When asked to identify his top policy priority at an event in Durango earlier this month, former Colorado governor and current Democratic Senate frontrunner John Hickenlooper pointed to climate change, which he called a "challenge…that threatens humanity," and an even greater threat to the world than nuclear weapons during the Cold War. So why isn't he making it a priority to join ten other Senate candidates to talk about the issue in a climate-focused candidate forum this weekend?
That's the question progressive activists are asking after Hickenlooper informed them that he won't be attending the Planet in Peril forum scheduled for Sunday, October 6, in Colorado Springs.
"It's upsetting," says activist Deana Kamm, one of the event's organizers. "We definitely made sure he could get it on his schedule in time."
"John Hickenlooper believes climate change is both the biggest threat and the greatest opportunity of our time," Hickenlooper for Colorado spokeswoman Melissa Miller said in a statement. "While a scheduling conflict unfortunately prevents him from attending next weekend's forum, he looks forward to talking with voters across the state about his plans to combat climate change by growing our clean energy economy and reinstating and expanding protections for clean air and water."
Hickenlooper's campaign declined to specify what kind of scheduling conflict is preventing him from attending. Event partners including Indivisible Colorado, 350 Colorado and other activist groups have been planning the forum for months, and they extended an invitation to Hickenlooper within hours of the onetime presidential candidate's August announcement that he would run for Senate instead.
"The video came out, we all emailed each other, and started emailing the campaign and sending letters, all of that," says Kamm. "I don't know how scheduling is a problem."
"We're disappointed he's not going to be able to make it," says Indivisible activist Dana Miller. "We hope to sit down with him very soon and continue this conversation that we need to have around things like climate."
All eight of Hickenlooper's Democratic primary rivals, along with two candidates from the Unity Party, plan to attend Sunday's forum, leaving Hickenlooper and incumbent Republican Senator Cory Gardner — who will be headlining a New York City fundraising retreat for President Donald Trump's re-election campaign — as the only candidates absent.
"It seems like he's trying to become a senator by emulating Cory Gardner," says Nick Tuta, an organizer with youth-led climate activist group the Sunrise Movement, another event sponsor. "He's not showing up to meet with voters. He's nowhere to be found."
At a youth-led Climate Strike rally at the Colorado Capitol on September 20, Tuta and other Sunrise Movement activists were joined by five Democratic Senate candidates who signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, a commitment to refuse campaign contributions over $200 from fossil-fuel executives, lobbyists and PACs. Tuta says Sunrise organizers have reached out repeatedly to Hickenlooper's campaign but have received no response. While a presidential candidate, Hickenlooper declined to sign the pledge, breaking from at least 23 other Democratic primary contenders who did so; in June, a super PAC supporting his presidential candidacy reported a $100,000 contribution from Michael S. Smith, a natural-gas executive and former president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Climate change has taken on a new urgency for Democrats as the 2020 election approaches, and Hickenlooper's ties to the fossil-fuel industry are proving to be a major sticking point for many progressive primary voters. As Colorado's oil and gas boom led to dramatic increases in production during his two terms as governor, Hickenlooper supported some efforts to enact stricter regulations but helped thwart many others, frequently touted the environmental benefits of natural gas, and joined industry lawsuits against towns that attempted to ban fracking.
His efforts earned him the nickname "Frackenlooper," and for many activists and even some fellow Democratic Senate candidates, Hickenlooper's absence from events like the Climate Strike and this week's Planet in Peril forum comes as no surprise.
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"We see it as very telling that Hickenlooper is scared to show up and talk with voters about this crisis," Tuta says. "He doesn't care about telling people about his plan, because frankly, he doesn't have a plan that matches the scale of the crisis."
"I don't think he wants to be in a situation where he has to defend his record," says Senate candidate Diana Bray, an Englewood environmental activist who clashed with Hickenlooper's administration on oil and gas issues. "He's interested in going to fundraisers, but I don't think he's interested in defending his record. And his record is very problematic, because he's done more to promote oil and gas in this state than any other Democrat I can think of."
Kamm and other activists say that they'll consider organizing another climate forum in the coming months, and hope that Hickenlooper will be able to attend. Early polls show the former governor with a commanding lead in next year's Democratic primary, but progressives who are eager to unseat Gardner hope that Hickenlooper's lack of engagement with the grassroots doesn't become a pattern.
"If we are going to get behind him, and canvass for him, and make phone calls for him, and be excited about his candidacy, he needs to connect with the community," says Miller. "So where is he?"