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John Hickenlooper at Broadway Market.
John Hickenlooper at Broadway Market.
Michael Roberts

John Hickenlooper on His Presidential Run and Bid for the Senate

As John Hickenlooper strolls toward the entrance of Broadway Market on an early October afternoon, he's deep in conversation, his cell phone affixed to his ear. But there's something on his face that wasn't a regular feature during the five-plus months that the former Denver mayor and Colorado governor was running for president of the United States.

A smile.

It's not as if Hick is suddenly living a stress-free life. A week after his mid-August revelation that he was leaving the presidential race, he announced his bid for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Cory Gardner, widely regarded as one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2020. The oodles of other Democrats seeking the seat weren't thrilled by this move, and while onetime state senator Mike Johnston and past ambassador Dan Baer dropped out within weeks, several of those who remained began attacking Hickenlooper on environmental grounds, arguing that he was too cozy with the oil and gas industry. His decision not to participate in an October 6 climate forum for Senate candidates in Colorado Springs added more carbon-based fuel to the fire.

But if Hickenlooper is feeling the heat, he's not showing it. During the first half of a two-part conversation (our discussions of top issues and policies will be highlighted in a future post), he is loose and relaxed, exhibiting tangible joy over being back in Colorado, where he doesn't have to introduce himself over and over again. While he insists that he "had a lot of fun" seeking votes in early presidential primary and caucus states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and calls the process "one of the blessings of my life," he concedes that "it was pretty much like Groundhog Day. Every day, I'd have to explain who I was. People were like, 'Hicken-who?'"

The Broadway Market setting, located across the street from Westword, is particularly appropriate. In 1990, when I was hired to work at the paper, our office was on the corner of 18th and Wynkoop streets, directly opposite the Wynkoop Brewing Company, which Hickenlooper had co-founded a couple of years earlier. During that period, he wasn't a powerhouse politician, but rather the quirky entrepreneur who'd bring the gift of beer to share with staffers who were doing their part to make sure his business succeeded. "In those days, Westword went to press Monday nights, and Mondays are the slowest night of the week in the restaurant business," he recalls. "So to have a bunch of thirsty reporters so close was huge. Over the course of the evening, thirty or forty customers might come through and have a beer or two. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it was great having Westword across the street, just from a customer point of view."

During that same period, Hickenlooper had another important media connection: the late Gil Spencer, who served as the Denver Post's editor from 1989 to 1993, several years after he'd handled the same task at the Philadelphia Daily News. Turns out Hickenlooper, who grew up in Pennsylvania, had crossed paths with Spencer years earlier. "He was my Little League baseball coach! What are the chances that in all the gin joints in all the cities in all the world, he comes to Denver?" After telling veteran Post columnist Dick Kreck about this tie, "Kreck said, 'You're kidding. Gil Spencer? That's bullshit.' I said, 'Go ask him.' So he goes up to Gil that afternoon — they were having an editorial meeting — and says, 'Tell me the truth. Does the name John Hickenlooper mean anything to you at all?' And Gil, who was one of the funniest people on earth, said, 'Good glove, no bat.'"

A sport of a different sort started Hickenlooper along the unlikely path from bar owner to elected official: He led the initial campaign against selling corporate naming rights to Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.

John Hickenlooper taking the plunge for Referendum C in 2005, when he was Denver mayor.
John Hickenlooper taking the plunge for Referendum C in 2005, when he was Denver mayor.

"When I first got into it," he says, "I was just kind of trying to poke fun at the powers-that-be: 'You guys promised to build us a stadium, and we taxpayers voted for it, but now you're selling the name without ever running it by us.' [Pollster] Floyd Ciruli was a customer at the bar, and he said, 'You ought to do a poll on this Mile High Stadium thing.' I said, 'I thought that was just for elections.' He said, 'No, we poll other stuff all the time. You'd have to raise a few thousand dollars, but I could put a couple of questions in a poll.' So we raised $3,500 around the bar — I put in $1,000 myself — and did a poll that asked, 'Would you as a taxpayer in the metropolitan area be willing to pay however much more it is in sales tax every year to keep the Mile High Stadium name?' And 74 percent of the people who voted were happy to spend the money — I think it was $4.24 a year — to keep the Mile High Stadium name."

This result struck Hickenlooper as "a big deal. So we put our card tables in front of the old Mile High Stadium and had a press conference. The TV stations and the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News all came, and we thought, 'Wow, this is going to change the world.' But two days later, the story was gone. It had no staying power. It was just some guy who owned a restaurant in lower downtown."

But this tale had a sequel. "Mayor [Wellington] Web had fought to get the tax passed to build the new stadium, and Governor [Bill] Owens had opposed the tax. They really didn't like each other, and it was probably more than politics. Then, about six months out from the opening, I think Channel 9 did a story showing what the stadium looked like, and they had Governor Owens do the tour, because he represented all the counties [in the Metropolitan Football Stadium District]. Mayor Webb saw that and called up Andrew Hudson [a former mayoral spokesperson who now runs Andrew Hudson's Job List] and said, 'What was that guy who did the poll about the stadium? Hicken-something?' Andrew said, 'Hickenlooper. Yeah, I know him.' Mayor Webb said, 'Go find him and see if you can get him in my office. We'll do another press conference.' So Andrew got me and they called a press conference."

The event marked "the first time I'd ever walked into the mayor's office, and it was jammed," he marvels. "There were, like, twelve cameras and all these journalists. And Mayor Webb got up and said, 'Some things shouldn't be for sale.' And that made news all over the country, just through his presence and the position. If I'd said that six months earlier, no one would have cared, but he was the mayor of Denver, and the office allowed him to push back on what was right."

Not that the effort was ultimately successful. "The stadium district stopped in its tracks for four months," Hickenlooper remembers. "I thought, 'That's cool.'" But ultimately, the name was sold, and then sold again, and again, with the corporate sponsorship skipping from Invesco to Sports Authority to the Broncos' current partner, Empower Retirement, in conjunction with the words "at Mile High" — a concession to the popular sentiment Hickenlooper helped stir. "I understand the business logic of putting your name on a stadium," he says today, "but I'm not sure it's that successful. [Empower] has a name most people have never heard of, but it's kind of applicable to a sports team. So maybe it will be more successful than the others."

John Hickenlooper wears a grim expression in the video announcing his presidential campaign.
John Hickenlooper wears a grim expression in the video announcing his presidential campaign.

According to Hickenlooper, Andrew Hudson was one of three people who originally suggested that he run for Denver mayor in 2003; the others were Chris Gates, once the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, and Chris Romer, son of previous governor Roy Romer and a future state senator. "They came up to me separately within a few weeks and said, 'Have you ever thought about running for mayor?' I said, 'No, never. Why would I do that?'"

Upon being convinced to make the leap anyhow, he determined that "I wasn't going to do any attack ads, which was easy, because I didn't have any money. There wasn't too much danger of that — but I said I wouldn't attack my opponents to get on TV and get into the newspapers, which is the traditional way people get ahead in politics. Part of that meant I wasn't going to attack Mayor Webb, who couldn't run again. Lord knows we disagreed on a bunch of stuff, but I didn't — not because I was so smart, but just because it felt better."

This tactic soon paid off, he continues, albeit for tragic reasons. "After the election but before I was inaugurated, Paul Childs got shot [by Denver police]. It was the fifth police shooting that year, and Mayor Webb reached out and introduced me to a number of the black clergy in the [Greater Metro Denver] Ministerial Alliance. And the alliance became my ally, and I thought maybe I could be their ally. We started the Civilian Oversight Commission [now the Citizen Oversight Board] and the Office of the Independent Monitor; we made sure there was training for every single police officer and non-lethal tools and all this stuff that was done through the participation and social standing of the Ministerial Alliance."

The following year, Hickenlooper continues, "[Frank Lobato] was shot by police in a second-floor apartment; he was holding a Pepsi can. Afterward, there was going to be a meeting on the west side at six o'clock on a Thursday night, and we'd heard there was going to be a mob. People were really upset. Cole Finegan was the city attorney back then, and [now U.S. Senator] Michael Bennet was my chief of staff, and I said to them, 'I should go over there.' They said, 'Oh, no. They're furious, and you're the figure of government. They're going to be pretty abusive.' And I said, 'Better that they get it out than to not be there,' so we went over and spent an hour and a half being yelled at. But it definitely calmed things down. So often people get most angry when they don't feel heard. So I learned a lot of those lessons in the beginning."

In 2011, after nearly eight years as Denver mayor, Hickenlooper became Colorado's governor, and he went on to serve two terms — the maximum allowed under state law. As the clock was running down, he began thinking about what he wanted to do next. Even before Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump in 2016, "I knew I didn't want to be in the cabinet," he maintains. "But I talked to a couple of businesses. I thought maybe I could run a business somewhere, run a company. At one point, people were talking about DU looking for a new chancellor, and I heard CSU would be looking for a new president. So there were a lot of things, and running a university or running a big foundation were attractive to somebody like me, because I wasn't driven to make money the way I was, not so financially insecure."

A shift took place about a year before his governorship ended, when "a bunch of people came up and said, 'The one thing a president needs to do is bring people together, and that's something you've done. You've gotten people to work together who generally don't like each other, so you should genuinely consider it.'"

When he did, he continues, "I was attracted to the notion of taking what we'd done in Colorado" and reproducing it on a national level. "I call it the barn-raising mentality. Charlie Brown, a city council member when I first got elected mayor, said to me at one of my campaign meetings, 'In the Old West, there were plenty of shootouts, but there were a lot more barn-raisings.' I think I put that in my original inaugural, and that sensibility is how Colorado works."

Getting this message out proved difficult, though. "If I had to do it over again, I would have spent the last two years [as governor] traveling more, building up a financial foundation and getting ready for it." Seeking the presidency "isn't really something you do out of the blue. You can't go from 0 to 60 that quickly with 24 people running, and that was a big part of the struggle. Everyone I talked to who'd been through it before said, 'Once you're out there, you'll raise three or four million a quarter, easy. But it's one thing to think you're going to raise three or four million and you raise one and a half."

John Hickenlooper got national attention for throwing up his arms during a debate exchange with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
John Hickenlooper got national attention for throwing up his arms during a debate exchange with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
CNN via YouTube

Additionally, he says, "I didn't recognize that in many ways, Trump kind of changed the game — and so did the disaggregation of the media. There are so many radio stations, so many TV stations, so many newspapers that are just struggling to survive, just to make sure they can pay their reporters, pay the printer. They're fighting for eyeballs, fighting for attention. I should have spent six months figuring out, 'What are the elements of my persona and how do I accentuate them? How do I become more of a personality — maybe a little bit eccentric, but funnier and more telegenic?'"

As his campaign kept bumping along, Hickenlooper started getting questions about switching directions and aiming at the Senate — and one answer wound up haunting him. "I think the phrase I used is, 'Washington is a lousy place for someone like me, who likes to get things done,' and I obviously believed it."

Circumstances began changing over the weeks and months that followed, he acknowledges. "I was still at 2 percent, and if [former] vice president [Joe] Biden went down ten points or someone else went up, my 2 percent didn't change. So I wasn't picking up people. Now, a lot of voters haven't made up their mind, and I think Michael Bennet's smart to stay in it, stay in the game, stay around the basket — because sometimes the ball's in your hand and you can put it in. But for me, it was just impossible to raise enough money and keep a staff, even if I caught fire. And I'd already made my points about a more moderate approach to some of the big issues: health care and climate change and gun safety and jobs."

Before Hickenlooper concluded that the plug had to be pulled, he stopped fundraising, "If I was going to drop out, I didn't want to have taken 500 bucks from somebody," he explains. Meanwhile, over the summer, "people would say, 'It looks like you're maybe slowing down. You should think about running for the Senate.'"

Among those people were former Senator Ken Salazar, who served as Interior Secretary in the Obama administration, and retired CSU president Al Yates. "They came up one time on a Sunday afternoon and spent a couple of hours," Hickenlooper says. "Ken really loves the Senate. Loves it. They were really pushing it, and they kind of got me a little excited about it, and Robin [Hickenlooper, his wife], too. But Andrew Hudson said, 'You ought to call Tim Wirth up and get the other side."

Wirth served as a Colorado senator for a single term, from 1987 to 1993, before deciding not to run for reelection (he was succeeded by Ben Nighthorse Campbell), and Hickenlooper thought he'd deliver a lecture about the pitfalls of the gig. Instead, he got a different kind of earful. Wirth "ripped me up one side and down the other, but not for what you might think. He said, 'Hickenlooper, why are you still sitting on your couch? Most of us spend our lives waiting for that moment when we might be able to make a difference, and this is your moment. You're one of the four or five people who might determine whether [Republican senator from Kentucky] Mitch McConnell is still going to be in charge in the Senate. You're so far ahead of all the other people who are in the primary, and they're probably going to beat each other to a pulp — and they're probably going to have a hard time beating Cory Gardner. If you can get into that race, you can really demonstrate how you're going to beat Cory Gardner — and then you can go out and beat him. You can do that, and you're asking whether you'd be good at it, whether you'd like it?'"

At that point, "Tim Wirth paused and then he said, 'Hickenlooper, I've known you for a long time. You'd be great at it. And let me tell you something else: You'd love it. You get to work with the smartest people, and you can pick three or four issues where you can go deep, and you could have a really huge impact.' Then he rattled off three or four big issues, like cable reform, that he got done just in the six years he was there, and said, 'Someone like you can get so much done, get people to work together, and you're sitting in the cheap seats, saying how broken it is. But you're exactly the kind of person who needs to be there.'"

When Hickenlooper put down the phone, he recalls, "I wasn't trembling with fear, but I was emotionally excited — agitated, I guess. I hadn't made up my mind, but I have so much respect for Tim. He's always such a good person to ask for advice, and it was so different from what I expected. He was a big part of that transition in my thinking."

Thus far,  Hickenlooper has no regrets. "I loved being mayor so much, and being governor — having a team and getting stuff done," he says. "They were really some of the most exciting years of my life. But this is exciting in a different way. I think it's fair to say I'm more excited about running for Senate than I ever was about running for mayor, and if you'd told me that three months ago, I would have laughed."

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