John Hickenlooper’s résumé in Colorado is the centerpiece of his presidential campaign kickoff Thursday in Denver, but it’s one that requires a series of asterisks.
The former two-term governor is highlighting his accomplishments on climate change, gun control, health care and the economy — a message that works well in Democratic primaries. It’s part of what Hickenlooper sees as his unique position in the race — a candidate who can “get things done” and not just be a liberal “dreamer,” as he noted in his debut.
But in Colorado, his record is more nuanced and how much credit he deserves is a matter of debate. The issue of the environment is one where his critics are most vocal.
“It’s truly offensive that he’s including climate change in his platform,” said Suzanne Spiegel at Colorado Rising, an advocacy organization in Colorado that is pushing for more oil and gas regulations. “He took no stand for the community, and we can’t forget that because we need a president that is going to take a real stand for people, for the climate and who is not going to use it to greenwash his campaign.”
His allies point to specific actions Hickenlooper took to advance the issue — and others — even if his ability to form teams and reach compromises doesn’t generate attention like President Donald Trump.
“You look at where Colorado was before he took office, you look at where Denver was before he took office as mayor, and John has a real talent at turning things around,” said Jeff Bridges, a Democratic state lawmaker who first met Hickenlooper before he entered politics. “He wasn’t on the front page of the paper every day. He doesn’t tweet as far as I know — certainly not in as dramatic a fashion as our current commander-in-chief. But he just gets the job done.”
Here’s a deeper look at Hickenlooper’s campaign message and his record in Colorado:
A compromise approach to the energy development
The most galvanizing part of Hickenlooper’s record among Democrats is on the environment, where he’s been praised for shepherding first-in-the-nation rules on methane emissions but also admonished for not doing more to rein in the oil and gas industry.
On methane, Hickenlooper was the dealmaker for 2014 rules that require the energy industry to find and address leaks, known as fugitive emissions, at their drilling sites. The policies became a national model.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for the movement and the progress that we made with regard to methane regulations,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat. “We were a leader in that regard. He didn’t hold it back. I really appreciate the fact that he was willing to go there (and tackle the issue).”
Others are frustrated at what they see as his friendly approach to the regulation of the oil and gas industry. His critics dubbed him “Frackenlooper,” an homage to his support of hydraulic fracturing — made famous by his admission that he once drank fracking fluid.
State Sen. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat, says his one word for the way the former governor handled oil and gas would be: stalemate. He thinks Hickenlooper’s inability to reach a deal on that issue has led to the current, heated battled at the Capitol between the industry and activists.
“There have been so many issues that impacted residents have tried to bring forward about oil and gas development and we just, at the legislature, have not been able to make any progress on those at least during the last six years of his administration,” Foote said.
A push for gun control, at a cost
Eileen McCarron, who leads the gun-control advocacy group Ceasefire Colorado, remembers meeting with Hickenlooper in the months after the July 2012 Aurora theater shooting to talk about a push for more stringent firearm laws. “He was very noncommittal,” she said. “I remember someone I was with at that meeting said, ‘Well, that was a waste of time.’ ”
But about a month later, in December 2012, Hickenlooper told reporters he was on board with tightening Colorado’s gun laws and made the issue a prominent piece of his State of the State address at the open of the 2013 legislative session. Colorado lawmakers — with Democrats in control — passed measures expanding background checks for gun purchases and limiting magazine sizes to 15 rounds.
The effort prompted the recall of two Democratic state senators and the resignation of a third following conservative backlash. And then, in June 2014, Hickenlooper met with Colorado’s county sheriffs and couched his support in remarks that led to a political fiasco.
“One of my staff had committed us to signing it,” he told the sheriffs of his support of the law limiting high-capacity magazines.
McCarron says Hickenlooper’s comments made her “sick.” And she says she thinks those comments to the sheriffs likely will cost Hickenlooper some goodwill and backing from gun-control advocates in his bid for the presidency. “It probably would have been stronger if he hadn’t done that,” she said.
But she and other advocates are still grateful for his work on the legislation, “I can safely say that when we needed him to he stepped up and he was there. And that’s what counts,” said Ken Toltz, who co-founded the gun-control group Safe Campus Colorado
An expansion of coverage, but steep costs for care
A frequent refrain in Hickenlooper speeches — going all the way back to his first days in office — was his goal to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. And, in some ways, he succeeded.
When he left office, Colorado was the least-obese state in the nation, with some counties boasting among the highest life expectancies in the country. The rate of people without health insurance dropped by half, mostly through the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
The coverage rate stood at 93.5 percent in 2017, according to a survey from the Colorado Health Institute, essentially unchanged from 2015. It’s one of the candidate’s go-to lines in campaign speeches, and he can tout an insurance exchange that survived early problems, unlike other states.
But Colorado’s rosy health rankings partly masked deep health care problems that Hickenlooper struggled to address. Studies found wide health disparities in the state based on income or race. Costs for health insurance in rural areas — and especially in the mountains — climbed to stratospheric levels, even as insurers dropped out of the individual market in some of those counties.
And Hickenlooper generally avoided more radical approaches to addressing the problems. For instance, he opposed ColoradoCare, a ballot measure that would have created a single-payer health care system.
Hickenlooper is taking a similar tack in his presidential bid. He wants to build on Obamacare rather than dismantle it, and work to help “private insurers succeed” and provide better coverage.
“Instead of battling over Medicare for All or universal coverage, I think the goal of the election is to really say, we all believe in universal coverage,” he told The Colorado Sun.
That’s a pretty good indication that, though he may yet tilt slightly leftward for a Democratic primary race, voters shouldn’t expect him to stay there.
“If he manages to emerge as the Democratic nominee for president in summer 2020,” Allie Morgan of the Colorado Health Institute wrote in a recent analysis, “Hick will probably walk back toward the middle — where he’s more comfortable, in health policy and in the rest of his politics.”
A drive for job creation, but a question of credit
Colorado’s economy ranked as the top state in the nation, by one analysis from August 2018. And other accolades for the state’s boom are not hard to find. From 2017 to 2018, Colorado posted the 7th best increase in employment numbers in the nation.
Hickenlooper took office when the state ranked 40th in job creation and he made it a priority to lure large companies to establish or expand operations in Colorado, touting Arrow Electronics, DaVita and VF Corp. as his top catches.
But does the governor really impact the economy? Colorado Public Radio put that question to an economist and received a clear answer: “No.”
“The worst possible story you can tell about him is he lucked into something and stayed out of the way,” University of Colorado Denver economist Andrew Friedson told the station.
On the national level, Hickenlooper wants to replicate an apprenticeship and workforce skills program he created in Colorado. He said instead of free college tuition, he wants to provide “free skills” to help fill empty jobs that don’t require an advanced degree.
“In the immediate future, we can get to free skills for everybody,” Hickenlooper said in a recent interview. “That’s not a wild uninformed promise — that’s based on things that we’ve already achieved in Colorado and taking that onto a larger scale.”
A cozy relationship with big business
The cumulative effect of Hickenlooper’s record affirms his image as a pro-business moderate. And his interest in mixing with moneyed interests contrasts with other candidates, prominently Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s energized supporters by bashing Wall Street.
The concerns about Hickenlooper’s ties to big business are exacerbated by an ongoing ethics complaint in Colorado. A Republican-backed organization alleges he took improperly accepted free flights and other travel accommodations corporations and political donors.
Hickenlooper has dismissed the claims, and the state’s Independent Ethics Commission narrowed the complaint, but it still includes a June 2018 trip to the secretive and elite Bilderberg meeting in Italy.
The ethics investigation is easy fodder for Republican critics who were quick to mention it when Hickenlooper stepped onto the national stage.
Hickenlooper’s campaign will need big donors — and he raised $1 million in the first 24 hours after his announcement — but the campaign has said he won’t accept contributions from corporate political action committees.
Staff writer John Ingold contributed to this report.