I felt like the only reporter who didn’t know John Hickenlooper when he decided to run for Denver mayor in 2003.
Sure, I had gone to his Wynkoop Brewing Co., but to indulge in that famous artichoke dip and bread, not the craft beer. I never threw one back late at night with “Hick” or covered any of the boards he sat on or attended his parties.
Those who know me won’t be shocked to hear that didn’t stop me from dissing Hickenlooper when I got to know him early in the campaign. I was at his birthday party/fundraiser when I laughingly hurled an insult at the candidate.
“See if I ever buy you a beer again!” he joked back.
Ah-ha, I told Hickenlooper, I just caught you in your first campaign lie: I don’t drink!
Ever since, I’ve had a pretty good relationship with the brewmeister turned mayor turned governor turned presidential candidate. Oh, there have been some blowups, like when he was governor and decided to blab at length about his ex-wife and his ambitions with a New York Times reporter, subjects he had refused to discuss with the local press.
But for the most part it has been good. Good enough that his run for president puzzled and worried me.
And now, according to various news accounts, his campaign is in trouble. “Hickenlooper campaign in shambles,” Politico reported on July 2.
He wasn’t bringing in enough money and at least five staffers had left or were thinking of leaving. Polling hadn’t moved him from near the bottom of the 20-plus Democratic field.
Hickenlooper blamed his campaign team -- a move that had Coloradans who covered him or worked with him groaning. By all accounts, he isn’t the easiest guy to work for.
Since then, Hickenlooper has said the problem was him “not being as good of a messenger as I need to be.”
Full disclosure: I’ve donated to the other Coloradan in the presidential race, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who served as Hickenlooper’s first chief of staff when he was mayor. But if Bennet were not in the race, I would have donated to Hickenlooper. I still want him to succeed.
But the presidential campaign trail is so different than the one where Hickenlooper excels.
His first mayoral campaign was so unorthodox. Campaign mailers, going door-to-door, the traditional bland bio TV ads -- Hickenlooper wanted nothing to do with any of that.
His best known and most beloved campaign commercial featured him in a showdown with a guy issuing parking tickets -- a hot-button issue in downtown Denver.
Hickenlooper’s supporters hosted neighborhood parties where friends and family got to hear his story. His father died young. His mother, who buried two husbands before she turned 40, was so frugal she washed and reused wax paper. A geologist, he lost his job in Colorado’s downturn in the 1980s, wandered a bit, and decided to open one of the first brewpubs in the country in Denver.
“He delivered a performance that was part standup comic, part Dudley DoRight, part deft mechanic able to fix a sluggish City Hall,” I wrote for the Rocky Mountain News.
That combination doesn’t sell well in this day and on a national stage.
Hickenlooper once flubbed the ending of his State of the State speech and uttered, “Oh, Jesus.” The Republicans who had sat stoned-faced minutes before when he talked about gun control burst into laughter, and later talked about Hickenlooper’s likability and “humanity.”
That wouldn’t happen now.
And Democrats have taken a hard left, making it tough for a middle-of-the-road businessman who doesn’t see oil and gas as a bogeyman.
The Politico story said Hickenlooper’s senior campaign staff urged him to drop out of the presidential race and pursue other opportunities, such as taking on Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020. That field of Democrats trying to unseat the first-term Republican senator from Yuma also is crowded, but conventional wisdom is Hickenlooper would be at the top of the pack in that race.
Hickenlooper said in February he’s not sure he’s cut out to be a senator, where he would have to make decisions in small groups.
But that statement brings me back to 2009. Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Bennet, then the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, to the U.S. Senate seat held by Ken Salazar, who was joining the Obama administration as secretary of the Interior.
Some Democrats were unhappy with Ritter’s choice. Bennet had never run for office. The governor had bypassed tremendously popular Democrats, including outgoing state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter -- and Mayor Hickenlooper.
The mayor’s favorables were so high that in 2004 pollster Lori Weigel said of him, “He’s not quite John Elway, but he’s close.”
The Senate was a different place then, it got things done, and Hickenlooper was interested in the job.
But politics is a funny business. Ritter decided in early January 2010 against seeking a second term that November. Within days Hickenlooper jumped into the governor’s race, which turned out to be one of the weirdest contests ever.
Former Congressman Scott McInnis was hit with a plagiarism charge and political neophyte Dan Maes won the primary. Remember Maes? He claimed that Denver’s bicycle program was a U.N. plot, he racked up campaign finance violations and then there was the stuff about his time working as a cop in Kansas. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo demanded Maes drop out and when he refused Tancredo jumped in as a third-party candidate.
In a Tea Party year that saw two Democratic members of Congress from Colorado lose their seats, Hickenlooper won the governor’s race.
Columnist extraordinaire Mike Littwin called Hickenlooper “the luckiest guy since Ringo.” The Washington Post in 2012 named Hickenlooper one of the 10 most popular governors in the country.
Later, some critics accused Hickenlooper of indecisiveness and criticized him on everything from gun control to the death penalty. His quirkiness, his life story of going from rocks to hops, was used against him.
“The governor is a nice man,” District Attorney George Brauchler once said. “I think he wants to be a friend. I think he wants to be an adviser. But at the end of the day, no one elected him to be the state bartender. They elected him to be governor.”
They did that again in 2014, although this contest was much closer.
In 2014, Hillary Clinton’s people interviewed him about a spot on her ticket. When that didn’t happen, most expected that she would tap him for a Cabinet post after she got elected president.
But she lost.
And now he seems lost.
Who knows what will happen with Hickenlooper’s campaign by the time this piece goes live?
“Sometimes, the long shot becomes the legend,” he recently told an Iowa reporter, saying he was staying in the race.
But no matter. I’m of the opinion that the guy who jumped out of a plane to help pass a tax timeout, who danced in a blue bear suit to benefit the convention center, who invited hip bands to various events over the years, will be just fine.
He is still Hick, after all.