Before the local, state and federal officials thrust their shovels into the dirt outside of Pueblo on April 28 at a ceremonial groundbreaking for a water project originally announced more than 60 years ago, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper consulted speeches delivered by President John F. Kennedy.

It was during a 1962 visit to Pueblo that Kennedy first promised that the federal government would deliver clean, drinkable water to the downstream residents of six counties in the Lower Arkansas Valley, whose water is contaminated with unhealthy levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials.

While Congress approved the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project that year, work on the system to deliver clean water from the Pueblo Reservoir to dozens of communities in Southeast Colorado stalled in the early 1980s, and the project lay fallow for decades.

Recounting his remarks at the groundbreaking later that day, Hickenlooper said he pointed out that generations of Coloradans have kept at it because of the roughly 50,000 people who live in the watershed, almost half can't use the water that comes out of their faucet.

"That's faith," he said. "We've always understood that when Kennedy first came, and he made that commitment, he was saying that the federal government had a responsibility to even the smallest communities, and that there are certain basic rights, one of them being shelter and clean water. And that's why we're here today. We're now following through."

Hickenlooper said he was inspired to help kick off a renewed effort to finish the conduit in 2012, when he was governor and met with then-County Commissioner Bill Long to to discuss a project that converted an old prison into an addiction treatment center for the chronically homeless.

Long, now the president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, heads one of multiple agencies working with the federal Bureau of Reclamation to move the project toward completion, and wielded a shovel at the groundbreaking.

Hickenlooper recalled how that initial conversation seeded what has so far been roughly $100 million in federal funding for the $600 million project, which could see water flowing to some communities as soon as the end of next year and could be finished by 2028.

"It was his commitment to get me engaged, got Michael Bennett engaged," Hickenlooper said, referring to Colorado's senior U.S. senator, a fellow Democrat, who sponsored initial legislation to restart construction on the conduit a decade ago "and kept pushing it." With assists from then-U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck and then-U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who are Republicans, the bipartisan push pried "a little bit of money" for the project starting in 2019, with more following each year until a $60 million appropriation last fall.

"We're going to need another $400-500 million," Hickenlooper said, "but the beauty of it is — between the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act — we have two bills that have about $12 billion for water storage and treatment. So, that's over the next five to eight years. We just competed to get that $60 million, and the fact that we were able to compete so successfully is a good sign."

Hickenlooper, who played key roles on both massive bills, said he also quoted from Kennedy's inaugural address at the groundbreaking to mark the momentous occasion.

Pulling the text up on his iPhone in an interview at his Denver office, Hickenlooper repeated the lines.

"'With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own,'" he said.

"So, I said to them, 'This is our work,' and everyone nodded their heads and clapped — I got applause, which usually doesn't happen when you're cutting ribbons and hitting shovels."

He added that he was met with a similar reception during recent travels around the state to meet with veterans to talk about implementation of the PACT Act, legislation to boost healthcare access for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service.

"I was a supporter of it, but I wasn't involved in in the actual sausage-making," Hickenlooper said. "But those are the things that, you know, that do actually transform individual people's lives in many cases."

Also present at last week's ceremony was Bureau Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, who has visited the state so many times in the last year — often at Hickenlooper's and Bennet's invitation — that he said he joked with her recently that she should consider getting a second home in Colorado.

One reason for the visits has been the Colorado River crisis, as the seven states that rely on the basin's water confront a historic drought.

Over the last year, Hickenlooper has convened an informal, bipartisan caucus of the basin's senators to discuss whether the states can arrive at their own solution to impending cuts in water allocations.

Inspired by his experience chairing the Western Governors Association, Hickenlooper said he hopes the caucus can reach an agreement on managing the Colorado River without the federal government imposing a deal or — worse — unresolved disputes landing in court.

"It is too early to tell, but the goal was always never to have the senators tell them what to do, but we could facilitate and provide carrots and really make sure everyone's at the table and everyone's listening — and I think we're going to get a seven-state solution. And everyone says, 'It's impossible, you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong,' just like they said that we wouldn't get the inflation Reduction Act," he said.

"I think we're going to get a seven-state solution, sometime in the next six months. I might be proven wrong, but it feels to me like a place where bipartisanship should win out, that everyone's got an alignment of self-interest, that, really, it's just kind of, 'How do we share the loss between all of us in a way that we think is fair?'"

For someone who once protested that he wasn't cut out for the glacially slow, deliberative Senate — at one point saying the job "would be meaningful, but I’d hate it" — the longtime chief executive, who served two terms as governor and two terms as Denver's mayor after founding a brewpub and running a portfolio of restaurants, appears to be in his element.

In a wide-ranging interview in his Denver office, Hickenlooper said he's been surprised how work in the Senate has aligned with his strengths.

Hickenlooper brings to the Senate a background that's unique in Colorado's political history.

Only three of the 37 Coloradans who have served in the U.S. Senate also served as governor — the other two were John Shafroth, who followed two terms as governor with a term in the Senate, and Edwin Johnson, who bracketed his three terms in the U.S. Senate with three terms as governor — but Hickenlooper is the only Colorado senator to have also been a mayor. It's a rare resume for the chamber, shared by only 30 senators over the course of the nation's history, with just 14 of them, including Hickenlooper, who served as mayor of a major city.

Political observers sometimes joke that Hickenlooper has been steadily demoted over the last 20 years. He won his first run for office as mayor of Colorado's largest city — a position usually considered the most powerful political job in the state — followed by the less influential gubernatorial post, and finally as a junior member of a 100-seat chamber often derided as the place where good ideas go to die.

Since arriving in Washington nearly 2-1/2 years ago, however, Hickenlooper said his familiarity with how government works at the city and state levels, coupled with his experience running restaurants — bringing people together to enjoy each other's company — has prepared him for the Senate.

"The city is at the business end of the stick we call policy," he told a gathering of 250 mayors and other municipal officials at the Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver about an hour after concluding an interview with Colorado Politics. "It's where all the theories and and ideas come face-to-face with the cold reality."

Hickenlooper, 71, said in the interview that the chamber's legislative pace suits him at this point in his life.

"As a mayor and governor, and as a younger man. I always had a fierce urgency. I always wanted to do this stuff now and come up with the best idea, and I wanted to get everyone together and figure out how to make it better and then do it. And certainly as you get older, I don't have quite the same sense of urgency. I think that I've had enough experience and seen a number of solutions didn't actually function very well, sometimes make things worse. And I think I understand sometimes how that happens, especially with a big government," he said.

"In the Senate, it's funny, the cadence is so different. It's so slow — so slow — but you know, I'm not a spring chicken. I may have a 4-month-old son at home, but I'm not a spring chicken, and it's good for me to go deeper on these issues — like on climate, on gun safety, on some of these things, to really get immersed in the issue."

"Think, when you're governor, you're making two or three decisions every day," he said. "You've got to be a pseudo-expert or a partial expert on 60 things, right? When you're the mayor, you've got to understand how they sequence traffic signals, right? So, you have to know something about everything," he said. "This is where I go much, much deeper into the more important things. I think that and a combination of building relationships, I mean, that's really all that I was really ever good at — everyone will always tell you I'm not the smartest politician in the world, and I'm not the greatest speaker, but I've always been very good at getting people that disagree to sit down and to hear each other, to rephrase the dispute or conflict or different terms. That's what the Senate's been lacking."

Hickenlooper said he realizes the difficulty of finding allies willing to set aside the partisan pressures and powerful self-interests that keeps the parties in their corners but is hopeful his approach can yield elusive solutions to some of the country's biggest problems.

"I'm not giving up," he said. "There's so many of these things. Climate. I think there's a real opportunity there in a bipartisan way to — when I sit down and get a chance to talk to some pretty liberal people, big environmentalists, I say, 'Listen, do you believe climate change is really an issue? Because if you do, we need a bunch more lithium, a bunch much cobalt, a huge amount of copper, and we're spending 15 to 20 years to get a mine operational. We need to figure (that) out. ... If we get renewable energy, or we get a breakthrough and we have an opportunity to have a new type of nuclear without waste, but whatever it is, we're gonna have to move that electricity all over the place. And everybody's 'not in my backyard.' Well, we're going to have to get people saying, 'Yes, in my backyard.' And I think we can do that. I think it's very, very hard."

Colorado College political science professor Tom Cronin, who writes a regular column for Colorado Politics, said Hickenlooper has the potential to be an influential senator, particularly as several leading Democrats prepare to retire.

"In the Senate, there’s several ways to become a leader. One is to become a policy leader, which is how Gary Hart emerged," Cronin said, referring to the former Colorado lawmaker who carved a niche as an expert on defense policy in the 1980s. "Another way is to become a fundraiser," he added, pointing to Senate Majority Leaders Chuck Schumer of New York and Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who both "could rake in money" and, with it, power among their fellow lawmakers.

"But there’s no one way to become a Senate leader."

Hickenlooper can chart a different course, Cronin said.

"He’s a quirky guy, but he’s got personality and charm. He’s hard not to like. He’s talented. Is he capable of that? Yes. And he’s mainstream enough that he can speak to several wings of his own party," Cronin said. 

Alan Salazar, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's chief of staff and a one-time Hickenlooper aide, is one of the few Coloradans with top-level experience in the same suite of government positions as his former boss, having served as chief strategy officer for Hickenlooper when he was governor and chief of staff for former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

"It’s not surprising to me that he is enjoying the job," Salazar said. "I felt John was really well suited to a legislative role because he enjoys people and likes the relationship-building and in the Senate, that’s the only way you get anything done. Instead of being disappointed by it or stymied by it, I think in some ways he’s found his sweet spot in politics."

Noting that Hickenlooper played a key role keeping U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin at the table during negotiations on the Inflation Reduction Act, when the West Virginia Democrat was ready to call it quits, Salazar said that's the mark of an influential senator.

"I think he may have landed on the thing he is uniquely good at doing, particularly in a body as dysfunctional as the U.S. Senate, where things don’t get done," Salazar said.

"John seems to me to be the kind of person who can bridge those divides — that’s what he’s always been good at. Relationships and personality and trust and having a good reputation as a people-person is really critical. John, of all the people I’ve worked for and with, he’s the ultimate people-person. He enjoys being with people, likes to argue with them, likes to break bread with them."

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