John Hickenlooper launched his bid for the presidency on Thursday by casting himself as the Democratic candidate who can rebuild America after four years of President Donald Trump.
Pointing to his experience governing through tragedy in Colorado — from floods to fires to a mass shooting — Hickenlooper and his supporters talked of a new season of hope.
“It’s time to end this American crisis of division,” he said. “It’s time to bring all Americans together.”
The former two-term Colorado governor is a long-shot for his party’s nomination, a moderate in a crowded field of firebrand Democrats with higher profiles, bigger ideas and more money. But he used the 20-minute speech at Denver’s Civic Center park to outline a broad liberal vision, even while nodding to his underdog status.
He pledged to rejoin the Paris accord and exceed the climate change goals, reverse tax cuts for the wealthy, lead the largest expansion of skills training in the nation’s history and recommit to criminal justice reform that addresses “our long history of slavery, segregation and racial bias.”
“I am a dreamer and a doer, and we need both to make real progress,” the 67-year-old said, shouting at times and drawing big applause from the thousands in the crowd, despite protest chants from anti-fracking protesters.
In his introduction, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb recalled how no one thought Hickenlooper would win his first race for mayor in 2003.
“Everyone said there was no way that the brewpub owner with the funny last name was going to win,” Webb said. “And guess what? He did. … Do not underestimate John Hickenlooper. Others have, but we know him to be one we don’t underestimate.”
Here are the 10 biggest lines from Hickenlooper’s speech and what it means for his campaign:
1. “Out here in Colorado, we call that kidnapping.”
This is how Hickenlooper categorized President Donald Trump’s immigration policy to separate kids from their parents at the border. And it came early in the speech where he blasted Trump for “alienating our allies, ripping away our health care, endangering our planet and destroying our democracy.”
The daily insults on Twitter, Hickenlooper said, are one thing. But the impact on people, such as the immigration policy that separated families — which Trump later rescinded — is the bigger issue.
As governor, Hickenlooper issued an executive order — mostly for political effect — in response to Trump’s policy that barred the use of any state resources to help execute the administration’s plan.
But how he would address border security as president remains unclear. The day before his rally, he stumbled through a response saying he “didn’t know” if a wall is needed somewhere on the border.
“Past history doesn’t suggest in this situation that it isn’t going to be the solution,” he told reporters. “It might be, but I am unconvinced.”
2. “It’s time to end this American crisis of division. It’s time to bring all Americans together.”
This is Hickenlooper’s bread-and-butter pitch. His ability to bring people together and get things done is what separates him from rivals, the campaign believes.
“Whatever people want to say about how he did it or why he did it, or whatever struggles there were along the way, he did it,” state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said of Hickenlooper’s legacy. “It’s an achievement. It’s part of his record. The proof is in the pudding.”
In an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, Hickenlooper said his approach to Republican U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell would start with sitting down for a conversation. The remark drew criticism as naive, but Hickenlooper later argued that such thinking is what’s wrong with Washington.
3. “But let me tell you: at four syllables and 12 letters, ‘Hickenlooper’ is now the biggest name in the race.”
Hickenlooper finished the line with a laugh. His funky name may get him recognition points because of how odd it is, but the most immediate challenge for his campaign is getting voters to remember him.
The early national and state-level polls show few people know him, especially compared to his big-profile rivals. He needs to overcome the gap to make it into the first Democratic debates this summer that will separate the field.
To get there, political consultants say he will need big money to hire organizers, run advertising and campaign in the early states. He’s off to a good start, raising $1 million in the first 48 hours after his launch, but he will need much more.
4. “That’s how we rebuilt, better than we were before.”
A major theme in Hickenlooper’s speech was rebuilding, both after tragedy and Trump’s presidency. The former governor mentioned the 32 funerals he went to during his first term.
Two of the supporters who took the stage before him were Coloradans he helped through horrific times.
“Hick was there for us to make sure we recovered,” former Jamestown Mayor Tara Schoedinger said, remembering the governor’s response to the state’s devastating floods in 2013. “I’m confident he will do the same for our country.”
Tom Sullivan, now a Democratic state lawmaker, spoke about Hickenlooper’s presence after the 2012 Aurora theater shooting in which Sullivan’s son, Alex, was among those murdered.
“John Hickenlooper was there for my family during the toughest time in our lives,” Sullivan said. “… I’m supporting him because he’s been a friend to me and to the community. And because he works hard to make a difference.”
5. “I was unemployed for two years. And when you’re unemployed for that long, you see a different person in the mirror.”
Hickenlooper is a millionaire now, but he can tell a story of a time when he didn’t have money to connect with the average worker.
In the 1980s, amid a downturn in the energy industry, Hickenlooper was laid off from his job as a geologist for an oil and gas company. But he pivoted and helped open the Wynkoop brewpub in 1988 — the first in Colorado — in a then-dilapidated area in Denver. He and his partners then expanded the business into a chain of restaurants across the Midwest.
Colorado Farmer Keith Bath, who served under Hickenlooper on the state’s land commissioners board, spoke at the rally about the former governor’s dedication to blue-collar workers and rural areas of the state.
“He will always stand up for us,” Bath said. “… He shows up for rural Colorado.”
6. “Along the way, I learned something that Donald Trump never figured out: It isn’t how many times you yell ‘you’re fired,’ but instead, how many times you say ‘you’re hired.’ ”
Beyond the jab at Trump, Hickenlooper is highlighting his background in the private sector creating jobs as a business owner as a complement to his public-sector career.
It’s another way Hickenlooper is trying to set himself apart from the long list of Democratic candidates already in the presidential race and positioning himself as a Washington outsider.
He said he hired more than 1,000 people in the first 10 years as he opened brewpubs.
7. “We will close the loopholes, end tax cuts for the wealthy, and we will ensure every profitable corporation is carrying their weight.”
This line is one of the more substantive policy proposals in the speech — and an approach that puts him in the same soundwave as Democratic rivals, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who want higher taxes on the rich.
But it’s not clear what exactly Hickenlooper wants to see happen. A spokeswoman said the campaign will release more detailed policy proposals in coming months. But Hickenlooper has been critical of Trump’s tax law, which disproportionately benefits wealthier taxpayers.
Hickenlooper’s record in Colorado, however, more often aligns him with major corporations and business interests.
8. “We’ll undo years of efforts to disenfranchise African-American voters and Latino voters and even young voters. And end this assault on the foundations of our democracy.”
In this section of the speech, which drew loud applause, Hickenlooper promised to bring criminal justice reform and support minority communities. The majority of the people who introduced him at the rally were people of color.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who spoke at the rally, told The Colorado Sun she has always appreciated Hickenlooper’s ability to listen to people across different socio-economic and racial boundaries.
“His legacy has always been in the spirit of cooperation and inclusion,” she said. “I’ve always known him to be a folksy kind of guy who was able to mingle at all levels in our community. He can mingle with the homeless, he can mingle with CEOs and boards and elected officials.”
The issue of race is prominent in the Democratic primary with a diverse field of candidates.
Hickenlooper worked on criminal justice reform and factors that contribute to income inequality. In his final weeks as governor, for instance, he exercised more clemency authority than he had at any other point during his term. But not all in Colorado see him as a leader on the issue of race.
9. “At the end of my presidency, I want Americans to say: ‘It feels like the cloud has lifted, we feel closer to our neighbors and we’ve gotten big things done. And we feel hope.’ ”
The folksy vision fits Hickenlooper’s nature and mindset. One of his supporters who spoke at the rally even reminded the crowd how the governor created an “acts of kindness” campaign in his second term.
He invoked the notion of hope at least five times in his speech, a word that former President Barack Obama emphasized in his campaigns. Or put another way, consider this the quirky Hickenlooper version of former President Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” line.
10. “Being a pragmatist doesn’t mean saying ‘no’ to bold ideas; it means knowing how to make them happen. That’s my record.”
Hickenlooper shouted the final words to this line, which captures the essence of his campaign.
It also frames the challenge of his presidential bid: Is there room in the Democratic party for a middle-of-the-road candidate pushing compromise and not bold policies?
He promised to be the candidate focused on “finding common ground when it seems like there’s nothing out there but mountains between us.” The question is whether this path exists in the 2020 Democratic primary. Hickenlooper’s betting it does.