Is John Hickenlooper a Closet Republican?

John Hickenlooper at Broadway Market during the 2020 campaign.
John Hickenlooper at Broadway Market during the 2020 campaign. Photo by Michael Roberts
The fallout from Senator John Hickenlooper's vote in favor of a non-binding amendment that called for restricting stimulus payments to undocumented people has resulted in criticism from friends and praise from enemies, including the Gazette, which suggested in a February 10 editorial in both its Colorado Springs and Denver editions that he switch his affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

A Hickenlooper spokesperson brushes off the idea with a pithy statement: "This is hogwash."

Hickenlooper was actually one of eight Democrats to vote for the amendment, which passed by a 58-42 margin on February 4. But even though he initially shrugged off the vote because of its non-binding nature, he took plenty of heat anyhow. On February 6, restaurateur and DACA recipient Alejandro Flores-Muñoz ripped Hickenlooper, whom he'd supported in 2020. Two days later, on February 8, the ACLU of Colorado, joined by approximately 300 signatories representing some of the state's most progressive voices and organizations, followed suit in a letter that put Hickenlooper on blast.

"In the end, while this anti-immigrant amendment is dead, Sen. Hickenlooper’s symbolic vote remains on record — the message it sends is unacceptable," the letter states. "Senator Hickenlooper campaigned on a promise to represent all Coloradans and help keep everyone safe, but his actions Thursday broke that promise. The senator’s 'aye' vote to deny critical relief to people who need it most was an affront to every essential worker, every immigrant, and every Coloradan. It is not enough to praise people as essential. We must treat each other as such through our actions."

It continues: "The Senator must immediately commit to supporting Colorado’s impacted communities, and take every opportunity to deliver necessary aid and protection to all Coloradans. Past promises and platitudes are not enough. If the Senator truly is 'committed to reversing the Trump Administration’s harmful immigration agenda and helping to restore humanity to a broken system,' he needs to do better than he did last Thursday. We need a senator who truly is 'laser-focused on getting us through the pandemic, rebuilding the economy and finding a long-term solution to fix our broken immigration system.' We need Senator Hickenlooper to keep his promise."

In an attempt to calm the waters, Hickenlooper held a virtual meeting with immigrant community leaders and afterward released a statement to Denver7 that doesn't quite say he regrets the vote but certainly comes close. In it, he maintains that "immigrant communities and undocumented workers specifically are on the front lines of our economy — now more than ever. I recognize how this vote has distorted that important fact and fed dangerous and damaging narratives about the undocumented community. We’ve had several productive conversations about this, and I remain committed to working together to finally achieve a comprehensive fix for our broken immigration system, including a pathway to citizenship."

The Gazette, an editorially conservative publication owned by billionaire Phil Anschutz that expanded into Denver with an online-only edition last year, saw things differently, contending in the February 10 editorial that "the vote was a perfectly reasonable statement. The federal government, mired in debt, has limited ability to help with direct cash assistance. Every dollar given to an immigrant here illegally comes at the expense of an immigrant residing here legally or an American citizen. We don’t need another financial incentive for foreigners to come to this country in violation of the law. With his vote, Hickenlooper said Americans come first when it comes to spending their tax dollars."

Elsewhere in the editorial, the Gazette argues that Hickenlooper differs from his party in plenty of other areas, too — so much so that he "should consider the example of a great Colorado statesman, the former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Like Campbell, Hickenlooper could change his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican."

That, of course, is not going to happen...and certainly not at the Gazette's urging. The paper's endorsement of Gardner in September alternately treated Hickenlooper like a radical, a stooge and an idiot — and he'd have to be all three to sign up with the Republican Party now, since by doing so he would take control of the Senate away from the Dems and put it back into the hands of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the national GOP.

Hickenlooper's spokesperson underscores this point: "John Hickenlooper is a proud Democrat — in fact, his 17-point landslide victory in the Democratic primary and 9-point victory last November flipped the U.S. Senate to Democratic control so we can finally move forward on important priorities like fixing our broken immigration system and creating a pathway to citizenship, expanding access to affordable health care, passing sensible gun safety reform, and enacting bold climate change solutions. Any suggestion otherwise is detached from his record and reality."

Maybe so. But local progressives will be keeping a close eye on Hickenlooper from here on out to make sure he doesn't become the equivalent of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, for whom his chief of staff, Kirtan Mehta, once worked: a Democrat in name only.

Click to read the ACLU of Colorado Letter to Senator John Hickenlooper.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts