When former Hillary Clinton speechwriter Case Button joined John Hickenlooper's staff two years ago, the press saw it as a tip-off that Colorado governor had eyes on the White House.
And, sure enough, he does.
Button's trip into Colorado politics hasn't followed the sometimes-crooked lines of campaign strategy, but rather that of a person who raised his hand when a job needed doing.
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For the sake of a starting point, say his career started in a dimly lit alcove of a residential building in the Bronx in Button's home state of New York.
It was Feb. 4, 1999, when four plainclothes cops were cruising the residential buildings looking for a serial rapist. When they approached 23-year-old West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, he reached for his wallet. Forty-one shots rang out and 19 hit Diallo, who wasn't carrying a gun.
His death was one of the first in a long series of high-profile killings by police in the two decades since.
“That was the first time I thought the world seems unbalanced and unfair,” Button told Colorado Politics over hot tea at a cafe near the Colorado Capitol on dreary late-November afternoon.
He was 15 at the time and wrote a letter to his U.S. senator, Hillary Clinton. The moment lit a fire in him to speak up to help others.
Years later when he was working in Clinton’s Senate office, he found his letter.
"I thought it was really cool that she kept it," Button said.
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Button characterizes any role he might have in a Hickenlooper run for president as "speculative," since the governor is still weighting the options as more and more Democrats explore their viability succeed Donald Trump in 2020.
But the speechwriter who has guided Hickenlooper's words -- including those that will be picked apart by rivals on the campaign trail -- likes what he hears from his current employer.
"I think John's core values, work ethic and good humor (never underestimate the power of humor) would be an antidote to the toxic political environment Trump has created," Button said in an email, following up on the interview.
"If he decides to run for president and I can help, it would be the thrill of a lifetime to support him and promote his values."
Meantime, he plans to join Greenbrier, a public policy, crisis strategy and communications firm led by Matt McKenna, a longtime adviser to the Clinton family, and Lane Kasselman, the former chief spokesman for Uber, as they expand their operation in Colorado.
Button was introduced to his wife by Clinton’s longtime spokesman Nick Merrill, who has been with Clinton since the day he graduated from college.
The day after Button graduated from Skidmore College in 2006, he loaded up his car and drove to D.C. He landed an internship in Clinton's Senate office.
“I was an idealist,” Button said. “I was just so excited to be a public servant. I didn’t know people hated public servants.”
Three months later, Clinton's Senate re-election campaign needed an assistant to the campaign manager, so he loaded up his car and drove back to New York. Clinton promoted from within; she valued institutional knowledge.
“I got promotions here and there, up and down,” he explained about his trek to becoming Clinton’s speechwriter.
His dad had died the year before, so he threw himself into the work, he said.
“Hers was one of the most competitive internships, and I just tried to make myself stand out. I knew a job would open at some point and I just had to be one of the best 50.”
When Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, Button thought he’d be back working in the Senate. But when Clinton was appointed secretary of state, he followed her there, one of about 120 political appointees.
There was an opening in the speechwriting office, and “I was young and cocky and raised my hand and said, ‘I think I can do that.’”
He started out doing 60-second videos with Clinton, about 10 a week. He would labor over perfecting each one, he said. Button was on a team of five in the speechwriting department who would work with the White House as well as Clinton, who was very engaged, Button said.
“I feel like the job of the speechwriter is to save the principal time,” Button said. “You aren’t reinventing the wheel, but you are doing all the meetings with all the important people, getting all the information and gathering it, then having all the discussions and then you work out every little word.”
Clinton and Hickenlooper, though two very different personalities, have this one thing in common for sure: "They’re relentless,” Button said. “He works so hard and she works so hard, it’s inspiring. It’s mind-blowing.”
When Clinton stepped down as secretary of state in 2013, Button did contract work, penning speeches for former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the sister of the former president and head of the liberal super PAC American Bridge. He worked for progressive organization NextGen America, founded by activist billionaire Tom Steyer.
He also had private sector financial management firm.
“I did some things for money,” he said, “and it didn’t inspire me.”
He added. “Maybe someday I’ll make some money, but right now I just want to make a difference.”
He followed his wife, a journalist, to an assignment she had covering the energy industry in Wyoming. Button was able to get a meeting with Hickenlooper’s then-chief of staff, Doug Friednash, and a job offered followed in the summer of 2016.
Hickenlooper proved to be a hands-on -- “a great high-level editor,” Button said -- on his annual State of the State address. He was constantly thinking about what to say and how to say it, and talking to people for ideas,
“He would email me or text me in the middle of the night with random thoughts, which sound annoying but I really liked it, because I loved his creative process. It’s really cool to watch.”
Hickenlooper does a lot of storytelling, so many of his shorter speeches are bullet points. He times out his out speeches in advance, so that if the host asks for 10 minutes he finishes within 10 seconds of that mark to respect his audience’s time, his speechwriter said.
“We’ve had a lot of talks about narrative arc and timing, and he’s really, really interested in always getting better and he knows that his strength is authenticity and storytelling."
Hickenlooper's stories from his life and his career in the restaurant industry that have shaped his life also shape the governor’s politics.
“He lives and breathes them behind closed doors and in public: 'There’s no margin in enemies,' 'friendly friction,' 'You can only collaborate at the speed of trust.'"
Hickenlooper's insistence against negative campaign ads is a very personal commitment, Button said.
That will be tested on the national campaign trail, he agreed.
"He'll stand up for himself, no doubt," Button said. "I think he'll do what he always does and just laugh it off."