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Former Colorado governor and Denver mayor John Hickenlooper launched his long-expected presidential campaign on Monday with a bid to become the nation’s healer-in-chief, offering his leadership of Colorado through a wave of disasters as a model for how to cure a divided nation.
In a two-minute campaign video released in the early hours, Hickenlooper used images of raging wildfires, massive floods, and the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater—all of which happened during his term as governor—as a metaphor for a country ripped apart by the contentious 2016 election.
“I’m running for president because we’re facing a crisis that threatens everything we stand for,” Hickenlooper said in the video. Against an image of Donald Trump, Hickenlooper said he’s not afraid to stand up to the president. “As a skinny kid with coke bottle glasses and funny last name, I’ve stood up to my fair share of bullies,” he said.
But it’s Hickenlooper’s proposal of building bridges to heal a growing partisan divide—and kickstart a stalled national government—that may be his strongest differentiator in a crowded primary. “I’ve proven again and again that I can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver,” Hickenlooper said. “Join me and we’ll repair the damage done to our country and be stronger than ever.”
Hickenlooper is officially launching his campaign in Denver on Thursday with a rally at Civic Center Park, which will include a performance by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. He’ll then hit the campaign trail, heading to Iowa for two days and then to South by Southwest in Austin.
Hickenlooper is considered a long-shot contender in a crowded field of more than a dozen Democratic candidates, many with more national recognition, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders. It’s been reported that Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet may also join the race.
But Hickenlooper has been a dark horse candidate before. In 2003, during his initial run for mayor, he stood out for his collaborative leadership and positive tone. “Part of why I ran was to get people to believe in government again,” he told 5280 in an in-depth exit interview last fall. Hickenlooper also gained widespread attention in his first run for governor with a notable shower ad, in which he promised to avoid negative campaigning—a promise that he’s kept in all his campaigns, and is expected to hold during his presidential run.
Hickenlooper’s first foray into national politics in 2017 highlighted his bridge-building efforts, when he teamed up with Ohio Gov. John Kasich in a bipartisan attempt to protect the Affordable Care Act. “I called Kasich up and initiated this notion that we could work together and could really come out and make a stand,” he told 5280 about the partnership. “And we did. I think of anything I’ve done on a national level, it got more attention from more different kinds of people.”
In a field where many top candidates have legislative experience in Congress, Hickenlooper stands out for his executive leadership, serving for eight years as Colorado’s governor and eight as Denver’s mayor—oftentimes with a divided General Assembly. The only other governor in the presidential race (so far) is Washington’s Jay Inslee.
Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign video paints a picture of personal, business, and political transformations. The video highlights Hickenlooper’s evolution from an unemployed geologist to a successful entrepreneur who crafted a business plan using library books to not only start Denver’s first brewpub, but also spark the revitalization of the city’s now-booming LoDo neighborhood. It calls attention to a string of political wins that aimed to heal a troubled state: Leading the Colorado economy from 40th in the nation to the first; achieving healthcare coverage for 95 percent of Coloradans with a divided legislature; and signing three historic gun control bills after the Aurora shooting.
Hickenlooper told 5280 that he received early leadership advice from former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer about the importance of constantly evolving. “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.’”
And he shared how overcoming personal and professional triumphs created a calling that would eventually lead to his bid to heal the nation’s political divide: “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.”
In his journey from mayor to governor to would-be president, Hickenlooper’s trademark phrase—and favorite campaign joke—may best sum up that career-long calling to heal political rifts through positive action. “What is the opposite of woe?” he asks. “Giddy up.”