Colorado Politics is taking a look back at some of our most significant and compelling stories of 2018. This story originally was published Dec. 8.
Gov. John Hickenlooper preferred to stand up during a chat in his office about what he’s done right and what he’s leaving for Colorado's next Democratic governor, Jared Polis.
His back was sore, he said, from moving boxes of his stuff out of the governor’s mansion -- stuff in storage, pretty much, since Colorado's first family had continued to reside in his private home in Park Hill. Polis and his family will stay put in their home in Boulder, rather than living in the free lodging the people provide.
“I don’t think I lifted anything heavy,” he said, both stooping and stretching. “It was just one too many.”
His transition out of office is much the same, one last chore after another as he wraps up running one of the country's fastest-growing states with a bustling economy -- a turnaround while Hickenlooper, by chance or by skill, was at the stern.
He leaves office in January after eight years as governor following eight as Denver’s mayor. Before that, nearly three decades ago, the barkeeper helped revitalize Lower Downtown Denver, which had been sliding toward the city’s skid row, and helped launch a craft beer and brewpub craze that has swept the state.
Hickenlooper has said often that he's exploring a race for president. He's launched a political action committee, interviewed potential campaign staffers, hired a fundraiser and a pollster, and made plenty of stops in early primary and caucus states ahead of an expected announcement one way or the other after he's out of office.
But while he's still on the job in the Capitol, he's looking back on the job he's done and the work still to be done for the state.
“Under John Hickenlooper’s administration, we have seen economic prosperity and increased innovation for all Coloradans,” Polis told Colorado Politics.
“He leaves a strong foundation for us to build on and I am grateful for the advice and wisdom he has offered going forward. “
Not across the finish line
When Hickenlooper stood before a rally of teachers in Denver’s Civic Center park last May, he was treated rudely by some in the crowd.
“We want more,” they chanted, as he explained the gains on education his administration had delivered, including 9 percent more money for K-12 schools in the previous two years.
“I know you deserve to get a fair pay,” he said to the teachers.
Asked in his office in an interview with Colorado Politics what he’s leaving on the workbench, the sitting governor turned first to education.
“Our third-grade literacy is a big deal, we’ve really pushed on that," he said, along with proficiency in fractions and multiplications by fifth and sixth grade.
Hickenlooper also has staked his legacy on an apprenticeship program to help students and employers with good pay to link up in some way other than a traditional college degree.
The progress on that has been steady, but it’s not across the finish line by a long shot, the governor said.
Hickenlooper worked with corporate giants Microsoft and LinkedIn on the Skillful website to link workers with skills to get better jobs.
He thinks Polis will do more than just stay the course. He pointed to Polis’ background in technology and as a charter school founder who launched his political career on the state Board of Education.
“The great thing about Jared is he’s an entrepreneur,” Hickenlooper said. “As an entrepreneur, you can’t be any happier than having another entrepreneur coming in after you. He’ll look at some new ways to improve what we’re doing.”
He said Polis “understands the challenges and the urgency.”
Colorado the Beautiful
Hickenlooper said he maintains his hope that within a decade, every kid in Colorado will be within a 10-minute walk of a green space. Almost every wide-ranging conversation with him returns to this program, one of his favorites.
“I think we covered half the people who didn’t have a green space,” he said, listing programs that added open parks and connected existing local, state and federal lands with trails and greenbelts.
Among his administration's major accomplishments, he believes, was bringing the outdoor recreation industry to the table to work on solutions.
Getting the industry involved with government has led to a nonpartisan movement that has seen retailers and vendors sometimes side with Democrats, sometimes with Republicans, but definitely more politically active the last few years.
“That started here,” Hickenlooper said. “That actually started in this office, if we’re going to honest about it.”
In 2015, Hickenlooper launched the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office around three principles: clean air, clean water and public lands.
As a result, branches of the outdoor industry with a huge stake in government policies started supporting candidates for local school boards and the state legislature.
In August, the Boulder-based national Outdoor Industry Association endorsed Polis.
“I think with millennials, they’re not interested as much in party politics,” Hickenlooper said. “But they are interested in the environment. I think that’s something we’ve laid out there.”
The industry made seismic waves in 2017 when it pulled its massive Outdoor Retailer trade show out of Salt Lake City and moved it to Denver because of Republican policies seen as harmful to preservation of public lands in Utah.
Not that much more liberal
Polis is promising Medicare for all, but his predecessor also made significant gains in insuring Coloradans.
The expansion of Medicaid in the state under the Affordable Care Act added about 400,000 people to the program.Though the federal government has covered much of that cost so far, it came at a high political price for the moderate governor. The battles over Obamacare were heated when Hickenlooper took office in 2011.
When Democrats held both chambers of the legislature in 2013 and 2014, the jarring move to the left on guns, same-sex civil unions and an attempt to end the state’s death penalty put Hickenlooper in a battle for re-election in 2014. He won with a little over 3 percentage points, easily the toughest fight of Hickenlooper’s political life.
Polis takes office in a warmer climate for such ideas, with the support of Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate.
“I think Jared understands health care very well,” Hickenlooper said. “He spends a lot of time working on it, and he’s going to have both houses to help him address some of that.”
Hickenlooper's entry into political office was as mayor, a nonpartisan office, so he had only tangentially groped with partisan positions. He took his lumps with a divided legislature his first two years as governor, then reined in Democrats the second two years.
“I certainly could have done a better job of making it a team effort,” he said. “I could have done a better job bringing in the diverse Republicans and Democrats and getting everybody to work together better.”
Polis said things during the campaign that Republicans should be able to agree with him on, Hickenlooper said, including cutting costs, and Hickenlooper tipped off the press that Polis is working on a plan to cut taxes, as well.
That seems a stretch, with most guessing he can’t keep his pledge to fund free preschool and health care for all.
“He said his highest priority is universal health care,” Hickenlooper said. “They say he’s so liberal, but I don’t think he’s that much more liberal than we are.”
Hickenlooper will be remembered as a compromiser, or more often a blesser of compromises, when it came to regulating oil and gas. The former energy-industry geologist wanted both sides to figure it out, at times when both sides seemed to agree about nothing.
Polis, as a congressman and private landowner, supported more regulation on oil and gas years before running for governor. The industry says none of that has yet manifested itself in Polis’ gubernatorial platform.
“This country is an energy exporter now for the first time in 100 years,” Hickenlooper said, teeing up a defense of extraction. “That makes the world safer. He gets all that, but he shares with me that sense of urgency of how we get to a cleaner system -- of transportation, especially.”
Polis kicked off his campaign for governor last year promising to move the state toward 100 percent renewable energy -- a goal, not a mandate, he stressed during the closing months of the race.
Government reports about the escalation of climate change deserve renewed and greater focus, said Hickenlooper, who kept Colorado under the goals of the Paris Climate Accord last year when President Trump made the U.S. one of the only nations not in the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally.
“I think [Polis is] going to be more active on this issue, and I think that’s appropriate, given what we’ve seen, “Hickenlooper said.
The state’s front man
When Colorado loses Hickenlooper as governor, it will lose a skilled showman, a public official who can command and charm a crowd.
On a Tuesday night in Cherry Creek North, he dedicated a new headquarters, research and advocacy center for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, a cause near to his heart. Last spring, with great fanfare at the Capitol, Hickenlooper signed a bill into law to ban the R-word from state laws and offices pertaining to people with Down syndrome.
He congratulated the Sie family for transforming the landscape of Denver with the philanthropy the lives of children and adults with Down syndrome around the world. And he apologized that all he brought that night was a proclamation from his office and a flag that had flown over the state Capitol.
“When you’re president, we’ll ask for more,” chimed in Michelle Sie Whitten, the president, CEO and co-founder of the foundation supported by her father, billionaire cable industry pioneer and former Starz Entertainment Group founder John J. Sie.
The crowd laughed and then cheered, as Hick smiled and shrugged in an “aw shucks” pose, the kind of thing they might gobble up in Iowa, an early caucus state on the presidential trail.
Hickenlooper hasn’t been just about governing. He’s been about representing.
To promote his music-in-schools program, Take Note Colorado, he sometimes played music, sometimes better than others, with the state's musical stars. He would sometimes show up at Red Rocks Amphitheater and play banjo and sing with bands like Old Crow Medicine Show.
As he considers his profile in a crowded field of Democrats eager to take on Donald Trump in 2020, he’s no stranger to the spotlight. He was a consoling figure after deadly wildfires, the Aurora theater massacre, historic floods, the assassination of his prisons chief and more when the nation’s unblinking eye turned to Colorado.
“I think he’s dealt with some very difficult issues, and he’s dealt with them with grace and courage,” said Don Elliman, the chancellor of the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and a longtime magazine executive.
Elliman said that while no individual can take sole credit for the state’s robust economy, Hickenlooper’s policies deserve a big share.
And the governor has never been shy about promoting what he believes in, such as the opening of a center dedicated to Down syndrome research and advocacy.
“John is a very engaged citizen,” Elliman said.
The evening before he chatted with Colorado Politics, the origin of Hickenlooper’s name was an answer on “Jeopardy” under the category of Governors.
“I’ve finally arrived,” he joked in his office.
The answer presented in the show: "Looper is an old Dutch word for runner; this Colorado governor's name may mean 'battle runner'"
That's wrong, said Hickenlooper, who has Dutch ancestors on his father's side.
“I was always told that [in] Hickenlooper, 'hecken' was hedge and 'loper' was [to] run or jump over,” he said of his Old World European ancestry. “They said it was what? ‘Battle runner’? We were told it [meant] game poachers. When we were little, my dad said it was mailmen; they ran and jumped over the hedge to deliver the mail.”
A long, strange trip
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Hickenlooper never paid attention to politics. He didn’t enjoy the acrimony that he thought brought out the worst in people.
After he lost his job as a geologist, he wanted to create traffic for his pub, the Wynkoop Brewing Co., and that meant bringing back the once-seedy Lower Downtown neighborhood's night life (and eventually Coors Field) to establishments other than his.
Politicos love to tell the stories about the days he’d provide a keg of beer for their events not held in his bar. He gave his beer as wedding gifts, as well, and his bar is the home of the national Best Beer Drinker championship.
TV host Aaron Harber said that when Hickenlooper got in the 2003 mayor’s race, he lamented that the tap would run dry for such gifts. In fact, Hickenlooper sold the Wynkoop and his interest in the collection of Denver bars and restaurants he created.
“When I ran for mayor, I just thought I could make the city function better,” he said.
Hickenlooper ran on the idea that he would also help the suburbs on issues such as water -- making Denver, with its senior water rights, more frugal so that Aurora didn't run dry -- because you can’t be a great city without great suburbs.
“People thought that was crazy,” he said.
Sometimes it’s hard for even Hickenlooper to get his mind around his winding career and personal life. In the public eye, he raised his son and weathered a divorce from Helen Thorpe, then remarried a younger woman, business executive Robin Pringle. He remains very close with his first wife, and in a couple of years his son, Teddy, will be headed off the college.
In his autobiography, “The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics” and in conversations, Hickenlooper paints his youth as that of a nerdy kid with thick glasses and a funny last name, all the ingredients bullies look for.
He got by being glib and uncommonly friendly. His mother steered him toward integrity. To know Hick is to know his past is always his present.
Hickenlooper often talks about his years starting and running a business -- the state’s first brewpub -- when he talks about negotiating and governing.
“I’ve never persuaded anyone to change their mind about something that mattered by telling them why I was right and they were wrong -- never,” he said. “But if you listen to people and make them rephrase their beliefs and ask them questions so they rephrase it in a different way, you almost always learn stuff and find out you’re not as far apart as you think.
“And they, just by the process of being listened to and hearing their words back, become less defensive and more open to compromise. I think that’s the truth of humanity.”
Hickenlooper doesn’t think his fellow entrepreneur in the White House employs the same business belief, that there’s no profit margin in enemies.
“I’m not sure President Trump is as good a listener,” Hickenlooper said. “I mean, he uses what he hears strictly to devise a strategy for a plan of attack, in my opinion.”
And at 66 years old, the governor is considering his next act.
“It’s been an unexpected trip,” he said. “It has caught me by surprise from time to time.”
He couldn’t pin down whether it was good advice, bad advice or something else that has delivered him through two terms as mayor and two as governor to possibly run for president.
“Maybe it was listening too much,” he said.