John Hickenlooper seems to get along with everybody. That’s not always been such an easy task for Denver mayors, but Hickenlooper has a knack for bringing together competing businesses and warring jurisdictions. The result is that after just two years on the job, Hickenlooper has already compiled a list of achievements that any veteran could envy.
His biggest win, by far, was last November’s vote on a regional referendum to fund what will be one of the nation’s largest mass transit systems — 119 miles of new and extended light-rail and commuter-train lines at an estimated cost of $4.7 billion, paid for by a sales tax increase across a seven-county area.
Hickenlooper’s was the most important public face of the successful campaign, but the FasTracks proposal boasted heavy financial support from business groups, as well as the endorsement of all 32 mayors in the Denver metro area. “The region had been balkanized,” Hickenlooper says, but the newfound political unity behind FasTracks “demonstrates the region is acting like a city-state and getting over petty differences about who gets a slightly bigger piece of the pie.”
That newfound unity didn’t just happen. For years, neighboring suburbs bragged about jobs and businesses they’d poached from Denver. Hickenlooper, however, made the effort to reach out to suburban leaders and has been smart about sharing credit. “He’s the best thing that’s happened to this metropolitan region since sliced bread was invented,” says Noel Busck, mayor of the northern suburb of Thornton.
Hickenlooper, 53, enjoys enormous support not just from fellow pols but the public as well; his approval ratings in Denver have topped 90 percent. In addition to the success of FasTracks, that popularity also resulted in victory on a $378 million jail bond issue, which passed just four years after voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar proposal.
The forthcoming jail and courthouse are big pieces of the civic building boom Hickenlooper is supervising downtown, which also includes a major expansion of the Denver Art Museum, a new convention center hotel, and the recent opening of a $92 million opera house.
Working as a turnaround artist seems to come naturally to Hickenlooper. He arrived in Denver in 1981 as an exploration geologist with a petroleum company. After the collapse of the oil industry, he took his severance check and opened the city’s first brewpub in a rundown section of town in 1988. Both his business and the Lower Downtown area, now known as LoDo, have prospered. Similarly, he had no previous political experience before running for mayor in 2003, and much of the city, which had been struggling when he took over, has prospered on his watch.
Denver, of course, still suffers from many woes common to urban areas. The city’s burgeoning immigrant population has caused tension — an issue brought home for the mayor when an illegal immigrant working as a dishwasher at one of the eight restaurants he co-owns shot and killed a police officer.
And Hickenlooper faces a huge challenge in persuading voters to support a bond issue he’ll need in order to fund his ambitious anti-homelessness package. Hickenlooper wants to build 3,000 housing units and provide comprehensive mental health and substance abuse assistance as part of his goal of getting 75 percent of the city’s chronic homeless off the streets within five years. It’s a package that President Bush’s lead adviser on homelessness says puts “Denver in the forefront nationally” on the issue.
Hickenlooper says that government can be a “catalyst, but it can’t do it all by itself.” Nonetheless, the mayor himself has proven to be quite a catalyst. Hickenlooper’s worked actively with the business community on development projects, raised big money for schools and helped resolve disputes among local employers — most notably between United and Frontier airlines over airport gates.
”He’s adapted to what he’s got and made it work,” says Dick Robinson, whose family has run a local dairy since 1884. “He’s probably one of the best executives I’ve ever met.”
— Alan Greenblatt
Photo by Ray Ng