Politics

John Hickenlooper: The Man in the Middle

Can the geologist-turned-brewpub owner-turned-governor of Colorado lead as a centrist when there’s no political center?
by | August 2014
David Kidd/Governing

John Hickenlooper knows a thing or two about fracking. When the subject comes up, the Colorado governor is likely to launch into a detailed discourse on the geological and chemical intricacies of the oil extraction process. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise: Hickenlooper’s first career was as a geologist. That was the job that brought him to Colorado in the early 1980s, working for a now-defunct oil company called Buckhorn Petroleum. Still, as he sat in his wood-paneled office in the state Capitol on a recent morning, it was a little jarring to hear him delve into the minutiae of microfractures, wellbore integrity, “frack fluid” and leakage gauges.

But Hickenlooper also knows that fracking has become one of the most controversial issues in his state. Opponents of the deep oil drilling procedure want localities in Colorado to be able to ban fracking if they wish; they've spent the summer gathering signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has been friendly to the oil industry and who opposes the local-option measures, was able to reach a last-minute deal that would avoid the November faceoff. In exchange for keeping the measures off the ballot, the governor will create a task force to address Coloradans' concerns about hydraulic fracturing. It's a big win for Hickenlooper, whose main political goal has always been to find the middle ground.*

Fracking is only one of the divisive issues pursuing Hickenlooper in his re-election campaign this fall against Republican Bob Beauprez. Eight years ago, Beauprez failed badly in his first campaign for governor, but he is not a candidate to be taken lightly. He is a relatively moderate Republican with strong name recognition and a proven ability to raise money. Beauprez and his Republican allies will do their best to paint Hickenlooper as a vacillating pol who hugs the political middle because he can’t make up his mind where to stand.

None of that will change Hickenlooper’s approach, either to running a campaign or serving as governor. He has spent his entire public career trying to lead from the center, usually with a great deal of success. The easygoing geologist-turned-brewpub-owner, a man most folks knew as “Hick,” was elected mayor of Denver in 2003. During his two terms in that office, he was well liked and highly regarded, governing from a political center that was socially progressive, fiscally conservative and very business-friendly. He was an exceptionally effective leader: Voters approved almost every one of the more than two dozen initiatives he pushed for, and most of the city council supported him wholeheartedly. He was also astoundingly popular with the public. His approval ratings hovered between 70 and 90 percent for most of his two terms. Democrats loved him, independents flocked to him, and Republicans respected and admired him.

Governing named him a Public Official of the Year in 2005, the same year Time declared him one of the five best big-city mayors in the country. In 2007 he won re-election with 87 percent of the vote. “As far as real-life political fairy tales go, it was just about impossible to trump Mayor Hickenlooper,” wrote Denver’s 5280 magazine in 2012. “He was a new kind of natural, one of those unicorn-rare, truly apolitical politicians that career politicos so often and so fraudulently claim to be.”

Hickenlooper’s charmed political life -- and his ability to rise above the partisan divide -- for the most part continued in 2011 when he moved across the street from the Denver City Hall to the governor’s office. He had won the gubernatorial election in a landslide, garnering 51 percent of the vote in a three-way race. In the Capitol, Hickenlooper was able to maintain his centrist position largely for one reason: the split state legislature. The Democratic-controlled Senate duked things out with the House, which had swung to Republican control in the 2010 election. For Hickenlooper’s first two years as governor, legislators either deadlocked on an issue or hammered out a compromise among themselves. Every bill that reached the governor’s desk was, in a sense, bipartisan.

Then things changed. Democrats regained the House in 2012 and suddenly found themselves in control of both legislative chambers and the governorship. Hickenlooper was now the Democratic leader of a fully Democratic state government.

Politically speaking, it was the last thing he should have wished for. The emboldened Democrats pushed through a slate of progressive agenda items, and Hickenlooper was put in the position of defending an increasingly left-leaning state government. “He definitely benefited from having the split legislature during those first two years,” says University of Colorado political scientist Ken Bickers. “He could play a middle-of-the-road position. When the Democrats gained control, he couldn’t play the center pivot the way he had before.”

Colorado, says Bickers, is a “perfect purple” state. One-third of the electorate is Democratic, one-third is Republican and one-third is independent. But just like the rest of the country, Colorado has become more politically polarized in recent years. Democrats have pushed the state to the left on gay civil unions, immigration and a host of other sensitive issues. At the same time, Tea Party conservatism and a fiercely Western libertarian streak have pushed the state GOP further to the right.

And poised between them is Hickenlooper, still trying to maintain his down-the-middle politics even as he runs for a second term. In doing so, he’s been forced to confront a central question of modern politics: Can you govern as a centrist when there’s no political center?

Some of Hickenlooper’s dilemmas trace back to a tragic event on July 20, 2012, when a gunman opened fire in a crowded movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora, killing 12 people and injuring 70 more. Hickenlooper was devastated, of course, along with the rest of the country. But the governor did not initially use the incident to call for tighter gun control. In fact, when Hickenlooper, who owns guns and likes to take his son hunting, appeared on CNN two days after the shooting, he questioned whether stricter regulations would have made any difference in Aurora. “This person -- if there were no assault weapons available, and no this or no that -- this guy’s going to find something, right?” he said then. “If it was not one weapon, it would have been another.”

Eight months later, however, prodded by the Democratic legislature, Hickenlooper signed some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, imposing universal background checks for all gun purchases and a ban on high-capacity magazines with more than 15 rounds of fire. The new laws were extremely divisive. Hickenlooper had previously enjoyed a good relationship with the National Rifle Association; now the group called him a “fanatic,” and NRA members and other opponents, including the County Sheriffs of Colorado, protested at the Capitol while the bills were being debated. A plane circled downtown Denver with a banner reading, “Hick, don’t take our guns.” After the laws were passed, voters launched an effort to recall some of the lawmakers who had supported them. The recalls attracted national attention and money. In a special election that September, for the first time in Colorado history, voters successfully recalled two state senators, including Senate President John Morse. The following month a third senator, facing the possibility of a recall, resigned.

The gun laws became emblematic of the tumultuous 2013 session, but they were far from the only divisive measures passed by the Democrats that year. Legislators also enacted progressive new laws on election procedure, same-sex civil unions, expanded renewable energy requirements, in-state tuition for undocumented students and a measure allowing undocumented immigrants to receive Colorado driver’s licenses. Additionally, lawmakers set up a regulatory framework for recreational marijuana sales, which voters had made legal in a 2012 ballot initiative. In all, the legislature took up 613 bills and passed a whopping 440.

For Democrats, the historic session merely reflected what they saw as Colorado’s decade-long swing toward a new status as a solidly blue state. And it was a chance to finally enact measures they’d been waiting years to pass. “There were a lot of issues that had gone unresolved for a long time,” says former Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino. (Ferrandino, who was term-limited this fall, accepted a position in July as the chief financial officer for the Denver Public Schools. He will serve the remainder of his current term as Speaker.) “And there was a lot of excitement to get to do what we’d long been trying to do. There was a lot of pent-up demand.”

But Republicans viewed the package of bills as an overreach. “2013 was the most partisan session I’ve been a part of,” says state Rep. Frank McNulty, a Republican who served as speaker when the GOP controlled the House in 2011 and 2012. “The shift was clear, it was drastic -- and the governor had no idea what to do about it, no idea how to manage partisan politics.”

The way some critics see it, Hickenlooper let himself get dragged to the left by an out-of-control, unchecked Democratic majority. That’s not really the case. The governor basically agreed with all of the specific pieces of policy that were put in place. And he’s quick to point out that 420 of the 440 bills that passed did have some sort of bipartisan support. But Hickenlooper concedes that the totality of the agenda was too much, too fast. “You go back and look at everything that got passed, and we don’t see things we would change,” he told me. “But I think there was a sense in the state that it was just a lot of change. I don’t mean that we would do anything differently, but I think it made people uncomfortable. Doing so much so fast in one year was a big bite to take.”

Hickenlooper's easygoing personality has endeared him to many Coloradans, including some of his political rivals. (David Kidd/Governing)

Hickenlooper, as practically anyone in Colorado will tell you, doesn’t like to rock the boat that much. “At his core,” says independent Colorado political analyst Eric Sondermann, “he’s a let’s-work-this-out, let’s-split-the-difference, let’s-find-consensus kind of leader. But that works less well for him in this highly partisan environment. Every once in a while, you have to stake your ground.”

During the gun-law recall campaigns, for instance, Hickenlooper largely watched from the sidelines. Aside from a few media interviews and a letter to Democratic donors urging them to support the Democratic candidates, the governor was mostly quiet. It’s very likely his support wouldn’t have made any difference in the elections. But some saw his actions as tepid.

Then there’s the case of Nathan Dunlap, a man convicted of shooting and killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in Aurora in 1993. Last year, Dunlap was set to become the first person executed in Colorado in 15 years. Capital punishment opponents urged the governor to grant clemency, or to outlaw state executions altogether; others wanted to see the sentence carried out. Hickenlooper again went for the middle ground: He granted Dunlap a “temporary reprieve” and said it was “highly unlikely” he would revisit the issue while in office. It was hard for many people not to see the move as a political punt.

The governor similarly ignited controversy this June, when he appeared to walk back his support for the most controversial part of last year’s gun laws, the magazine limit. Speaking to the county sheriffs at their biannual meeting in Aspen, Hickenlooper reportedly apologized for not consulting with the group while considering the bill, saying he didn’t know they had wanted to meet with him, and he seemed to suggest that his office hadn’t properly considered all the facts. “I think we screwed that up,” he told the sheriffs, according to press accounts. “If we had known that it was going to divide the state so intensely, we probably would have thought about it twice.” One of the sheriffs at the meeting posted the comments to his Facebook page; within hours the story had gone viral. The governor has since reiterated his support for the magazine limit, but otherwise has refused to comment publicly on the exchange.

Critics say those kinds of examples show a governor who is indecisive and too eager to please. Hickenlooper’s split-down-the-middle solutions can come across as “too cute by half,” says Sondermann. “He so wants to have it both ways, to ingratiate himself with both sides, that he ends up leaving everyone unfulfilled, like they’ve been played.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, the Boulder Chamber of Commerce was hosting one of its monthly “hoppy hour” get-togethers at the Twisted Pine Brewing Co. When Hickenlooper shows up, it seems less like the arrival of a governor and more like everybody’s favorite fraternity brother has come back for the weekend. The governor grabs a pint of the microbrewery’s Hop Zealot IPA and then starts back-slapping and fist-bumping his way through the noisy party. He jokes around with the business leaders he talks to, and it’s clear everyone is having a blast. Later, the chamber CEO raises a glass to the governor for his political “balance” on the issues.

Hickenlooper remains very popular among Colorado’s business community. He’s also a guy you almost can’t help liking. He’s affable and mellow, with an endearing “aw shucks” demeanor and an undeniable cool factor. (Ask him about going to Woodstock, or the Fourth of July weekend he spent at Kurt Vonnegut’s house.) At the Boulder hoppy hour, one person toasts Hickenlooper for installing a kegerator in the governor’s mansion. Hick grabs the microphone and corrects the record: He installed a full draft system. His quirky personality has always driven his campaigns -- his television ads have famously included one spot in which he explained a complicated fiscal measure while skydiving from a plane, and another in which he showered fully dressed while promising to run a “clean” campaign.

The governor shoots a PSA for the Colorado Proud agriculture program. (David Kidd/Governing)

Colorado’s economy has had a good four years. When Hickenlooper took office, the state was facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall, and lawmakers had trouble setting aside 2 percent of revenues for rainy day reserves. Now, thanks to rebounding tax receipts -- including higher-than-expected returns from retail marijuana sales, which topped $2 million in taxes in January alone, the first month such sales were legal -- the state has been able to increase funding for education and health care. By next year, Colorado will be setting aside 6.5 percent of revenues in its rainy day fund. Unemployment has fallen from 9 percent in late 2010 to 6 percent as of this April. The state has gone from 40th in job creation to fourth.

Some of those improvements, to be sure, are reflective of national trends. But Hickenlooper is proud of the strides Colorado has made under his leadership, and he says his business-friendly administration helped pave the way for them. He also likes to note that he accomplished them during an unprecedented wave of natural disasters, including several wildfires and last summer’s devastating “thousand-year flood,” which killed at least eight people and caused a billion dollars in damage. In all, 13 federally declared disasters occurred in Colorado during Hickenlooper’s first three and a half years as governor. No other state has ever seen that many in such a short period of time, and the figure doesn’t include the mass shooting in Aurora. “Even though we went through those disasters,” Hickenlooper says, “we never lost focus on what we were trying to get done.”

Now Hickenlooper is facing the first truly challenging race of his life, one in which Beauprez and his allies will spend a great deal of money trying to turn the governor’s record of moderation against him. “He’s still searching” for his true political self, says Rep. McNulty, the former Republican speaker. “I don’t suspect he has that type of compass. He’ll have to answer that question in the coming months.”

Indeed, Hickenlooper may finally be forced to choose political sides. But the bigger question is whether the governor’s approach will be a liability or an asset, says Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer. “He seems to be completely conflict-averse. He’s uncomfortable with hardcore, in-your-face choices. Republicans and even some Democrats are critical of that.” But it could also prove to be a political strength, Straayer says. “Given that style and that persona, it does make it hard to attack him as a partisan.”

For Hickenlooper, even getting him to define himself politically takes a bit of arm-twisting. “I guess I’m a centrist?” he says tentatively when asked about his politics. “A moderate? You know, all those words …” he trails off, suggesting that he’s not entirely comfortable even picking his own label. “I like politics, but I’m kind of apartisan.”

*This story has been updated to reflect the deal struck to keep fracking measures off the November ballot.

*An earlier version of this story indicated that House Speaker Mark Ferrandino stepped down in July to accept a position with the Denver Public Schools. In fact, Ferrandino will serve the remainder of his current term.

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