I’m often asked what made former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper decide to run for president and I’ve always answered, “I honestly don't know.”
He served as Denver’s mayor when the Democratic National Convention came to town in 2008 and Barack Obama was nominated for president.
Hickenlooper went on to become governor of Colorado and was chairman of the National Governors Association during Obama’s time in the White House.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign interviewed Hickenlooper as a possible running mate in 2016.
“He’s talked about Washington for a while,” I said, “because I remember a story in The New York Times several years back.”
The reason I remembered that article about the Denver mayor-turned-governor-turned-Washington wannabe is I have never been so angry at Hickenlooper’s press office as I was over that article. Hickenlooper and his wife, Helen Thorpe, separated in 2012. In fact, they gave me the scoop.
But local reporters were led to believe that their statement at the time about remaining good friends and being devoted to their son was the extent of what they were going to say about the situation.
Then I opened the New York Times shortly after the governor’s third State of the State speech, in 2013, to find this report on Hickenlooper from Frank Bruni:
If he hadn’t run for governor, I asked, would the marriage have survived? “It’s conceivable,” he said. Then he volunteered that when they discussed separating, she had told him: “If you want to run for president, I’m in. We’ll stay married. I’ll figure it out and I’ll be fine.’”
I. Was. Livid.
I had forgotten all about that until Nov. 19 when I read this headline in Politico: “How Frank Bruni put Pete Buttigieg on the map.” The subhead read, “The New York Times columnist and his opinion colleagues have touted the South Bend mayor since 2016.”
Buttigieg now leads the Democratic presidential nominees in some polls.
Hickenlooper dropped out of the race in August, and instead is running for a U.S. Senate seat, where he is leading in most polls.
Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, I thought after reading the Politico article. Is Bruni some kind of kingmaker, first elevating Hickenlooper and now Buttigieg?
“I’m hardly even a duke-maker,” Bruni responded to my question.
“That (Hickenlooper) became someone of great national interest, was considered for the Clinton 2016 ticket and then was expected to (and did) enter the 2020 race for a bit was pretty much inevitable,” Bruni told me, “given Colorado's purple-ness, its humming economy toward the end of his two terms, his long non-Washington biography and the long belief (now challenged) that governors were especially strong presidential contenders, etc.”
When Colorado elected Hickenlooper governor in 2010, Bruni came a callin’. He wrote a lengthy piece on Colorado’s quirkiest politician just before Hickenlooper was sworn into office. He wrote that Hickenlooper “has long had a knack for promoting himself, but in ways too clownish and just plain good-natured enough to come across as conventionally scheming.”
I read the article when it appeared, but several things stand out in rereading it almost a decade later.
“Hickenlooper, who is 58, says he has no ambitions for higher office. To be more accurate, he says there’s no point in having them, because he’s too unorthodox a Democrat to be recruited for, and supported in, a national race,” Bruni wrote.
“Still, assuming his first term as governor goes well and he’s re-elected in 2014, it’s hard not to believe that there will be at least a few murmurs from Democratic operatives, and a few stirrings within Hickenlooper himself, about the presidential race of 2016.”
Bruni’s 2011 piece offered an insight on the Obama administration from Hickenlooper that hasn’t worn well.
“Rather than going to health care first, I would have gone, I think, to transportation infrastructure,” Hickenlooper said.
Of course, the rap on Hickenlooper is that despite his popularity and talk of consensus building, as governor he never could talk voters into passing a significant transportation measure.
Bruni pointed out that when his editors assigned him to write the story about Colorado’s incoming governor, Hickenlooper already had become a magnet for national reporters.
True. Hickenlooper had a great story to tell and he told it with boyish enthusiasm.
The out-of work-geologist with the unusual last name opened Denver’s first brewpub in a part of Lower Downtown once home to skid row. A spat over naming rights for the new football stadium — Hickenlooper thought Denver was foolish to give up the Mile High Stadium moniker — propelled the political neophyte into his first run for office, in 2003. He won the mayor’s race in a landslide.
“In contrast,” Bruni wrote, “I heard about Buttigieg from prominent Democratic insiders and approached him myself. I was a columnist by then. I wasn't a columnist when I first met and wrote about the governor.”
I read the Bruni-Buttigieg story by reporter Michael Calderone with interest:
Few in the national political world had heard of the then-34-year-old South Bend, Indiana, mayor with the difficult-to-pronounce name when New York Times columnist Frank Bruni went out to dinner with former Obama strategist David Axelrod.
It was spring 2016, as two candidates with a combined age of 142 vied for the party’s presidential nomination. Which young Democrats, Bruni asked, could one day lead the party?
“The very first name out of his mouth was Pete Buttigieg.” Bruni recalled in an interview with Politico. Bruni soon headed to South Bend, where he spent a couple days with the mayor, who just a year earlier had come out as gay. Bruni wrote a June 2016 column headlined, “The First Gay President?”
… That 2016 column was the first of numerous Times pieces, many by Bruni himself, to call attention to Buttigieg’s talents.
We’ll see how Buttigieg fares. So far, he has not made inroads with crucial black voters. And being ahead in the polls has made him a target from his Democratic colleagues vying for the nomination.
Even if Frank Bruni isn’t a kingmaker, he writes interesting stories about politicos who could be.
Lynn Bartels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org