Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper says that climate change is one of his top priorities. But he still doesn’t want to talk to a coalition of environmental activists and other grassroots progressive groups about how he would address it as a U.S. senator.
Hickenlooper will not attend the next Planet in Peril forum scheduled in Denver on Saturday, February 15; this will be the second time he’s skipped a climate-focused debate since announcing his Senate candidacy last year. Sponsored by KGNU and national advocacy group Swing Left, and featuring a wide range of partner groups including Indivisible Denver, 350 Colorado and GreenLatinos, the event will include panel discussions and video screenings looking at the climate crisis, along with a debate among Senate candidates.
“It’s hard not to feel like he doesn’t want to talk about climate,” says Dana Miller, a progressive activist who helped organize the event. “He doesn’t appear to talk about oil and gas, he doesn’t appear to want to talk about fracking, he doesn’t appear to want to talk about climate justice. And these are things that are really important at this point, and we’re sorry he’s not going to be there to join in the conversation.”
Following the Hickenlooper campaign's claim that a “scheduling conflict” prevented him from attending the first Planet in Peril forum in Colorado Springs in October, organizers and members of the event’s partner groups spent months reaching out to his staff to invite the candidate to appear at a second forum. The campaign was noncommittal, they say, before eventually telling organizers several weeks ago that the governor would be elsewhere on their chosen date.
In a statement to Westword, however, Hickenlooper’s campaign didn’t cite a specific scheduling conflict, and then didn’t respond to follow-up questions about where the former governor would be on February 15.
“John is making his case directly to voters in all of Colorado’s 64 counties about why he is the best candidate to beat Cory Gardner and change Washington,” said Ammar Moussa, a campaign spokesman. “He has already participated in many forums across the state — including a climate change-focused one in Denver — and will continue to talk with Coloradans about his plans to combat climate change, lower health-care costs, and get Washington working for Colorado.”
Hickenlooper’s entry into the Senate race following a failed presidential bid prompted quick exits by many of his primary rivals, and polls have shown him with a commanding lead over the rest of the Democratic candidates. But he has struggled mightily to connect with one particular bloc of voters: climate and environmental activists who remain bitterly critical of Hickenlooper’s record on oil and gas development during his two terms as governor.
Oil production in Colorado surged more than fivefold during Hickenlooper’s eight years at the Capitol, shattering records nearly every year even as climate scientists issued increasingly urgent warnings about the need to curb the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Front Range communities besieged by the drilling boom fought for more control over permitting and regulation, and frequently found themselves thwarted by the Hickenlooper administration, which in two cases sued Colorado municipalities over local attempts to restrict fracking.
Ean Tafoya, an activist with GreenLatinos who will moderate Saturday’s climate debate, says it’s especially important for communities of color to hear how Hickenlooper plans to tackle climate and energy issues. From the controversial drilling project under way near Greeley’s Bella Romero Academy to the drought and desertification facing farmers in southern Colorado, Latinos and other people of color have often been the most threatened by Colorado’s fracking boom, as well as its rapidly changing climate.
“Indigenous people, Latinos, people of color, we are on the front lines of climate justice,” Tafoya says. “Avoiding this conversation is avoiding Latinos. As a clear frontrunner in this race, for him to ignore the most intersectional issue of our time — it’s important that he’s there.”
Hickenlooper, whose fundraising, name recognition and establishment ties give him a powerful edge in the Senate primary, has skipped more than a dozen debates and candidate forums since entering the race, rival campaigns say. For critics, the comparison with the notoriously inaccessible Senator Cory Gardner, whom Democrats hope to unseat in November, is hard to avoid.
“We already have a senator who doesn’t show up or answer questions: Cory Gardner,” says former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, one of Hickenlooper’s primary opponents who'll be at the February 15 event.
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Skepticism about Hickenlooper’s candidacy is part of an emerging rift within the Democratic Party over climate policy, with a new generation of young, emboldened activists challenging established party leaders over what they say is an insufficiently ambitious approach to cutting out fossil fuels and transitioning to clean energy. Shortly after entering the presidential race in 2019, Hickenlooper wrote a Washington Post op-ed bashing progressives' proposal for a "Green New Deal," though his critique repeatedly mischaracterized the resolution's actual contents.
Most progressive activists, along with Romanoff and other Democratic primary hopefuls, say that defeating Gardner — who has flirted with outright climate denial in the past and hasn't released or endorsed any comprehensive plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions — remains the top priority, and have committed to supporting Hickenlooper if he wins the nomination. But they find the former governor's reluctance to engage with the party's grassroots about his record and platform worrisome, as the U.S. government, along with others around the world, enters a potentially make-or-break decade for global efforts to rein in carbon emissions before they hit a catastrophic tipping point.
“I want to hear his vision for climate justice,” Tafoya says. “He admits that the climate problem is real. It’s time for us to talk solutions.”
The second Planet in Peril event will be held this Saturday, February 15, at the Turnhalle Ballroom at the Tivoli. The U.S. Senate candidate forum is scheduled for 2 p.m.; find out more here.