Election 2020 Hickenlooper

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper responds to questions during a news conference in the brewpub that he established before his foray into politics on March 6 in lower downtown Denver.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he would suspend the federal death penalty if elected president and accused President Donald Trump of "fanning the flames" of hatred during a CNN Town Hall broadcast from Atlanta on Wednesday night.

The 67-year-old Democrat declared that health care "should be a right, not a privilege" — it's a position he's championed since the early 1970s — and described how his collaborative approach as governor yielded strict regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, drawing cheers when he said the White House should be occupied by someone who understands science.

He also called his face blindness — a medical condition called prosopagnosia that impairs the ability to recognize familiar faces — a "blessing," saying it's encouraged him to greet everyone he meets as an old friend.

But it was a quip about women presidential candidates and a lengthy description of the time he took his mother to an X-rated movie that appeared to strike a chord with viewers.

The affable former brewpub owner cut a mostly centrist path as he responded for an hour to questions from the audience and host Dana Bash, CNN's chief political correspondent.

Hickenlooper used some questions as an opportunity to tell stories about tackling problems as Denver's mayor and when he governed Colorado, often involving bringing opponents to the table to hammer out solutions.

He used others to illustrate his unconventional political biography, like how growing up "a skinny kid with thick, Coke-bottle glasses and a funny last name" taught him how to deal with bullies. In Trump's case, Hickenlooper said he'd "show how ridiculous he is" rather than "trying to punch back and fight tooth and nail," which he argued only drives people further into their corners.

Near the end of the broadcast, however, Hickenlooper veered into an awkward pair of exchanges that threatened to overshadow his debut in the national spotlight.

Asked by Bash whether he would put a woman on the presidential ticket, like some of the other male Democrats have vowed, Hickenlooper responded, "Of course." Then he turned the tables, asking her: "How come we’re not asking, more often, the women, 'Would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?'”

The question drew groans of disdain from the audience and both mockery and derision from online viewers, though Hickenlooper and a campaign spokeswoman told CNN after the town hall that the former governor was merely pointing out that failing to ask women candidates the question amounted to discounting their chances of wining the nomination.

"They are never asked that question. Or at least maybe I have missed it, but women I know feel that is a form of discounting, the they are less likely to win the nomination," Hickenlooper told CNN's Dan Merica, adding: "People can take it out of context."

After a commercial break, Bash asked Hickenlooper about an episode recounted in his 2016 memoir, "The Opposite of Woe," when he took his mother to a theater to see the X-rated movie "Deep Throat."

In great detail, Hickenlooper described how lonely his widowed mother had become after he left for college, so when he arrived home to a big meal she'd prepared one night, he asked whether she wanted to join him and a friend, who had planned to go see the iconic and notorious 1972 sensation.

“I didn’t know what an 'X' movie was. We thought it was a little naughty, but we didn’t think it was that bad," Hickenlooper said. "You have to understand, I was 18 years old."

Saying he knew it was a mistake once the movie started, Hickenlooper acknowledged his mother must have been "mortified" but declined his repeated suggestions that they exit the theater — she didn't go to movies often, and "once she'd paid, she was going to stay." On the way home, by the dim green light of the dashboard, he said she praised the lighting in the film, flashing what he thought was a tiny grin.

Hickenlooper brought the same disarming self-deprecation to the other questions, arguing that his experience going from a laid-off geologist to brewpub founder to unlikely politician — he didn't run for office until he was in his 50s — sets him apart from more than a dozen other Democrats seeking the nomination. He also drew sharp contrasts with some of the other candidates.

Although he stressed that he supports efforts to achieve universal coverage — calling the goal "our north star" — Hickenlooper distanced himself from the "Medicare for all" single-payer health care proposal advocated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and others on his party's left flank.

Pointing to bipartisan policies that achieved coverage for almost 95 percent of Coloradans by expanding Medicaid and establishing a robust health insurance exchange, Hickenlooper said he supports a public option but "can't imagine" doing away with the coverage 150 million Americans have through their employers.

As for the death penalty, Hickenlooper said he used to support it — "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" — but a conversation with a Catholic archbishop and months consulting experts changed his mind. (As governor, he stayed the execution of one of Colorado's inmates on death row, saying he was opposed to the death penalty.)

“It makes no sense," he said. "It’s not a deterrent. It’s expensive. It prolongs misery. And the worst thing is, it is random. Depending on where that crime occurs, and in many cases whether the killer is African-American or Latino, that has a lot to do with who gets tried on a death penalty charge. And the random injustice of that is something that this country should never stand for.”

Asked by Bash whether he would carry out the executions of the 62 federal inmates with death sentences, Hickenlooper said: “I have not looked at all the cases, but the vast majority of cases in the federal death penalty system, I’d have to be suspicious just to start. I certainly would suspend the death penalty.”

Hickenlooper demurred when asked whether he would declare a national emergency over gun violence, saying that wasn't the purpose of national emergencies, and turned his criticism toward Trump, who has declared one to divert billions of dollars to pay for a border wall with Mexico.

"I think what the president has done on the border diminishes our military efforts at creating processes by which you establish what is a national emergency," he said. “I think it also just deflects his desire for building a wall — his political vanity — and deflects the public attention from just how bad that is.”

Asked by a Muslim student how he would address white nationalism as president, Hickenlooper responded, "The rise of Islamophobia and the rise of white nationalism are different sides of the same coin. Any time you are making comments and creating — fanning the flames of hatred, then you're doing a genuine harm to your community."

He added: “I don’t know what to say. I think President Trump should be ashamed of himself.”

At another point, Hickenlooper said he's figured out how to counter Trump's aggressive bombast and behavior some describe as bullying.

“Most bullies are insecure and narcissistic," he said. "And what they hate more than anything else is being laughed at."

Hickenlooper said that he can't wait for Trump to come up with his patented nicknames for him.

"Whatever he comes up with, I'm going to say, you couldn't think of 'Chickencooper'? You couldn't come up with 'Pooperscooper'? C'mon, you've got to do better than that."

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