Editor's note: This is the second post in a two-part series of interviews with former Denver mayor and Colorado governor turned senatorial candidate John Hickenlooper. In part one, Hickenlooper discussed his recent run for president and reasons for taking on incumbent senator Cory Gardner. Part two finds him addressing major issues in the campaign.
John Hickenlooper loves to make references to his unusual name, and so do those who support other Democrats in the U.S. Senate race, albeit for less benign reasons. In recent weeks, advocates who feel he's not progressive enough when it comes to environmental issues have revived a pair of nicknames that are both familiar and derisive: Frackenlooper, a handle that dates back to at least the time he drank fracking fluid to prove it wasn't as dangerous as some critics claimed, and Chickenlooper, used most recently after he was a no-show at an October 6 climate forum in Colorado Springs that all of his primary rivals attended. His representatives said he couldn't be at the latter because of a scheduling conflict.
The next week, shortly before the release of his "Plan to Combat Climate Change and Build a 100 Percent Clean Economy," Hickenlooper pushed back on the notion that he's not sufficiently aggressive when it comes to addressing the health of Earth, identifying the subject as his top concern.
"Climate change is the most serious threat facing humanity in the history of the world," he says. "We've never had something that the vast majority of scientists agree is a credible threat to our entire planet, from the acidity in the oceans to extreme weather events to the loss of irrigation water and arable land. Just go down the list of things at risk. I have a science background" — he worked as a geologist for Buckhorn Petroleum in the early 1980s before getting entrepreneurial by co-founding the Wynkoop Brewing Company — "and I've spent the better part of twenty years looking at this issue and trying to find effective ways to address it."
When he was Colorado governor, he goes on, "we replaced coal-fired plants with wind, solar and batteries, and we saw the electrical rates of consumers actually go down, which had never happened before. We helped create a network of fast-charging stations for electrical vehicles all over the Western states to accelerate the transition to non-gas vehicles, and we negotiated the first methane regulations in the country. In the old days, pipeline companies and oil and gas production companies would vent or flare methane almost without regard, and yet methane is eighty times more harmful to the climate than CO2. Colorado was the first state to create methane regulations that required the industry to go out and check every single pipe and tank and pump to make sure they weren't leaking methane before they could hook up to a production facility, hook up to a pipeline, to make sure it was safe and intact."
At the same time, he says, "we need to go much further. Part of the reason I'm running for Senate is because we need to go beyond that. Right now, President Trump, with Senator Gardner's support, is rolling back the methane regulations. After we created them, they became federal policy on all public land, but now they're being rolled back. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is rolling back all kinds of policies on air and water. So how do we get to the innovations we need in the next five or ten years to really address climate change in a meaningful way?"
His answers include looking at heavy industry. For example, "concrete is a major source of CO2. If you were to rank the greatest producers of CO2, China would be the worst, and the U.S. would be the second-worst. So we need innovation to replace that with materials that aren't as harmful to the climate, and we need to accelerate it. We made the commitment of getting to 100 percent reduction, net neutral, by 2050, but I think we should do it faster."
Hickenlooper's opponents suggest that he's too cozy with the kinds of companies that are contributing to these problems, and he acknowledges, "I did negotiate with the oil and gas industry" while crafting the aforementioned methane rules. "We spent fourteen months creating those regulations. But the Environmental Defense Fund said that the regulations were the equivalent of taking 320,000 cars off the road every year." When the coal plants were eliminated in favor of more renewable alternatives, "people said I was too close to the big utilities. But we were able to deliver cleaner energy and create many new jobs — many, many more than were lost from closing those coal plants. And we did it at a cost, in many cases, where there was no increase from what people were paying before."
Earlier this year, while still running for president, Hickenlooper knocked the Green New Deal, an environmental plan closely associated with New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a Washington Post op-ed, insisting that because of its overly broad ambitions, the proposal "sets us up for failure." Today, he's much more kindly disposed to the concept even as he resists the temptation to fully endorse it.
"I share the fierce urgency that they are bringing to the issue of climate change that we have to wean ourselves off hydrocarbons as a fuel source as soon as humanly possible. ... So I support almost all the goals of the Green New Deal. But I think my priority is going to be to get to specific policies," he says. "We have so little time, and I want to try everything I can to limit the partisan and polarizing political arguments so we can get things done. Almost everyone now, with the exception of a bunch of Republicans in Washington, believe that climate change is real. Even most Republicans in Colorado believe that. It poses a real threat to the quality of life, and it's time for everyone to sit down and say, 'What are the highest priorities we can have? Where can we get the most bang for the buck from everything we have to protect the planet?'"
This effort must be international in scope, he stresses. "We need to make sure that India, China, Indonesia and Brazil have the same sense of urgency we have toward climate change, and I think that's possible. I think we're capable of rebuilding our global relationships to begin making progress on this. But it's not going to happen while Donald Trump is president, and I don't think it's going to happen while Cory Gardner is senator. He's not convinced the situation is as bad as scientists say, not sure it's that big a crisis."
Unlike at least five of his Democratic opponents, Hickenlooper hasn't signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge — a promise not to accept contributions of more than $200 from executives, lobbyists and PACs affiliated with oil and gas firms. But he hints that he may change course. "I understand this is a symbol a number of people care about," he concedes, "so we're going to go back and look at this. ... We're going to go through all the donations I got for the third quarter and see if any of them came from oil and gas executives. I don't think any did. But then we'll sit down and discuss it, and I might well sign it."
If Hickenlooper embraces the pledge, however, he doesn't want anyone to portray the move as an acknowledgement that he's done anything wrong. "Let me first say that we're not taking any money from any corporation of any kind — no PAC money from any corporation. But when you start looking at employees and who gave how much, are we not going to take any donations from employees of pharmaceutical companies? None from Wall Street investment bankers? You get into these lists of certain companies that may not have been as good of corporate citizens as people may want... . I don't like trying to figure out who is the worst player. And in the entire eight years as mayor, and then as governor, I have never shown favoritism to anybody who gave me a donation, without exception. I donate my salaries. I spent twenty years in business allowing myself to come into a position where I donate my salaries to nonprofits. No one is bribing me; there's no self-interest. I've tried to make big decisions for the greatest good of the greatest number of people."
He takes the same approach to health care, a matter central to the Democratic Party's efforts to retake the White House and the Senate. As a presidential candidate, Hickenlooper tried to set himself apart from the likes of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by denigrating anything that smacked of socialism. But now, he contends, "Most of the solutions that were proposed," such as Medicare for All, "aren't necessarily socialist. I think Republicans are going to brand them socialist, and my point was that Democrats need to step up and say, 'We're not socialists.'" In his case, "I've started eighteen or twenty businesses, so it's hard to make that stick. But I think that Coloradans like choice, and I think Medicare for All would be difficult for a lot of people, because somewhere between 160 and 180 million Americans would have to give up their private health-care insurance. A lot of people hate their insurance; I get it. But a lot of other people like their insurance — especially people in labor unions across the Midwest and East who gave up some of their wages to get a gold-plated health-care plan in retirement. It would be hard to ask them to give up something they've already paid for. So what I've said is, we should have the choice, the opportunity. If people can't get coverage on the exchange, or they can't afford it, they should have the right to buy into some form of Medicare or Medicare Advantage or maybe a hybrid, on a sliding scale. We need to get to a point where everyone's covered and everyone has insurance."
He's heard from plenty of those who don't.
"I think health care is the first thing most people bring up to me when I'm in the rural parts of Colorado, almost without exception," Hickenlooper maintains. "I think that obviously we want to get to universal coverage, and I'm proud that while I was governor, we reduced the number of uninsured by almost two-thirds. We got to almost 95 percent coverage. And beyond that, people are alarmed and threatened by price-gouging in their health-care costs. One of the first things I would do as a senator is support legislation to allow our government to negotiate bulk discounts for prescription drugs and medication. We're the only industrialized country not able to do that. So we need to negotiate with those companies. They're going to have to raise their rates a little for the rest of the world, but that shouldn't be that big of a deal. And in the same way, I think we need to push hospitals and clinics toward transparency, so if people are going in for stitches in their arm or a tonsillectomy, they can see how much it's going to cost, what the co-pay is going to be, and what the cost is going to be at a neighboring clinic or health-care facility."
He adds that "Cory Gardner still wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act," aka Obamacare, "without any good replacement, and he's supporting Republican legislation that's trying to take away protections for pre-existing medical conditions. That would put 762,000 Coloradans at risk, and when they talk about rolling back the ACA, that would affect 400,000 or 500,000 Coloradans. I think Cory Gardner, in his role of supporting Donald Trump 98 percent of the time [FiveThirtyEight puts Gardner's career total at 89.5 percent], is not providing Colorado with the independent voice he promised. He's just doing what the Republicans dictate."
On immigration, Hickenlooper says, "The first thing we've got to address is the humanitarian crisis at the border and resolve these issues that most Americans are ashamed and embarrassed about — taking children from the arms of their mothers and putting them in cages. And we've also got to restore funding to the Northern Triangle countries [El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras]. Obama reduced that his last couple of years, but President Trump eliminated it. A lot of communities in those countries have turned to violence and organized crime, and thousands and thousands of people are fleeing for their lives because of a relatively small amount of money — probably less than we're spending along the border. We need to provide assistance to strengthen those communities and provide a higher quality of life and a safe place to live."
Closer to home, he continues, "We need comprehensive immigration reform. Last year was the first year, to my knowledge, where we had apples and pears that didn't get harvested. People were offering $15 or $20 an hour, and they couldn't find people to do the work. I agree that we need a secure border, though I don't think we need a wall being paid for out of the Department of Defense budget — what does Cory Gardner have to say about the $8 million that was supposed to go to a couple of projects at Peterson Air Force Base? But we also need to have an ID system that works, and we need to provide visas that allow people who go through a period of transition and some penalty to have a pathway to citizenship. And we need to design a real guest-worker system where we don't have to pay people under the table."
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As for marijuana, Hickenlooper mentioned the topic frequently during his presidential run, taking pride in Colorado's implementation of a legal approach to limited recreational sales even though he originally opposed Amendment 64, the 2012 measure that authorized them. He stops short of calling for the blueprint to be implemented nationally, but emphasizes that "states should have the right to do it, if they want to legalize it — and I think the federal government should decertify it so it's not a Schedule 1 narcotic. That would allow the FDA to do large-scale tests, to make sure there aren't negative side effects, and let the Department of Agriculture make sure people growing marijuana aren't using dangerous pesticides. ... And I'm hopeful that the federal government will allow banks to go to those states where it's being allowed and provide charge cards and check cashing and the kinds of traditional banking that every other business gets to use that's been denied to the marijuana industry."
Colorado has created "a national model, if people choose to follow it. We do a public-health survey every two years that's quite in depth, and I think you can say with a great deal of certainty that we haven't seen a spike in teenage consumption, and neither have we seen a significant increase of people driving while high, which were two of the biggest fears I had, and why I was against it in the beginning. Now we've demonstrated that we can create a regulated system, and even though we haven't gotten rid of the black market completely, by most measures I feel we've eliminated 90 percent of it. That makes the whole system safer. It's not healthy to have a set of laws that a large number of people don't obey."
Today is the filing deadline for the latest round of political contributions, and there's every indication that Hickenlooper's minions will have a lot of counting to do. His campaign estimates that he collected $2.1 million in the first five weeks after his announcement for Senate — considerably better than his fundraising pace when he was aiming for the presidency. "You weren't supposed to notice that," he jokes.
Whatever his final figures, he confirms, "I feel better, more centered in this campaign" than he did during his race for the Oval Office. "I know the State of Colorado. I've won statewide twice in difficult years for Democrats, and I feel I have a real relationship with the rural parts of the state: the Western Slope, southern Colorado. And I think I can provide the independent voice most people want. Whether it's a Democratic or Republican president, I intend to do what's best for Colorado and what's best for this country. When I was in New Hampshire or South Carolina, everyone was saying, 'Hicken-who?' I was constantly reintroducing myself. But in Colorado, everywhere I've gone, and I've probably covered 20 percent of the state or more so far, people have been coming up to me and thanking me — thanking me for running, thanking me for being willing to go back and trying to change Washington into a place where we can discuss things and find common ground and get things done."