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It was mid-November and Walker Stapleton hadn’t shaved since election day. He had just lost an intense governor’s race to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and his term as state treasurer was set to expire soon. He’d spent more than a year on the campaign trail, and the better part of a decade before that managing Colorado’s investments. Now, things were slowing to a halt and he and his wife, Jenna, were in Santa Fe escaping the post-election commotion.
Jenna was fond of her husband’s new scruff, so when he brought out the razor in New Mexico, she intervened. “You should actually grow a beard,” Jenna recalls telling him. “There’s no reason for you to shave.”
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She was right—unemployment was imminent. He wouldn’t be in elected office come January, so he heeded her advice. And that’s why, for the first time in his life, Walker Stapleton grew a beard. “Jenna kept encouraging me,” Stapleton remembers. “I figured if my wife likes it, she’s my most important peer group, I should just keep it rolling.”
Stapleton has indeed kept that beard rolling, and Jenna is not the only fan. On the morning of January 8, when Jared Polis was inaugurated as Colorado’s 43rd governor, Stapleton tweeted out a video in which he wished his former opponent luck and regretted he had to miss the ceremony due to a jury summons.
The replies to his tweet were swift: A few people saluted his classy gesture, but just as many focused on the beard. “I completely dig the beard! Great message, too” one person wrote. “If you had that beard before the election, you might have won by a whisker,” wrote another. Even local newsman Kyle Clark got in on the fun, noting Stapleton was sporting a pinky ring and an “awesome beard.” He then quipped: Who really won the election?
— Kyle Clark (@KyleClark) January 8, 2019
As much as the beard has been a hit here in Denver, it also turned heads in the nation’s capital when he was in town for the funeral of his cousin, President George H.W. Bush. At one point, the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush, approached Walker and reportedly said, “Hey, nice look man. But it’s not something I would ever sport.” Stapleton says he responded with a friendly jab of his own: “I told him that’s only because he couldn’t grow a beard,” he says.
The ability to grow a thick beard is a new source of pride for Stapleton. He finds fellowship with others who are graced with the ability, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s a cooler man now than he ever was clean shaven. “I have noticed that people respond and react differently to you when you have a beard,” he says. “I’ve had a lot more people address me as ‘dude,’ ‘bro,’ and ‘man’ than I ever had in my life before, which is welcome. I like that.”
He fits in better now, too. In December, he saw Trey Anastasio (the lead guitarist for Phish) play an acoustic show at the Boulder Theater. He was wearing a beanie cap that supplemented the beard and felt right at home. “I think I can fit in perfectly well when Dead and Company come back to Folsom Field in July,” he says.
It’s not just the jam band scene; he claims the beard gives him more credibility in the mountains, as well. “It does make me feel a little more legit when I’m outdoors,” he says. “I climbed the [Aspen] Highlands Bowl a couple times over the holidays and I think it adds to a rugged outdoor kind of mythic.”
The beard may play well at concerts and in the wilderness, but if Stapleton was donning groomed facial hair on the campaign trail, would he have actually won by a whisker? I called Stapleton’s former campaign manager, Michael Fortney, a few weeks ago to request an interview with the former gubernatorial candidate about the beard. When I pitched the idea, Fortney laughed and said when he first saw Walker after the election, he immediately regretted not putting that beard in front of voters. “What a fail!” he joked. Still, beard or no beard, Fortney said the political climate in Colorado last year made it mighty difficult for any Republican candidate to win a statewide election.
When I asked Stapleton whether he wishes he had the beard while campaigning, he said: “If it made me cooler or more relatable? Heck yeah. Of course.” He also estimates that he used to spend 10 to 15 minutes everyday shaving. Maybe if he hadn’t been wasting that time, he says, “That might have made me more productive as a candidate.”
Facial hair has a long history in American politics. Back in 1860, a young girl famously wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln telling him if he “let his whiskers grow” he’d be more electable. It worked. And for decades, it was the style of choice for leaders here in the Centennial State. The first 23 governors of the territory and state of Colorado—beginning with William Gilpin in 1861—all sported beards or mustaches in their official portraits. It wasn’t until Henry A. Buchtel was elected in 1907 that a clean-shaven man held the state’s highest office. At some point in the early 20th century, facial hair fell out of favor among politicians in Colorado, and it hasn’t returned to popularity in decades. In the late 1990s, former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar even shaved off his mustache before mounting a campaign for Colorado’s attorney general.
But beards are making a comeback these days, and they might even have a renaissance in the political world. Back in 2015, former Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan surprised everyone on Capitol Hill when he grew a beard—the first House Speaker to do so in nearly 100 years. And just last month, Ted Cruz arrived in Washington with a similar look, something that makes the Texas senator “actually look tolerable,” according to one review.
One source close to the Colorado statehouse pointed out the facial hair of former Senate President Kevin Grantham, who wears a “Snidley-Whiplash” mustache, and Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, who dons a perfectly Western handlebar around his mouth that flows into a white goatee and sideburns. There are a few others, as well. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock sports the occasional goatee, but for the most part male politicians in Colorado are clean shaven. I tried to find a stylist who advises male candidates in Colorado on their “look,” but when I asked around, no one seemed to be in that business.
However, I did ask Stapleton’s barber, Sarah Webb, whether candidates and politicians should be more free with their facial hair. “For so long now, ‘clean cut’ has been the look relating to money, power, and intelligence,” Webb said in a text message. “But now a days, who cares? Just be more relatable and be a good human being!”
I put the question to Stapleton, too. In a state like Colorado, where so many men proudly grow beards, why do so few politicians adopt the style? He doesn’t know. But he says he would encourage future candidates to do it. “I’d say go for it. I [recommend] anything that makes you more accessible and hip,” he says. “I think politics could use more hipness. This is a good look.”
But it’s only a good look, he insists, if the beard is well-maintained. “I don’t aspire to have a Charlie Blackmon type of a beard. I’m concerned the maintenance would be problematic,” he says. “If it gets too long, I look like a cross between James Harden and Cat Stevens in the late ’70s.” Jenna even revealed that he’ll start singing old Cat Stevens songs sometimes when he knows it’s getting out of control. To keep things kempt, Stapleton’s barber prescribed Baxter of California Beard Grooming Oil—which he’s given a full endorsement—and his grooming process is now an evolving art (In the early weeks, he accidentally shaved off a sizable chunk).
With the positive reception the beard has received, Stapleton claims the salt-and-pepper whiskers (yes, he admits there is some gray) are not going anywhere. After running a high-profile race and living in Colorado’s political spotlight for over a year, he’s happy to have a little cover. He notes that after millions of dollars were spent on advertisements bearing his image—some of which were not flattering—having a beard gives him a certain amount of welcome anonymity.
As the dust settles from last year’s election and Stapleton eases into civilian life, he’s taking a more casual tact—one with which a beard allows him to blend in at jam band concerts and claim respect on the mountains. But if he ever does get back into politics, the beard may give him an upper-hand in an election. Had last November’s race come down to a beard-growing contest, he’s almost certain he’d be sitting in the governor’s mansion right now. When asked whether Polis would have given him stiff competition, Stapleton didn’t hesitate: “I’m fairly confident I could grow a better beard.”