October 28, 2010 News » Cover Story

Hick unfiltered 

The Dem who will be governor reveals a full-bodied character

The opinionated, obstinate, octogenarian publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain is not above using his power or his money to get his way.

He's used his newspaper to fry the city of Colorado Springs and to boost political candidates. His large donations have resulted in a public library and a sports complex being named for him.

Safe to say, Bob Rawlings isn't used to taking crap from anyone.

And so, on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 12, Rawlings is on the floor of Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, with hundreds of political diehards within earshot, bawling out a flustered-looking staffer. The gubernatorial debate, he's saying — his debate, the debate the Chieftain sponsored — starts at 6 p.m.! Dan Maes should have planned ahead to get here on time. Rawlings sure as hell isn't waiting for him.

Maes, the audience has been told several times by this point, is stuck in traffic somewhere in the Springs. Originally, the gubernatorial debate was going to start without him, but a minute ago a staffer — the same staffer now taking a verbal whipping — took to the stage and announced the debate would be delayed until 6:20 p.m., to give Maes a chance to make it.

A few dozen people in red shirts emblazoned with the Republican nominee's name let out a loud cheer at the news.

Rawlings, however, isn't so chipper. He demands from the staffer: How did this happen?

It was a compromise, she says.

A compromise with whom?

She looks meek. Then answers: John Hickenlooper wanted to wait for Maes.

Rawlings' face softens momentarily. He looks thoughtful.

"Hickenlooper is a nice guy," he says, almost to himself.

And then, quicker than you can snap your fingers, the fury returns. It's still my debate, Rawlings says, hopping back into his tirade where he left off.

In the end, the debate waits until 6:20. Maes shows at 6:30, parting the thick curtains of the stage just in time to give his opening remarks.

If he had prepared any. Which he hadn't.

The other candidate

As far as political types are concerned, this year's gubernatorial race has been the Greatest Show on Earth: a conservative circus of scandal, ineptitude, extremism and mudslinging.

The main attractions most definitely have been Republican Dan Maes and Republican-in-third-party-clothing Tom Tancredo. Until recently, Democrat John Hickenlooper, 58, seemed like a side note.

Running unopposed, on an enviable record of success as Denver's mayor, under a campaign that eschews negative attacks, Hickenlooper probably does seem a bit dull compared to his, ah, animated contenders.

After all, he's just the guy expected to win.

Things are different, however, when you see the trio in person. On a stage with Tancredo and Maes, Hickenlooper does stand out.

He is not the master of the jab that Tancredo is, nor is he the pounder of the party line that Maes is. In fact, Hickenlooper tends toward unexpected and rather disarming gestures: agreeing with his opponents at times, congratulating them on a good idea, disparaging himself. When he talks about issues, he often seems to forget that he's at a debate, where a smart one-liner wins the applause. He talks about the minutiae of running a government like it matters on a personal level.

This plays out when the Chieftain's debate mediator asks how everyone would save the state budget.

"Cut taxes, cut taxes," the two conservatives chant eagerly.

"Go after PERA," Tancredo adds. "... go after Medicaid."

"Downsize," Maes says.

Hickenlooper is measured. It's hard to cut things, he says. Hard to cut education dollars that help our kids. Hard to cut transportation dollars that fix our roads. You get a team to help you make the cuts, he says. You try and make them hurt less.

For instance, once he talked to his custodial team and found out they could get their jobs done much faster if they could just empty trash cans while people were still working. If they left early, the building would shut down early, saving electricity and heat.

That little change saved the city of Denver $220,000 a year. Hickenlooper lights up just talking about it.

You can almost feel the gravity as his opponents' eyes roll.

One old Subaru

Four days more, and Chief Two Moons' stone head would have been staring down the wrecking ball.

Colorado Springs' historic Cheyenne Building, whose front door is still guarded by the visage of this ancient warrior, was a dump when Hickenlooper, a skinny guy in his late 30s, pulled up in a Subaru pushing 300,000 miles and fell in love.

Unlike most hotels of its day, which might have had two bathrooms to a floor, the old Cheyenne Hotel had tiny loos in each room, complete with aging subway tile. All of which, of course, would need to be ripped out. A roof leak had penetrated every floor down to the basement.

"I love the fact that people said you couldn't save that building," Hickenlooper says now. "I enjoy it if I believe I can do something and everyone says, 'You can't.'"

The '90s were just beginning, and Hickenlooper was struggling to carve out his place. After getting laid off from his first big job at Buckhorn Petroleum, he was unable to find work even with a master's degree in geology and a bachelor's in English (both from Wesleyan University in Connecticut). It was bad.

"You distrust your own measure of who you thought you were," he recalls now.

Hard times, however, were nothing new for Hickenlooper, a Pennsylvania boy whose father died when he was young, leaving his mom to raise four kids. Hickenlooper's mom sewed her own dresses, and (as he would later memorialize her at many a campaign speech) even reused aluminum foil and plastic wrap.

At the time of the layoff, Hickenlooper's cousins had been pushing him to turn a longtime hobby into a career. They had seen brew pubs popping up and thought Hickenlooper should take a shot at running his own. After all, he knew beer.

"[I] took a year off after my freshman year [of college] and worked on the northern coast of Maine for an alternative school in Washington County, Maine, the third-poorest county in the United States," Hickenlooper explains. "Everybody up there homebrewed. They just didn't have enough money to pay for factory beer. And so I learned how to homebrew."

In 1988, Hickenlooper opened the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in a historic building of what was then the tough (and cheap) Denver neighborhood known as Lower Downtown. Next, he opened CooperSmith's Pub & Brewing in downtown Fort Collins.

Then, he cast his eye toward the corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues for a third brewery.

He put together $300,000 from investors and bid the project to a contractor, but things looked like hell. He still needed $150,000 to match the expenses with the revenues, and no one wanted to dump money into a building that inspired flashbacks of Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in The Money Pit.

But Hickenlooper wasn't backing down. Shortly after getting his master's, he had been involved in a different real estate deal. He believed in it, but couldn't make it work, and eventually dropped it. Someone else came in, picked up where he left off, and walked away with a $500,000 profit.

"It just taught me the lesson that if you really have a good idea, and you believe in it, just keep working," Hickenlooper says.

His persistence paid off with the future Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. Chuck Murphy, owner of the Springs' Murphy Constructors, came to him with an idea: Why not ask the people who are remodeling the Cheyenne Building to invest in it?

Hickenlooper gave a speech normally reserved for multimillionaires to a group of plumbers, electricians and sprinkler guys. Murphy tossed in the first $50,000.

It was a go.

"The best part was, it was a great lesson on the power of collaboration," Hickenlooper says. "Usually when you're building a restaurant, the owner is always negotiating. Always battling with the [subcontractors] and the general contractor ... Whereas, in this case, the electrician came up to me and said, 'I'm worried. You've got a great architect, but I'm worried it's going to be too dark. And you've got Casablanca fans — you know, the air circulators — and that's a Cadillac, but you're paying a lot for the brand name.

"Now, I've got these other fans that are just as good. I promise you they'll last just as long, but the fixture comes with four lights on it, antique lights. So I will swap those out for the same money. You'll get the same number of fixtures but now you'll have more ambient light in the restaurant. I think it will look a lot better.'

"And I said, 'What's the change going to cost?' And he looked at me and said, 'No, no. I'm your investor. I want this to succeed. I think this is a much better decision.'"

Hickenlooper set up more than a dozen breweries in historic downtowns across the country. And he replicated the Murphy model over and over.

"It got people away from their narrow self-interest and got them thinking about a larger self-interest," he says. "And that's a lot of what we do with public policy."

Mr. Mayor

In 2003, Hickenlooper, a political newbie, won the Denver mayoral election by a landslide, beating out city auditor Don Mares, among others. It was more than a come-from-behind win. It was a come-out-of-nowhere win, a knockout punch from the class shrimp.

Named one of America's 5 Best Big City Mayors by Time magazine in 2005, he's had a strong run.

Hickenlooper partnered Denver city government with Denver Public Schools and also got a new scholarship fund off the ground. Those two changes helped DPS produce the greatest Colorado State Assessment Program score gains of any large public school system in the state.

Hickenlooper also established Denver's Road Home, a wide-reaching collaborative program that cut chronic homelessness in the capital city by 60 percent in four years. He helped pass tax increases that spurred the rejuvenation of Denver, including "FasTracks," which brought the city 119 miles of light rail. His Greenprint Denver program has planted around 200,000 urban trees, while cutting city waste and increasing energy efficiency.

Meanwhile, Hickenlooper has cut in half the time it takes to get a building permit in Denver (required for any business that wants to expand, and perhaps hire more workers).

Joe Garcia, president of Colorado State University-Pueblo, says he believes Hickenlooper is the real deal, someone who genuinely wants to solve problems. That's why Garcia agreed to be his running mate.

"I think he is perceived as a little quirky, with a great sense of humor," Garcia says. "Those things are true. But I've also been struck by how much he pushes to get to the core of an issue."

Hickenlooper says if he gets the chance to lead the state, he'll give counties input into the state's economic development plan, which will focus on regional goals. And he'll expand resources for businesses, including greater access to small business loans. He's even floated the idea of getting the Public Employees' Retirement Association to invest a portion of its funds in Colorado small business loans.

Hickenlooper's pro-business agenda and "nonpartisan" stance have won him friends in typically conservative places. He recently received endorsements from the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Gazette. He's been known to say unapologetically that he wants to get "government out of the way of business" and to "cut red tape" for the business community.

All of which could score him votes in El Paso County. Former county Democratic Party Chair John Morris says the way he sees it, there are four types of Republicans around here: Libertarians, social conservatives, old-school business Republicans and Republicans in name only (RINOs).

"Fiscal conservatives and certainly the RINOs, those people hate the right wing of the Republican party," he says. "Who are they gonna vote for? I think someone like John Hickenlooper is a businessman, middle-of-the-road. In fact, I would say John Hickenlooper in the old days would have been a sort of moderate Republican ... I think he can draw a lot of those disaffected Republicans who live in this county, so I think he'll do pretty well down here."

Indeed, in an Independent/Luce Research poll of more than 200 likely voters earlier this month, Hickenlooper was favored by 30.2 percent of respondents, as compared to 23.3 and 22.8 percent for Tancredo and Maes, respectively.

But there's a side effect to that, too. People like Morris wish Hickenlooper were a bit more progressive. And, like many others, Morris is concerned that Hickenlooper might prove to be a Denver-centric governor.

On the other hand: "One of the things that upset me and certainly many others about [Gov. Bill] Ritter, was that he solicited the support of certain groups of people and he really betrayed them," Morris says. "[He] vetoed bills that they had pushed, and that he said he'd support, and then he didn't. I don't think we'll find that to be true with Hickenlooper. I think he is who he is. And we know who he is. And he's got a record in Denver that shows where he stands."

That record, by the way, isn't without its black marks. Hickenlooper was criticized for his handling of protesters at the Democratic National Convention. And many say he was much too lax this summer during a public outcry over a high-profile video recording of Denver police brutality. The officers involved were given light punishments despite an independent police monitor's recommendation that they be fired.

Eventually, Hickenlooper contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation for help with the issue, but he refrained from canning Denver Safety Manager Ron Perea for bad decision-making. Perea eventually resigned, apparently voluntarily.

In another questionable instance, Hickenlooper hired Roxane White as his chief of staff. White, the former manager of the Denver Department of Human Services, resigned after four children died while in the system. The state determined the deaths were preventable. Apparently, that didn't shake Hickenlooper's faith in White. He told the press that she was a "rare leader who has both the vision and the skills to get things done."

Hickenlooper's business choices weren't all perfect. Some of his brewpubs failed, and Hickenlooper remembers one instance where he personally co-signed a loan ("like a fool") to a couple guys starting a pub in Cheyenne, Wyo. He ended up losing $100,000 on that deal.

In the '90s, the Denver Post reported, Hickenlooper's own board considered ousting him as questions swirled about whether the growing brew pub business needed a different skill set. (The board decided against it, and Hickenlooper has since sold off his interests in the company.)

On the personality front, Hickenlooper was described as "short-tempered, thin-skinned and indecisive" in an Oct. 11 Denver Post profile that consulted people who work closely with him in his mayoral capacity.

Murphy, however, is more generous, saying Hickenlooper is a good listener who can be very patient with people. To a point.

"He's impatient with incompetence and he doesn't appreciate phonies," Murphy says. "What you see is what you get with John, and he prefers other people be the same."

Mr. Manager

When Hickenlooper thinks of greatness in politics, his mind reaches to the faraway past: Abraham Lincoln.

"Look back at what he did and how skillful he was at bringing people together, looking at people who would likely be his competitors or his enemies, and really listening to what their concerns were, and finding common ground, and making them into his allies," Hickenlooper says. "You know that great quote ... 'I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends'? [Lincoln was] graceful with molding public sentiment. He would make sure people were ready for a new idea or a change before he'd propose it so he didn't get caught up in all these partisan, vicious bickering efforts."

So does Hickenlooper think he's good at changing minds, à la the arguably greatest president?

"Oh, I don't know," he says, a little embarrassed. "I think I'm good at seeing many different points of view so that I can articulate different points of view, and sometimes that's what people need to see, is larger self-interest rather than their normal narrow interest."

Hickenlooper's management style reveals a commitment to fairness, a "we're all in this together" attitude. From the day Wynkoop first swung its doors open, Hickenlooper made sure all his brewery employees were offered a 401(k) and health insurance (an offer extended at his other breweries as well). When Denver was staring down mass layoffs, Hickenlooper instead opted for furlough days (often bordering holidays), a policy that spread the pain and saved many people's jobs.

Hickenlooper has also proven himself to be willing to share authority, giving important roles to carefully chosen staff.

"I've got to be a delegator," he says. "At the same time I was building 13 or 14 restaurants around the country, I was also doing four loft projects. We did Mercantile Square with Joyce Meskis. We built 90 housing units, of which 75 were affordable. I was doing so many things I had to delegate.

"Same thing as — look, right now, I'm running a statewide campaign for governor. I've been in every county. I've been all around the state three times — four by Election Day — and yet I'm also mayor of the city of Denver. I mean, I'd love to be able to just run one restaurant again; it's kind of appealing because I do love detail, and I love putting my fingers into the nuts and bolts of an operation. But you really limit what you can accomplish."

As mayor, Hickenlooper says he entrusted his four chiefs of staff — including now-U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and the aforementioned White — with many critical functions. He plans to take a similar approach as governor, and envisions his running mate, Garcia, taking charge in many areas, but especially in education.

A Hickenlooper administration is also likely to include Republicans in some key positions. Hickenlooper's not much of a partisan, and even in these divisive times, he still strains to reach across the aisle. It's just the way he's always done things.

"You learn in the restaurant business, in the first three months, [that] there's no margin in having enemies," he says.

"No matter how unreasonable that customer is, you got to let them know that their relationship to you matters. Because otherwise, they're going to distort the facts and ruin your reputation all over town. "


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