The VA, Russia and pot are on the minds of these Colorado seniors

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) talks with people at the Aurora Seniors Center. (Sebastian Payne/The Washington Post)

AURORA, Colo. — “Suspicious Minds” was pumping out of the small stereo as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) entered the Aurora Seniors Center. It was an apt song choice, given that most of the voters present described themselves as independents. They are broadly undecided about backing the incumbent governor in the November election.

Hickenlooper worked the room of senior citizens enjoying their lunch, sounding out each person on what bothers them and whether he has their vote. As a former Denver mayor, he knows all of the locales well and asks everyone which street they live on. For nearly every answer, he has an anecdote to tell. And in return, they have plenty of issues to discuss.

Bill Reddick, an 84-year-old retired pilot, gave Hickenlooper a telling off over the lack of political progress in the state. The governor points out that he’s passed 428 statues as governor, of which 424 were bipartisan, as well as four bipartisan budgets. Whether it was his statistics or charm, Reddick was convinced. “You might have changed my mind … you are a fine man,” he said.

Lois Doone, 69, is chiefly concerned with problems further away. “Russia is coming back,” she says. Like the "old days," Lois is worried about their interventions in other countries and American's handling of the situation. What does she think of President Obama’s actions to date? “No good.” Several of those lunching nodded at Doone's views.

Jerry Barton, a 83-year-old Korean War veteran, has very active concerns about the Veterans Affairs Department. A Republican leaning independent, Barton cites a recent incident when he arrived a VA hospital for an appointment. Instead of being seen, he was told it had been canceled and to return in three months. Hickenlooper reassures Barton that he is close friends with an advisor to the new VA secretary, Robert A. MacDonald, and "we'll get that squared away pretty quick." Barton seemed pleased.

All of the seniors were united on one thing — marijuana. They don’t think it’s had a positive effect on Colorado at all. But Hickenlooper defended the state’s legalization policy. “Everything I’ve seen says there hasn’t been a spike in adult use,” he says. “The folks who were smoking pot before it was illegal are still smoking it and paying taxes. The people who weren’t smoking it before aren’t smoking it not.”

Hickenlooper had lunch at the Aurora Seniors Center. (Sebastian Payne/The Washington Post)

Over a lunch of spaghetti Bolognese, bread, dried raisins and apricots, Hickenlooper said the big issues on the doorstep are housing — costs are “going up like a rocket” — traffic, neighborhood safety and the cost of living. “There hasn’t been that much inflation, but it’s creeping up. A lot of seniors are on fixed incomes, so it’s hard for them.” But he believes many of the issues are born of Colorado's economic success.

Despite apparently winning over some of the Aurora center's seniors, Hickenlooper faces a tough election. With a recent Quinnipiac poll putting Hickenlooper at 43 percent against 44 percent for his rival Bob Beauprez, his reelection is far from certain. Still, the governor expressed optimism.

“I think it’s going to be a tight race, but I look forward to a tight race,” he says. “Then you can talk about the issues.”

Sebastian Payne is a national reporter with The Washington Post. He is the Post’s 35th Laurence Stern fellow.



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