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Politics and Government

John Hickenlooper searches for his liberal voice even as he preaches a new brand of politics ahead of 2020

A look inside the first campaign trip for America’s quirkiest governor as he ponders a presidential bid in 2020

Esosa Osa, right, films Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper talking about Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at a campaign office in Decatur, Georgia on Sept. 22, 2018. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)
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DECATUR, GEORGIA — Exiting a Democratic campaign office in the Atlanta suburbs, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper sheds his suit jacket in the simmering, humid morning and folds his lanky frame into the back seat of a local volunteer’s car.

He orders the Colorado state trooper assigned to protect him to ride in another vehicle and soon begins to tell stories sprinkled with references to the band OneRepublic, Abraham Lincoln and being the first brewer elected governor since Samuel Adams in 1791.

Hickenlooper is sitting in the middle seat and leaning forward as he talks. One of the volunteers reaches behind him and taps me on the shoulder. She tries to whisper, but she’s too excited to keep it quiet. “He’s sooo cool,” Bola Tilghman, 55, tells me with a huge grin.

The scene is peak Hickenlooper — the same guy who jumped from a plane to campaign for a ballot measure in 2005, the same guy who plays guitar in his office before big speeches and the same guy who wrote in his 2016 autobiography that he took his mother to the X-rated movie “Deep Throat.”

At 66, he’s America’s quirkiest governor, a maverick who is willing to defy convention in politics and life. And he’s poised to run for the White House in 2020.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper rides in the back of a volunteer’s car and talks to Bola Tilghman, 55, on the way to knock on doors in Georgia in support of Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams on Sept. 22, 2018. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The question is whether he can turn his brand into a message that wins national support. But as his return to the campaign trail in Georgia showed, he must answer a tougher question first: How to position himself in an increasingly fractured Democratic Party.

A pro-business and socially liberal governor, Hickenlooper wants to present himself as a fresh option for Democrats — and the opposite of President Donald Trump — by highlighting his collaborative, bipartisan approach that delivered results in Colorado.

To call Hickenlooper a longshot at this point is an understatement. The path he envisions is problematic — and he’s the first to admit he’s not sure about his chances.

“The way the landscape sits now, (the big question) is whether a person like myself, that doesn’t rant and rave, and doesn’t have such a giant persona (can succeed),” he said in an interview moments before he went canvassing with the volunteers helping Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s governor’s race. “It’s unclear whether people will go towards, let’s say, someone who is not as excitable.”

If he runs, his candidacy would test America’s appetite for a softer, centered political approach, rather than the bombastic partisanship that drives headlines and wins loyalists.

His success in a potential Democratic field of provocateurs and heavyweights may depend on whether he can find his liberal voice — and whether his quirky personality can win devotees.

If his time back on the campaign trail is any indication, it’s a struggle, but he may find success.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper participates in a discussion about entrepreneurship at Tampa Bay Wave, a startup incubator in Tampa, Florida, on Sept. 21, 2018. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

A day earlier, in Tampa, Florida, Hickenlooper finished his first event on behalf of the state’s Democratic ticket and stepped into the elevator. A moment after the doors closed, he realized he forgot to mention one of his talking points: His leadership PAC. Not even a subtle hint at his future plans.

“I’m still trying to find my gait,” he explained, a bit frustrated.

Whether he is ready for a national campaign is a significant question. The two-day trip to Florida and Georgia acted as a soft launch for his “Giddy Up” political committee and marked the first time he hit the trail as a prospective candidate since winning reelection as governor by 3 percentage points in 2014.

The small events in Florida — a discussion at a startup incubator and visit to a craft brewery — put him on familiar ground and drew little attention. Neither Abrams nor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, diverted their schedule to appear with Hickenlooper. But Gillum’s running mate, Chris King, joined the campaign tour, which were designed to draw media attention.

The headliner’s absences didn’t seem to bother Hickenlooper. At the events, he introduced himself as the laid-off geologist turned brewpub entrepreneur and told stories he often uses back home. He outlined a new direction for Democrats modeled on the lessons of collaboration that he learned in business and as Denver mayor. And he even chuckled at pot jokes made about Colorado.

His leadership PAC is designed to help him spread his brand, develop national policy proposals and build allies in early presidential states. It also gives him runway to find the big idea that would serve as the foundation for a 2020 campaign.

Even if he’s just taking the first steps, the trip seemed to answer one question: It sure seems like he will run.

It’s what Ben Eason, a longtime Hickenlooper friend who lives in Tampa, believes. Eason jumped in the car with the governor in Florida and quickly steered the conversation toward 2020 as they crossed the bridge over Tampa Bay.

Eason offered a long list of advice. He told the governor to act soon to put his candidacy in motion. He suggested retaining top advertising agencies to help build awareness of his brand. And he recommended hiring national political operatives to add more credibility as a presidential hopeful.

Eason, the chief executive of Creative Loafing, an alternative newspaper, once worked in Colorado on digital advertising and went to college with Hickenlooper’s second cousin, filmmaker George Hickenlooper.

Midway through all of the advice, Hickenlooper felt compelled to interrupt him. He nodded toward me sitting next to them. “Regardless of whether a reporter is in the car or not, Robin and I haven’t decided,” he said, referring to his wife.

“What else are you going to do after Jan. 5, or whenever?” Eason asked. “You don’t ski.”

In St. Petersburg, Eason told the Florida state trooper driving the car to detour and pick up Steve Seibert, the director of the Florida Humanities Council and a former member of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration. Eason wanted his Republican friend to meet Hickenlooper. He introduced the governor by saying he is undecided about a 2020 bid, but “still happens to be hustling up votes and stuff.”

The presidential campaign talk only ended when the car arrived at a local brewery for the second event with King, the lieutenant governor candidate.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, talks with head brewer Tyler Singletary at Flying Boat Brewing in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Sept. 21, 2018. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

As the two candidates walked through the shiny steel fermenters talking about business, Eason chatted with Seibert in the taproom. “I don’t think he has any idea what he’s getting into,” Eason said of Hickenlooper.

The next morning, in Atlanta, Hickenlooper arrived in the hotel lobby 10 minutes late and made a joke about the need to adjust the campaign schedule for an aging governor. He stayed out late to network with prominent donors to the Democratic Governors Association in the 2018 election and met another top contributor for breakfast that morning.

He can expect more late nights to come. Other Democratic candidates began to cultivate key activists and donors months, if not years, ago. Hickenlooper’s allies urged him to do the same — particularly after he was named to Hillary Clinton’s shortlist for vice president in 2016 — but he kept delaying the conversation.

“I sacrificed the national political connections, to a certain extent, to make sure that stuff got done right,” he said in an interview as we drove to an event in Decatur. “I think I made the right decision. “I’m behind a little bit. But I don’t think it’s that big.”

Hickenlooper’s national political ambitions began to get serious in late 2017 and accelerated early this year. He visited Iowa on official state business and helped the New Hampshire Democratic Party open a campaign office in July while on vacation at his family’s nearby lake house.

All summer, he considered the prospects, including during a dinner with Bill and Hillary Clinton on Aug. 12 at their home in Chappaqua, New York. He said they encouraged him to run. “I think they are encouraging everybody. I don’t think I was special,” he acknowledged. “But they definitely encouraged me that we needed a variety of candidates in the mix.”

Hickenlooper expects to announce whether he will enter the race a few months after he leaves office in early 2019. Even as he recognizes his obstacles, he sees a clear avenue for his candidacy as the alternative to contenders who will race to the party’s left.

The campaign, he said, will “come down to who … has the ideas at the right moment and who can express them and capture the imagination of voters.”

There’s one path, he said, for a candidate “who will disrupt the system” and attract attention from younger voters, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016. The second type of candidate, he added, “appeals to people who think that what their country really needs is someone who can do stuff, get stuff done.”

Hickenlooper fits the second model. He celebrates his work with Republican mayors in Colorado to approve RTD’s FasTracks, the nation’s largest transit expansion. He talks about apprenticeships to learn job skills rather than free college tuition. He avoids gratuitous attacks on Trump and praises the economic development incentives in the tax bill. And he touts his work with the environmental community and oil and gas industry to pass tougher methane emissions regulations.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper conducts an interview at a Democratic campaign office in Decatur, Georgia, where he visited to rally support for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The problem is that he’s not the only candidate who is trying to take this approach. His friend Steve Bullock, the Democratic governor of Montana, is another possible contender.

“Paths can be seen for a number of candidates, but the visibility of those paths ahead remains foggy,” said Josh Putnam, a presidential election watcher and lecturer at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “Hickenlooper’s best shot is if he can separate within his own tier and hope that one or more those in the top tier take a pass on 2020.”

So far, Putnam added, “that separation is not there.”

Hickenlooper’s approach makes it easy to label him a “moderate” or “centrist.” But Hickenlooper bristles when donors and national media outlets suggest it applies more broadly to his politics.

“I don’t accept that terminology,” he told me in the interview.

He pivoted to tell a story about a letter to the local newspaper that he wrote in 1978, when he was in graduate school in Connecticut, in which he called health care a right, not a privilege.

The anecdote is meant to burnish his liberal credibility, and he now mentions it a good bit to counter suggestions he’s a moderate. But what it really says: He’s struggling to convince Democrats he’s one of them.

The letter to the editor is not his best line in a Democratic primary race. He expanded Medicaid as part of the federal health care law. He supported new laws to ban large ammunition magazines and require universal background checks for firearm purchases. And he signed a measure to allow civil unions.

But he emphasizes these points less often, and the reticence to shout loudly about his liberal record frustrates even his closest allies.

More often, Hickenlooper cultivates a middle-of-the-road image. The week after his campaign trip, he attended events coast-to-coast and served as a keynote speaker at a summit in New York that promoted “centrist, bipartisan” reform movements.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV earlier the same day, he argued against a single-payer health care system, saying it’s “not worth going to war for.”

The stance is out of step with many in his party and caught the attention of a conservative opposition research firm, which assigned an operative with a video camera to attend Hickenlooper’s recent public events in Colorado.

“Will he survive the progressive left base that is clamoring for a leader?” wrote Lindsey Singer at Colorado Rising Action, the conservative firm. “Probably not with a record like this.”

His interest in a possible presidential run even drew criticism from within his own party given Hickenlooper’s support for the oil and gas industry in Colorado and his close relationship with business interests. It harkened back to 2016, when protesters interrupted a Democratic National Convention event he attended because he supports hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to harvest natural gas from shale rock.

Doug Friednash, Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff, believes the criticism is unwarranted, and the governor needs to challenge the perceptions about his record.

“They don’t realize how progressive he is, and I think (his support for the oil and gas industry) gets taken out of context sometimes,” he said. “That doesn’t reflect an accurate picture of who John Hickenlooper is. He’s going to have to tell his story, and how he tells his story is going to be important.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper give a pep talk to a crowd of Democratic volunteers at a campaign office in Decatur, Georgia, on Sept. 22, 2018. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Inside the Democratic campaign office in Decatur, Hickenlooper begins to find his his voice.

He arrives early, and volunteers hurry to scrawl a “Welcome Gov. Hickenlooper” sign and post it on the front door. The room fills with 50 volunteers, and it feels like an early campaign stop in Iowa or New Hampshire, where the people in the room don’t know the candidate but they seem eager to hear what he has to say.

To start, Hickenlooper describes a phone call with Abrams, the candidate for governor, and touts her emphasis on boosting the economy by focusing on small businesses. Then, noting the Moms Demand Action activists in the audience, he pivots to the topic of guns and how he took on “entrenched special interests.”

“There is this whole lobby that no matter what you say around trying to put gun safety in the discussion, they are going to come out against it,” he says, recounting Colorado’s push for universal background checks on gun sales after the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012.

In his remarks, Hickenlooper calls universal background checks, like the ones he signed, “the only sane way any country should operate in the modern world.” He gets big applause.

This is the kind of stump speech Democrats want to hear, and it plays well with most the crowd.

“That really resonated with me,” says Vickie Prior, a 70-year-old interior designer and volunteer in the audience.

Daniel Pasker, a 43-year-old high school teacher, says his values align with the left side of the party, but he’s looking for a 2020 candidate “who’s able to bring the party together.” He points to former President Barack Obama as the ideal.

“I definitely lean toward the progressive side, but I’m also a realist,” he says, calling Hickenlooper “a cool customer.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, talks to Bola Tilghman, left, and Vivian Carter, center, as they canvass for votes in Ellenwood, Georgia, on behalf of candidate Stacey Abrams on Sept. 22, 2018. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The energy from his speech about gun regulations and the need to elect a Democratic governor in Georgia is contagious, and Hickenlooper breaks script to jump in the car with the local volunteers despite protests from his aides and his security protocol.

On the ride to canvass for votes, he is engaging and spirited, the same person Colorado voters came to know him as. In the months ahead, Hickenlooper will need to generate the same energy to emerge as a serious contender in the 2020 presidential race.

“I’ve washed more pint glasses, but I’ve knocked on a lot of doors,” he says.

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