parkland teens—and their generation—are ultimately going to change the dialogue on gun control?
I think so. I do. I feel optimistic about that. Although, a lot of times in the past when I’ve been optimistic about things, it turned out I was naive. For example, after the shooting in Aurora, I thought the Republicans would welcome universal background checks. And they didn’t—we couldn’t get a single Republican vote.

Is that simply because that point of view is just so entrenched?
It’s become a political issue. It’s tied to their campaign fundraising.

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Photograph by Evan Semón

Could you talk about what drives someone like you to make the transition from private to public life, despite all the difficulties?
Well, there aren’t that many difficulties. I mean with politics, it’s weird having people try to make you fail and make your city fail or your state fail, just because they disagree with you politically and they don’t want your party to succeed. That’s hard. I still don’t understand that. Part of why I ran was to get people to believe in government again. And part of that is this whole notion that you can be pro-business but have high standards. For example, you can believe in getting rid of red tape and needless bureaucracy but also get both the oil and gas companies and the environmental community to come together about methane regulations. There are a lot of things that people use to divide the two parties, but you can have both. Everybody wants cleaner air. Republicans don’t think we should spend quite so much money on it. They want it for less money. Democrats feel it’s more important and that we should spend more on it. So, let’s sit down and figure out what the compromise is and go forward.

Switching gears: You got divorced six years ago, and then you got married in 2016. Is dating a challenge when you’re the governor?
The most difficult part about it is you don’t have any time. I mean, there’s just absolutely no time. Also: Let’s say if you were to meet somebody, and you go out on a date, that’s all everyone’s going to talk about. That didn’t seem very appetizing.

You really have to keep it quiet.
Yeah, keeping it quiet is right. We dated—we don’t say secretly, we say privately—for like 11 months. That’s a long time when you don’t tell anybody. She’s now said that she told one or two people. I didn’t tell anybody. Nobody. You learn in public life that you’ve got to keep it a secret. Because what happens is that usually you have several people you truly trust, and once you’ve told two or sometimes three of them something that’s very, very confidential, it leaks out. Then you don’t know who to suspect and it colors your relationships.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing Colorado and your successor right now? Is it infrastructure? Climate change? Population growth? The homelessness issue?  
When we came in, we were really worried about the economy and jobs, and then these other issues arose. The floods, the shootings, gun safety. But our primary focus was to create a diverse economy and provide jobs that were accessible to everybody. At the beginning of my first term, the state was 40th in job creation, and in the past four years we’ve been in the top 10. U.S. News and World Report has called us the number one economy in America for two years in a row. But with that comes all of the issues you’re describing.

I know a lot of people who are concerned about the lack of reasonably priced housing in Denver now.
When you’re growing rapidly and you are attracting young people and entrepreneurs, you get people who come in, snap up the affordable places, and renovate them. Of course, there are people building new housing as well. But all of the new places are generally more expensive. They’re not as affordable, so you end up with a tremendous lack of housing, and that leadsto homelessness.

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Is that issue primarily a Denver/Front Range problem?
It’s more exaggerated along the Front Range. But affordable housing is a struggle in places like Durango. As the economy gets back on its feet, it gets more difficult to provide housing everywhere.

Are there governors or mayors who are dealing with the same issues in terms of massive growth and change? Is there a blueprint Denver should be following?
There is no good blueprint. I mean, there are certain basic principles that I think a lot of people agree on: You’ve got to invest in infrastructure. The largest thing that people complain about when a city’s really growing rapidly is traffic congestion and affordable housing. And when your economy’s going this strong, I think government has a responsibility. No one else is going to take some of the pressure off lower-income housing. I think the government can cautiously use market forces and provide incentives to developers when they’re building projects to have 10 percent of them be affordable. And we subsidize them so they don’t lose their shirts on it. I think that’s appropriate. A lot of people think that a government shouldn’t do that. Well, then, you are going to have a situation where you lose the city you love.

I’m curious to know about the differences between being the head of a state and being the head of a city.
The mayor of Denver is the most powerful political figure. The mayor hires everybody. There’s no review. The mayor’s team creates the budget. There are 13 City Council members; it takes nine out of 13 [to overrule the mayor]. I don’t think I ever was overruled in my eight years there, and that allows you to take on a certain level of ambition. You can take some big gulps. Let’s see if we can build 122 miles of new [commuter and light-rail] track. Let’s see if we can borrow $320 million and make Union Station into a great station instead of a $50 million so-so station. Let’s see if we can make it a $370 million jewel. That kind of stuff is very hard to do as the governor. Not only does he not have power, but pretty much everybody in the Legislature thinks they would do a better job if they were governor. So if you start getting stuff done or looking too happy in the job, they’re likely to slow something down, just because.

Other frustrations with legislators?
This is not everybody, but in many legislatures, if something costs an extra $5 million, they don’t care. It’s not their money. We try really hard here to create a culture where you treat every dollar like it’s your own. Every dollar you spend should have a maximum benefit. And some legislatures just don’t see it that way. They paint with a much broader brush. They feel like, Hey, we’ve already made so many mistakes, if we make another $5 million mistake, it’s not that big a deal.

Was the transition from mayor to governor difficult for you?
No, it balances out in other ways. If you have that much power, there’s a lot of responsibility. In the governor’s office, you have a bigger enterprise, but you have more staff and can hire really talented people.

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Having enough water is a dilemma the entire state—the entireWestern United States—is facing. What has your administration done to address that?
Well, the state had never really created a water plan [before we developed one in 2015].

Why was that?
Well, it was contentious. It’s funny—I had the right background [to get it done]. When I first ran for mayor of Denver, I had no political baggage, which allowed me to do things that nobody else had ever done. I told Denver Water—which supplies half the water for the metro area, which constitutes 22 percent of the state—that just because they’ve got senior water rights doesn’t mean they get to be pigs. Because that water really is Colorado’s water, and you have to look at it long term. You have to keep as much water on crops and irrigated lands as humanly possible for our future, not just for viability but also for quality of life. Traditional ranching and farming is part of the heritage of the state. Anyway, people thought that would be death for a Denver mayor—and I won by 87 percent when I ran for re-election. When I was mayor, I said to the rest of the state, “Hey, I’m trying to solve your water problems.” And I’m the first Denver mayor in 140 years to get elected as governor. That’s strictly because of those collaborative efforts. And I was able to build the trust. I like to say that we collaborate at the speed of trust.

Water isn’t the only resource issue here. You created one of the nation’s first outdoor recreation positions in your administration. Why?
I had a vision, or an idea, about what an office of outdoor recreation could be, what it could look like. The idea was outdoor recreation should be emblematic of Colorado. It should be a key part of our identity. Now we’re organizing the outdoor recreation industry to make a more powerful political voice, and it’s nonpartisan. It’s really focused on clean air, clean water, and public lands.

That industry also seems interested in addressing issues such as diversity, women in leadership positions, and the #MeToo movement more proactively than other businesses.
Absolutely; I mean, it’s an industry filled with vision and mobility. They realize that their jobs are not just about getting a paycheck. They’re making the world a better place.

Speaking of making the world a better place, let’s talk about education. The shortfall for public school students in Colorado is substantial when compared to the national average.
What do you mean by shortfall?

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The amount of spending per student.
Of course—in terms of spending. In terms of achievement, we’re not that far off. We’re around 20th in achievement; we’re about 40th in spending.

Why is the spending so low in the first place, and is there something that can be done about it?
In Colorado, all you can do is propose and champion different revenue sources for different aspects of education. In this General Assembly, the Republicans were pretty blunt that they didn’t want to put any tax increase of any kind in front of the voters. Education, transportation, it didn’t matter what. That makes life difficult. Are we where we need to be? Not even close. In DPS’ lower-income neighborhoods, the percentage of kids on free and reduced lunch and how well they’re achieving versus the middle-class kids—that gap is still unacceptable. That’s a place where money would really make a difference.

What do you do to escape from the stress of this job? Are you a skier? Do you play golf?
Well, I hurt my knee. No, I hate golf.

You’re probably the only politician ever to say that.
I mean, I love golf—perfect way to ruin the afternoon. (Laughs.) I’m a very, very slow reader, but I love to read. I always have two or three books going, and one way to relax is to read. And I love film. I love old movies, which are so out of fashion. I cannot get my son or my wife to look at old movies.

Like Bringing Up Baby? That type of film?
Yeah, yeah. Comedies. Or Howard Hawks movies. Or Alfred Hitchcock movies. You know, great cinema. My son and my wife, they both think they’re so slow. They go, “Do we have to sit through one of these plodding movies?” And I say, “Plodding?! It’s character building!”

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We’re winding down, but first I have a set of rapid-fire questions for you.
Sure! Let’s do it.

Mountain town: Aspen or Telluride?
Telluride. But don’t tell my wife that.

Are we going to have to be off the record here?
(Laughs.) I’ll answer them. I love Telluride. I think Telluride is one of the coolest towns there is.

Agreed. All right, craft brew: Odell or Great Divide?
Those are my two favorites! I know the people who own them. I cannot pick; I cannot pick that.

The Fray or Nathaniel Rateliff?
I’ll skip that.

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Red Rocks or the Ogden?
Goodness, it’s so hard. But I would have to say the Ogden. I just love the Ogden. You know I did both my inaugurations as governor there. You know who played at my re-election? OneRepublic, Nathaniel Rateliff, the Lumineers, and someone else. There was one other band. But that’s a pretty great show.

Here’s a tough one: John Elway or Peyton Manning?
Elway. He’s made his mistakes in life, and this is supposed to be a short answer, and you wouldn’t think that’s who I’d choose, but yeah, Elway.

Three more. Skiing or snowboarding?
Skiing.

Elitch Gardens or Casa Bonita?
Casa Bonita.

This last one is critical, Governor. Indica or sativa?
(Laughs.) What is indica?

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It’s the strain that makes you go to sleep.
Then indica.

Sativa gives you that creative, energetic high.
Oh, I want sativa then.

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