August 15 marks the one-year anniversary of John Hickenlooper officially withdrawing from the 2020 race for the presidency — and it was not long after that he announced his run for Cory Gardner’s Senate seat. First appearing on the scene as an unemployed geologist who co-founded Denver's first brewpub in 1988, Hickenlooper was perhaps an unlikely candidate to take Colorado's political landscape by storm — but take it he did, becoming Denver's mayor in 2003, moving to the governor's office in 2010, and now aiming at Washington, D.C., even if he's lowered his sights from the White House to the U.S. Senate.
Hick has had some self-imposed obstacles to overcome — his strong flirtation with fracking, his global gallivanting that led to findings of ethics violations, and so on. Still, there's no denying the marks he's made on Colorado, symbolized by events like these:
Hick’s Ads Win Him the Denver Mayoral Race
Hickenlooper was polling at under 3 percent when the bar owner threw his (cowboy) hat into the ring for mayor in January 2003. But creative ads — like the one above and another in which he addressed local fury over recently hiked parking meter rates by walking the streets and feeding meters — helped propel him to the top of a crowded field, and he won the election. And he won again in 2007, with over 86 percent of the vote.
Balanced the Denver Budget…Five Times
After working as a geologist, John Hickenlooper became a businessman, and he put that experience to good use in focusing his administration on fiscal responsibility. Hick inherited a terrible, record-setting $70 million deficit in the city coffers, and managed to present a balanced budget for the next five years — a run that only ended after the financial crisis of 2008.
The 2008 Democratic National Convention
One of John Hickenlooper's biggest moments on the national stage came during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which took place right here in Denver. That historic event, which culminated in the nomination of Barack Obama, included an address from Hick himself. This was no coincidence: Hickenlooper and his staff had worked tirelessly to bring the convention to the Mile High City, and to pull it off in mile-high style. And they did.
It’s now such an integral part of Denver’s infrastructure that many of us take for granted that we have light rail as a mass-transit option. Much of that we owe to Hick, who refused to cooperate with then-governor Bill Owens when FasTracks hit financial overruns. Owens wanted to pull back on the plans and let them trickle out as finances allowed. Hickenlooper refused to mothball the overall vision and insisted on making it work. We can debate where the lines go, or how they’re financed, or how dependable they are (and we do), but at least we have it to argue over. It is, if nothing else, an admirable start.
Being Passed Over for Colorado’s Senate Seat
It probably didn’t feel like it at the time, but this was an important turning point in John Hickenlooper’s political life. In 2009, Ken Salazar was named to President Obama’s cabinet as Secretary of the Interior, and his senatorial seat needed filling. Despite having made his interest in the position evident, Hickenlooper was passed over in favor of Michael Bennet. But that left Hickenlooper free to run for governor the next year.
Winning the Colorado Gubernatorial Seat…Twice
Despite a strong GOP resurgence following the Obama victories, Hickenlooper won the gubernatorial race with 51 percent of the vote, beating Republican candidate Dan Maes (who?) and third-party candidate Tom Tancredo by 15 points. In 2014, he bested Republican Bob Beauprez by a much slimmer margin, less than 4 percent. But it was enough.
No one would ever claim that Hick played a strong part in the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, despite being a strong proponent of beer. Hick was never a big pot advocate, but the movement to bring its recreational use and open sale through the dispensary system was successful under his watch, and to his credit, Hick has largely come around on the subject.
After record-setting floods in the fall of 2013, Hickenlooper signed legislation that would reinforce available relief for victims of flooding, fires and other natural disasters. It was a test of leadership for which Hick proved to be more than ready — something that, given the massive and constant fumble that has been the U.S. response to COVID, no one takes for granted anymore.
Running for President
For a little over five months in 2019, John Hickenlooper was one of many Democratic candidates for the presidency of the United States. Too many, as Hick got lost in the shuffle (which included Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, along with approximately a bajillion others). It was during this period that Hick offered up the quote that GOP opponent Cory Gardner has seized upon for a campaign ad: that he was “just not cut out to be a senator.” It might have made sense during a presidential run, but it's not something you want to have on the record if you later run for that very office.
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The 2020 Senatorial Democratic Nomination
And running for Senate is exactly what John Hickenlooper decided to do, scant weeks after his presidential campaign ended. It wasn’t a surprise move: The Democratic establishment was pushing for Hickenlooper to take on Cory Gardner and help the party win back the Senate. Despite his earlier misgivings on his fit in that particular seat, Hick now insists that he "can make a difference in Washington.” And voters in the primary agreed, giving Hick the win over longtime candidate Andrew Romanoff. Now, time — and November’s election — will tell if Coloradans give him that chance, showing Gardner the door and offering Hick the opportunity to add another great political moment to this list.
Next: Cory Gardner's greatest political moments.