DENVER — Apparently — and mostly sadly — being governor of Colorado can be hazardous to your personal life.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and his wife, Helen Thorpe, announced their “amicable” separation on Tuesday.
It's the second breakup this century for a Colorado governor. Republican Gov. Bill Owens separated from his wife in 2003, moving into the governor's mansion. He and wife Frances got back together two years later, but divorced two years after he left office.
And Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter decided to serve only a single term in office, surprising Coloradans by announcing in January 2010 that he wouldn’t run for a second term because of family considerations. He apparently made the decision after reflection over a long Christmas break.
Of course, marital strife isn’t unique to Colorado governors — and it’s often far messier in other states.
Consider former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who told folks he was hiking when in reality he was visiting his Argentine mistress, whom he later described as his “soul mate.” Now there was a mess.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver split up after he left the California governor's office and it was revealed he’d had a child with their housekeeper.
The announcement from Hickenlooper and Thorpe resembles that of the Rendells, suggesting that friends continue to invite both of them to social events: “Please feel free to include both of us in social gatherings as we will not find it awkward.”
But it also distinguished this split from others: “Both the Governor and Ms. Thorpe want the public to know that neither has had an affair, that they did seek extended counseling, and that this decision is unrelated to the difficult events Colorado has faced this summer.”
The reality is that Thorpe never was wild about the limelight of being a politician’s wife. She's a journalist specializing in magazine pieces and books, a role that sometimes conflicted with her husband’s official role.
For example, while Hickenlooper served as mayor of Denver, Thorpe researched and wrote “Just Like Us,” a book about young Latino girls living in the United States without citizenship but attending college in Denver. During the course of following the students, an off-duty police officer was shot and killed at a bar by a dishwasher working illegally — at one of Hickenlooper's restaurants. Thorpe's book makes clear the awkwardness of covering the incident while being married to the mayor.
And in a 2011 interview with the Denver Post, Thorpe implied that she briefly considered forgoing the title of first lady and said she wouldn’t “bet setting the tone.”
Unfortunately, a split likely makes Thorpe’s career life considerably more comfortable.
The question is what it does for Hickenlooper’s career. He’s an unlikely politician, a business owner who defeated a crowded field for Denver mayor in 2003 via a quirky campaign. Ritter's resignation opened the 2010 gubernatorial door, and Hickenlooper stepped in, winning easily after Republicans split the vote between a tea party nominee and a third-party candidate.
Like Owens before him, Hickenlooper is seen as a rising star on the national stage.
Owens was mentioned as a potential presidential candidate by National Review in 2002, just before he was elected to a second term. Instead, he retreated to private industry serving on boards of directors, as a consultant and as a fellow in public policy studies at the University of Denver.
Some consider Hickenlooper a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, though he’s done little to encourage such talk and the field is likely to be plenty crowded.
The one certainty about Tuesday's announcement: politics can be a tricky business when it comes to balancing family and career, the public and private.
Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette