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Politics and Government

Hickenlooper and Bennet seem like twins, but they are expected to go different directions in Washington

How John Hickenlooper adapts to his new role after a career as an executive remains an open question. But he’ll have Michael Bennet to look to for guidance.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Both are Colorado Democrats. (Photos by Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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In the U.S. Senate, Colorado is now represented by two politicians whose biographies are so similar they look identical at first glance.

U.S. Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper and Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet both graduated from Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school in Connecticut. Both are East Coast transplants who made millions in business in Colorado before turning to politics. 

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Both men are moderate, pragmatic Democrats from Denver who have lived charmed political lives. They even worked together: Bennet helped get Hickenlooper elected Denver mayor in 2003, and then went to work as his chief of staff. 

Both were finalists for top jobs in Democratic administrations in Washington, and both waged long-shot bids for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. 

“I think that relationship will be interesting,” said Alan Salazar, a longtime Democratic strategist who knows both men well. “Sen. Bennet will be the senior member of the delegation, and I think John will have some fun with that.”

“I think it will be a unique bond, one that we have never seen,” he added.

Another similarity: Both Hickenlooper and Bennet declined requests for interviews.

Bennet and Hickenlooper differ on style and substance

But spend any time with Hickenlooper, 68, and Bennet, 55, or talk to their closest associates and the differences between them — in personality, style and substance — become clear. 

Bennet’s intellectual curiosity and patience help him thrive on the minutiae and strategy of policymaking in Washington, even if the petty gamesmanship frustrates him at times. His top issue is education, given his prior tenure at Denver’s school superintendent. He enjoys the debate, even with those who disagree with him, and shys away from the pomp of the job. And he’s willing to break from his party.

Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to a crowd at the University of Denver as part of a discussion hosted by The Colorado Sun. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

As his recent book makes evident, he’s a philosopher, a big thinker about American democracy. On Election Day, he said Colorado’s vote for Democrat Joe Biden “turned the page on Trumpism and ignited a new progessive era for America.”

Hickenlooper is more outgoing in terms of his personality, as his memoir makes evident, and his advisers talk about him like a brand. His days opening the state’s first brewpub helped give him the ability to talk and listen to anyone. Likewise, he wants to make every customer — or voter — happy, even though it can get him in trouble sometimes. 

A two-term governor, Hickenlooper enjoys attention that comes with the job. His top issue is the economy. In politics, he’s comfortable as an executive, relying on smart advisers to work out the details and guide his politics and policy. And he’s committed to political compromise.

“I will work with anyone and everyone to help Coloradans,” he said in his election night victory speech after beating Republican incumbent Cory Gardner 53% to 44%.

Hickenlooper will need to adapt to a new role as a lawmaker

How Hickenlooper adapts to the mundane lawmaking typical in the U.S. Senate and Washington is an open question. 

In the six years prior to announcing his bid for the office, he said more than a dozen times that he wasn’t interested in the job or wouldn’t like the legislative work. Instead, he said he’s a decision-maker and a leader. “I’m not cut out to be a senator,” he said at one point

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters on Aug. 22, 2019, the day he announced he was running for U.S. Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Hickenlooper spent months eating his words during the contested Democratic primary as he tried to convince voters he actually wanted the job. 

He reiterated the message moments after winning the seat on Election Day. “I’m deeply committed to the job ahead,” he said.

On the campaign trail, Hickenlooper made economic relief from the coronavirus pandemic, addressing climate change and bringing civility to Washington his main themes. 

The transition from being an executive as governor to the legislative branch is a significant one. But his close allies said he’s a quick study.

“He didn’t know how to be a brew pub owner, either. He didn’t know how to be mayor or governor. But once he was in the role he has done a damn good job learning every single one of those,” said Roxane White, his former chief of staff. “I think he will bring that same desire to learn to the Senate.”

Ken Salazar, who served Colorado in the U.S. Senate until being tapped for President Barack Obama’s cabinet, said he thinks Hickenlooper’s business experience and executive leadership is a plus.

“That is a quality that we need in more of our elected officials and these very powerful positions,” Salazar said. “He didn’t have to go into politics. He didn’t have to run for mayor. He didn’t have to run for governor. You don’t do these things for the money. You do them because you believe in serving the community.”

Both Bennet and Hickenlooper were considered for the U.S. Senate seat Salazar vacated when he was named Interior secretary. Then-Gov. Bill Ritter picked Bennet for the job in 2009.

In a recent interview, Ritter said the transition from governor to lawmaker is challenging, but he’s confident Hickenlooper will be successful. “I know former governors who have done this,” Ritter said. “I think it’s tough. John will take counsel from a lot of people about the right way to do that.”

Bennet agreed. In a CBS4 Denver interview on Election Day, he said the two of them serving together “will be great.”

“John’s been a very successful mayor. He’s been a successful governor of Colorado, and a successful business person. I think he’ll bring all of that experience to D.C., and help us unsnarl the mess that’s there. I think that will be very welcome,” Bennet said.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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