On campaign trail with John Hickenlooper, Pennsylvania native running for Colorado governor

Colorado governor candidate John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, with wife Helen Thorpe, speaks at a rally in Denver, where he is mayor. It's an unpredictable election in an unpredictable state.
Colorado governor candidate John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, with wife Helen Thorpe, speaks at a rally in Denver, where he is mayor. It's an unpredictable election in an unpredictable state.
Posted: October 27, 2010

DENVER, Colo. - There are many Colorados. And John Hickenlooper wants to be governor of them all. In this idiosyncratic state, this idiosyncratic son of Pennsylvania has followed up his roles as leading entrepreneur, new-look Democrat, and mayor of Denver with a run at the state's top office.

Hickenlooper, 58, has leaned into a vicious election year in storky, flaky fashion, and the best-known bad haircut (chopped-off bangs) in the state. He's also known for nutty ads - leaping out of airplanes, dressing as a dancing blue bear, and, this season, taking a shower fully clothed.

"I used eight different suits filming that thing," he said. "It was low-grade waterboarding." It was also vintage, self-deprecating "Hick."

But the sopping would-be governor drives a point: Negative ads make him "feel like I need to take a shower," and he won't resort to them - a move to frame the campaign and blunt opponents' attacks. In this unpredictable state, Hickenlooper's unpredictability might be his best weapon.

Born in Narberth, descended from old Philadelphia - try Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution - Hickenlooper graduated with the close-knit 1970 class of Haverford School. Classmate David Groverman, owner of the Centennial Cafe in Fairmount Park, said, "John is considered quirky and laid-back - and he really is. But he also knows how to use it." Ben Ginsberg, now a partner at Patton Boggs in Washington, said, "John took his high-school photograph in an old madras jacket. That tells you he was as delightful then as he is now, which is very delightful." Beer-industry consultant and longtime friend Rob Klugman said, "He's very likable, a tall, thin guy with a bad haircut and jeans, a funny manner - but behind that is this very determined, results-oriented guy."

Denver, though? How did he get out there? Kicking back on a campaign bus sliding on snowy roads in the Poudre Canyon, or tilting through Rabbit Ears Pass, Hickenlooper said that as a student at Wesleyan University, "I took this class on land-use planning. If that sounds geeky, maybe it is, but I absolutely loved it." An M.S. in geology followed, and as of the early 1980s the new rockhound was working for Buckhorn Petroleum in Colorado.

But Colorado's oil boom didn't boom, and Hickenlooper lost his job. After some flail time, he visited a brewpub in Berkeley, Calif., loved it, returned to Colorado, and, in 1988, helped found Wynkoop Brewing Company, the state's first brewpub, in an unpromising Denver neighborhood - and thus began a career in real estate, restaurants, and urban development.

Although he didn't start it, he is associated with the rise of LoDo, or Denver's Lower Downtown, from rundown to trendy. All this led to a 2003 try at the Denver mayoralty.

There was some goofy stuff - Hickenlooper, wearing a change maker on his belt, went around popping quarters into parking meters. But he came out of nowhere to win, was reelected in 2007, and drew national attention when the Democratic National Convention came to Denver in 2008.

Now to the tortured political year of 2010. With just days left till Election Day, the Hickenlooper campaign bus drives through many Colorados, and many weathers, from Fort Collins to Edwards to Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it snows - when it does, he gets out for a mock-serious snowball fight with his 8-year-old son, Teddy.

People like him. Even at the Toponas Country General Store in isolated Oak Creek, said to be GOP country. In front, a white garbage can is stenciled DEER & ELK HIDES NO GARBAGE PLEASE - and it's half full of skins. The delighted owners want a picture with him. Propped on the counter is a photo of the last time he came through.

At each stop, Hickenlooper makes a pitch that combines business and environmentalism. At the Routt County Courthouse in Steamboat Springs, he said, "Our extractive industries can prosper and still protect our beautiful legacy of land and water." That makes sense in Colorado, where, as in Pennsylvania, mining and natural gas are crucial, and where, unlike in Pennsylvania, many on both right and left are environmentalist.

At Fiesta's Cafe & Cantina in Edwards, he stresses his business background, how he wants "smaller, more efficient government that does more." John Straayer, professor of political science at Colorado State University, said, "John's business background makes the business community comfortable. Several large donors who normally give to the GOP are backing him this time. And it helps him sell his moderate liberalism."

At the Glenwood Canyon Brewpub in Glenwood Springs, Hickenlooper manages to get cheers both for the health-care law and for his 7 percent fiscal reduction in city government. He's trying to create coalitions of unlikely friends.

Back on the bus, Hickenlooper credits this approach to his Philadelphia roots.

"We go to Quaker meeting three times a week," he said of himself and his wife, author Helen Thorpe. "My great-grandparents were Quakers. And I tried to take that ethic into business. Quaker honesty, Quaker mindfulness, that effort to build community across differences. . . . I get that from my Philly background."

When he was mulling a mayoral run, he consulted longtime Ed Rendell adviser David L. Cohen, now executive vice president of Comcast.

"He asked me, 'Can government really make a difference anymore?' " Cohen said. He praised Hickenlooper's "lack of cynicism, his businessman's belief that government can be honest, smaller, and still serve people."

Many polls show Hickenlooper ahead in his current race, but it's hard to say by how much. The GOP candidate, businessman Dan Maes, has been dogged by scandal, and a third-party bid by conservative former congressman Tom Tancredo has sometimes misfired.

But nothing's sewn up. Colorado is many Colorados: conservative strongholds, as in Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family; lefty towns such as Boulder; diverse cultures on both slopes of the Rockies; farmers, miners, biotechnologists. Some ride bikes to work; some ride horses.

Ken Bickers, chair and professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said, "We are split three ways equally among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, and we have tremendous early voting. As few as 10 percent are predicted to vote on Election Day. Tancredo has a shot to win because it's so unpredictable."

If Hickenlooper manages to get through the narrow passes of the bus tour, and of election 2010, it may be because he combines the offbeat with a cheery persona. As Straayer put it: "He looks like the guy who got all A's in school and can fix your computer better than anyone else. But he also looks like he's never angry or short-tempered. And that's a rare commodity in politics these days."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com or twitter.com/jtimpane.

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