NASHVILLE — Colorado’s John Hickenlooper is not your standard politician. He’s a former geologist turned brewpub owner turned mayor turned governor. You might have seen him this past week playing a late-evening game of pool with President Obama. “He cleaned my clock,” Hickenlooper says.
He prefers open collars to neckties and casual outfits to fitted suits. When he ran for mayor of Denver, he did an ad that showed him getting measured for clothes more appropriate to the leader of a city than someone selling beer. One clip in the ad had him wearing a dime-store cowboy costume. He likes funny ads. Those kinds of things have earned him the label “quirky.”
This weekend, he will take the reins as chair of the National Governors Association. Before his one-year term at the NGA ends, he has to get through a reelection campaign. He faces a challenge in November from Republican nominee Bob Beauprez, a former congressman who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006. Comparing this reelection campaign with his election contest four years ago, he says, “This will be much more difficult.”
That might simply be the expression of a politician lowering expectations. There are higher-priority Democratic targets for Republicans this November than Colorado. But in a state as purple as Colorado, and after the better part of a decade in which Democrats have flourished, Hickenlooper no doubt recognizes the potential for a swing away from his party.
He’s gotten in trouble over gun control and the death penalty.
He signed new gun control measures in the wake of mass shootings in his state and in Connecticut. The restrictions sparked a major backlash that resulted in successful recall elections against two Democratic state senators and the resignation of a third who faced a possible recall.
Last month, Hickenlooper tried to make amends, offering an apology to some Colorado sheriffs and saying at one point he did not think the measure would be controversial. It was an awkward performance, punctuated by a vulgarity uttered when one of the sheriffs continued to press him on the issue. The governor said the expletive was said in jest.
His decision to grant an indefinite reprieve last year for a murderer on death row caused another uproar, opening the governor up to questions about just where he stood on the death penalty, since he neither granted a full reprieve nor allowed the scheduled execution to go ahead.
Hickenlooper has what former Colorado governor Roy Romer calls an “aw shucks” demeanor. Romer was anything but that when he was in the governor’s office. Romer prefers a more different style of leadership, but he calls Hickenlooper a good and decent man who gets to the rights decisions in the end, one who prefers to try to find common ground in a polarized era.
Hickenlooper’s political allies say his strength is also his weakness. He is a consensus-builder with soft edges. He likes people to like him and tries hard — perhaps too hard — to make people think he agrees with them. Perhaps “aw shucks” is the right style given the passions and divisions in the country, Romer said.
He does have a competitive streak, which is why, when I saw him Thursday, he was still smarting from the two games of pool he lost to Obama two nights earlier. The president fell behind in the first game, and Hickenlooper said he wondered to himself whether he should let Obama win. He decided no, only to see Obama sink a series of balls to claim victory.
The defeated Hickenlooper asked for a second game, double or nothing. Obama rallied again to win and posed gleefully for patrons in the bar as Hickenlooper handed him $20. The president returned the money when they departed. “Find a good charity,” Hickenlooper said the president told him.
Now the governor wants a rematch. “I said to one of the senior staff people, as of tomorrow, I’m going to practice twice a week,” he said. “There’s going to be another match. Somewhere. Sometime. It might take a couple years but there’s going to be another match.”
As he runs for reelection, Hickenlooper’s first priority is to win a second term. He will emphasize Colorado’s economic gains over the past four years. “We’re all about jobs,” he said in an interview here as the governors were gathering for their summer meeting. His success may depend, however, on how much he can remind Colorado voters why they liked him in the first place.
Hickenlooper has another mission about which he sounds equally passionate. He wants to rid the country of negative ads. The country, he believes, is in a deep trough politically. “I think that the system has created an intensity of conflict,” he said. “I don’t think it’s sustainable over a long period. People will become so jaded and disillusioned they won’t support anything and we will begin to slip behind.”
He believes that the voter anger that he and virtually every politician can see in their states is a result of the conduct of political campaigns. “The attack ad,” he said, ‘has become the kind of utility kit for almost every statewide campaign in the country now.”
Four years ago, in his first gubernatorial campaign, Hickenlooper ran an ad in which he took repeated showers, fully clothed. It was his way of expressing his dislike for the pervasive use of negative ads. “Every time I see one, I feel like I need to take a shower,” he said in the ad.
The businessman in him knows that negative ads are effective, but companies avoid them. If McDonald’s and Burger King went at each other in a TV ad war, he said, both would suffer and probably see their sales drop.
“What we’re doing now is depressing the product category of democracy,” he said. “People turn off the news, stop reading in-depth magazine articles — especially young people. Look at the increasing reluctance of young people to vote. I think a lot of that is directly, you can lay it at the feet of these negative campaigns and relentless attack ads.”
Hickenlooper wants the media to join him in calling out those who air negative ads. “If I can convince people that good people don’t do attack ads, and that we want good people to represent us, then the attack ads work against themselves.”
Although he vows that his campaign will not air any negative ads, he knows there will be negative ads aired in Colorado between now and November, lots of them, and some perhaps aimed at helping him get reelected. He says he is powerless to prevent his allies from running them. “Trust me, I’ve talked to the lawyers on this,” he said. “I can say that every ad that I control, that I’m going to make sure my ads are positive.”
Political strategists might call Hickenlooper naïve or wrong-headed. Many Americans likely applaud him, while continuing to consume and be influenced by the very types of messages they condemn.
Hickenlooper’s consensus-building style is well suited to the chairmanship of the governors association, which has long prided itself on tamping down the worst of partisanship. Whether he can have even a modest influence on the way campaigns are waged is a challenge of a different order.