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John Hickenlooper, Establishment Pick for Colorado Senate Seat, Has an Increasingly Stale Record

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper leads the sprawling field of candidates seeking to flip a key Senate seat in Colorado this year. Hickenlooper entered the race in August and, within two days, had won the endorsement of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. Several Democrats who had been running competitive campaigns immediately dropped out of the primary, frustrating local activists and other candidates who felt they’d been unfairly sidelined by the party.

Washington Democrats, who had been struggling with 2020 Senate recruitment, had been trying for months to recruit Hickenlooper. Colorado is one of at least eight seats that Democrats have a chance to flip as they try to take back a Senate majority for the first time since 2013. Their decision to back Hickenlooper in a crowded field that included at least one viable progressive candidate is a hallmark of the party strategy: tipping the scales in a way that sidelines progressives, rather than giving voters a chance to decide on the type of candidate — and policies — they want.

On paper, the former governor has what it should take to beat incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans running for re-election in 2020: name recognition, deep pockets, and the blessing of Washington Democrats. But a closer look at his time as governor suggests that Hickenlooper’s business-friendly record, work in expanding fracking activity across the state, and overall opposition to progressive policy priorities, like the repeal of the death penalty and civil rights remedies, put him at odds with a party — and a state — that has pushed increasingly to the left on the issues of money in politics and environmental degradation.

Colorado itself is becoming more solidly Democratic, although most voters continue to identify as independent and remain split on a number of issues like fracking and raising taxes to fund education. Democrats took control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion in 2018, creating a trifecta for the first time since 2013. Denver, the largest city in the state, elected a democratic socialist to its city council last year, who led the council’s decision to end a number of the city’s contracts with a private prison company.

Hickenlooper and his wife, Robin, are jointly worth somewhere between $9 million and $27 million, according to his disclosures to the Federal Election Commission. They have tapped into their personal wealth to support his Senate campaign and, before that, a short-lived bid for the presidency. He gave $5,600 to his own campaign in September. On August 22, the day Hickenlooper entered the Senate race, Robin made two contributions to her husband’s Senate campaign committee, each for $2,800. Overall, she has contributed $14,000 to both his presidential and Senate campaign committees since March.

His Senate campaign announced raising $2.8 million in the fourth quarter, in addition to holding $3.2 million in cash on hand. He is trailed by former Democratic state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who has raised $1.5 million so far. Romanoff’s campaign was thriving before Hickenlooper entered the race, having raised $503,000 by July. A July poll from Next Senate PAC, a Colorado political action committee backing Democrats, found Romanoff leading the field with 23 percent support. Another poll later that month from Colorado Democrats’ Public Policy Polling Survey found Hickenlooper with 44 percent support before he even entered the race. Romanoff was next at 12 percent, with the other six candidates included at the time polling under 4 percent. His progressive platform, of which the climate emergency is a centerpiece, made him well positioned to unseat Gardner, who has one of the lowest approval ratings of any senator. In November, the Sunrise Movement, a leading youth-led climate group, endorsed Romanoff.

Gardner, a one-term incumbent, broke with his party last January when he was one of just a handful of Republicans who called on President Donald Trump to end the government shutdown without securing funding for a border wall. But Gardner, who the Denver Post once described as a “never-Trumper,” has moved closer to the president in recent months, switching his position on the president’s border wall in March. He sided with Trump on declaring an emergency at the southern border in order to secure the funding — a move which 12 other Republicans opposed. That prompted the Denver Post to publish a March editorial saying that its 2014 endorsement of Gardner “was a mistake.”

Hickenlooper is interviewed during his campaign for mayor of Denver in February 2002, after rolling out his water policy in the midst of a devastating drought that year.

Photo: Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Hickenlooper began his career in the 1980s as a petroleum geologist for Buckhorn Petroleum, an oil and gas producer. After being laid off from his first job, he opened Denver’s first craft brewery pub, which made him rich.

Hickenlooper was elected mayor of Denver in 2003 and served in that capacity until January 2011. He brought the Democratic National Convention to Denver in 2008 and in 2010, won the governor’s race by a landslide, replacing a Democrat who had decided not to run for reelection. That year, he ran an ad in which he showered in his clothes to make the point that seeing negative campaign ads made him feel dirty. He has described himself as a centrist, a moderate, and “apartisan.” But despite the media’s portrayal of Hickenlooper as the “man in the middle,” his politics have always been more focused on appeasing the right. (In 2017, Hickenlooper considered joining a “unity ticket” with former Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.)

As governor, Hickenlooper threatened to sue any town or city that banned fracking, opposed a ballot measure that would have curbed fracking, and remained an outspoken defender of the oil and gas industries, all of which earned him the nickname “Frackenlooper.” (He once drank fracking fluid to try to prove that fracking isn’t all that bad.) In 2018, he opposed an anti-fracking measure that would have required drilling operations to be placed farther away from vulnerable locations like homes, schools, and water sources, and was ultimately voted down — after oil and gas companies spent $41 million to defeat it. (Hickenlooper’s successor, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, also opposed the ballot initiative.) An overwhelming majority of Coloradans, however, want to see state and federal governments act to confront the threat of climate change — in fact, 79 percent of Coloradans want to move the state to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. His current climate platform calls for rejoining the Paris climate accord, implementing a carbon tax, and investing in renewable energy projects. 

Hickenlooper once drank fracking fluid to try to prove that fracking isn’t all that bad.

The death penalty is another issue on which Hickenlooper has taken a relatively conservative posture. During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Hickenlooper expressed support for the death penalty. In 2013, he granted a “temporary reprieve” to halt the execution of 19-year-old Nathan Dunlap and the following year, he announced that he had reversed his position. In 2013, he pressured Democrats to vote against a proposal to repeal the death penalty when they were close to passing it. The bill, which was sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Lucía Guzmán, got through the upper chamber and then had to get through the House Judiciary Committee. Former Democratic state Rep. Joe Salazar, a member of the Judiciary Committee at the time, told The Intercept that Hickenlooper crashed a caucus lunch an hour before they were scheduled to hear the death penalty repeal bill and asked them to vote it down, threatening to veto if it got to his desk. Hickenlooper privately assured the lawmakers that he did personally oppose the death penalty but believed that there was another way to go about it. Local outlets reported at the time that he had signaled he may veto it, with his office saying he had “conflicting feelings” about the death penalty that were “unresolved.” The bill was controversial and support didn’t fall neatly along party lines, with Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields going against her own party with fierce opposition to the legislation. She offered an alternative bill that would have left the issue up to the voters, which she admitted was a “strategic counter” to the repeal bill, the Denver Post reported. For Fields, who’s now a state senator and continues to support capital punishment, her position on the issue is personal. Two of the three men on Colorado’s death row were responsible for the 2005 murder of her son.

After Hickenlooper’s speech at the lunch, Salazar said, some Democrats began to express uncertainty over how they were going to vote on the issue. State Reps. Brittany Pettersen, who campaigned on repealing the death penalty, and Lois Court joined four Republicans in killing the bill. Though only one person has been sentenced to death in the state since 1967, the three men sitting on death row are all black and from the same high school.

“It was such compromised politics,” Salazar said of Hickenlooper tanking the repeal bill. “To literally have the executive branch come in, meet with us during a legislative get-together, and basically threaten us with a veto if he didn’t get his way. … He just didn’t want that controversial bill on his desk.”

In another instance, Salazar said, communities of color had to out-organize Hickenlooper. Also in 2013, Hickenlooper opposed the Job Protection and Civil Rights Employment Act of 2013, a civil rights remedies bill to broaden damage awards available to Colorado employees who sue over discrimination in the workplace. At the time, Colorado was one of eight states that didn’t have an anti-discrimination measure like this one. Republicans opposed the bill, which had been introduced around 20 years prior, because they claimed that it was anti-business and would have devastating effects on small businesses with 14 or fewer employees. Salazar, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said the state legislature, which was under Democratic control at the time, passed it despite the governor’s private opposition to it. But when they sat down in his office to talk about why he didn’t support the bill, Hickenlooper cited the business community’s concerns. When Hickenlooper threatened to veto it, Salazar said, Democrats had “more influential, more affluent” members of the Latino community call him and threaten to pull support from his reelection campaign unless he signed the bill. Another Democratic lawmaker involved in the effort described a last-minute “PR blitz” to try to force the governor to sign the bill, adding that lawmakers and lobbyists also reached out to progressive small business owners in their attempt to get through to Hickenlooper.  

Hickenlooper’s campaign did not respond to questions about his involvement with the death penalty repeal and civil rights remedies bills.

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 8: Kahlil Zawadi walks near 36th and Wynkoop in front of a construction on Thursday, February 8, 2018. On Monday night, Denver City Council is poised to approve a long-formulated zoning proposal for the 38th/Blake transit station area that, for the first time in the city's history, will allow developers to build even higher than regular zoning allows  up to 16 stories in some places  as long as they provide more affordable housing as part of their projects. Some developers are eyeing potential projects that would take advantage of this, but they cannot get started until this is passed.(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Construction of an apartment building near Denver’s River North neighborhood, a designated opportunity zone, on Feb. 8, 2018.

Photo: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Hickenlooper, who left office last January after completing his second term, near the end of his tenure oversaw a process that allowed cash-flush cities to become part of state opportunity zones designed to benefit economically distressed areas. The opportunity zone program was created under President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax bill and marketed as a way to revitalize low-income, struggling areas through federal tax incentives. In Colorado and elsewhere, though, elected officials have designated areas with booming development, drawing criticisms that the program’s trickle-down economics design favors luxury developers over low-income residents. Hickenlooper strongly criticized the tax cut bill before its passage in December 2017. During his presidential run, he said he would want to repeal parts of the bill but has praised the opportunity zone program. City council members in Boulder and Denver, some of the state’s fastest-growing real estate markets, have criticized opportunity zones in their cities as a giveaway to business interests at the expense of struggling communities.

Last year, along with the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, Hickenlooper oversaw the nomination and approval of 126 opportunity zones, including at least 12 in Boulder, Denver, and Avon. The goal, according to the state, was to address “uneven economic recovery and persistent lack of growth.”

The process drew criticism from community members and local officials. They argued that the opportunity zones don’t include mechanisms to ensure any benefits for the low-income communities they’re advertised as being designed to help and that there hadn’t been adequate community involvement in some of the designation processes. Some advocates and council members still have concerns that incentives for luxury developers could lead to further displacement of low-income people.

“There’s plenty of economic opportunity in this city,” Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca told The Intercept. “That’s not translating to livability.”

Historically, opportunity zones haven’t always delivered on the kind of economic revitalization they promise. Advocates for equitable development say successful opportunity zones should include strict requirements for affordable housing and public services, in addition to attracting development for commercial businesses like hotels and shopping centers. But in Denver, that’s not the case, CdeBaca said. “There’s no metrics that would suggest that these incentives are designed for the communities.”

Developer Kyle Zeppelin said “it’s a joke” that half of Boulder is an opportunity zone. “Boulder’s probably the hottest housing market in the state, maybe besides Aspen, followed closely by different parts of Denver in a state that’s like, you know, the most valuable market between the coasts,” said Zeppelin, whose firm works in the Denver area. “So it definitely wasn’t screaming out for investment. Rural areas are what’s struggling in Colorado, like most places.”

Jana Persky, the office’s opportunity zone program director, told The Intercept that the office could not say how many of the zones have affordable housing but that many of the zones were designated due to a need for more housing. Perksy said the council thought that the zones could stimulate housing development and, for the most part, “avoided areas that had substantial development unless there were specific community asks to designate certain areas.” Hickenlooper’s campaign did not respond to questions about the opportunity zones, instead pointing The Intercept to a 2018 Denver Business Journal article, in which he OEDIT says the zones were selected based on “income, need and opportunity.” In the piece, Hickenlooper touts the program as something that will “attract investment in businesses, workforce, housing and infrastructure where it is needed most.”

Hickenlooper’s apparent indifference to the future of the planet extended beyond his term as governor and into his presidential run. In March, he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post denouncing the Green New Deal put forward by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying that he supported the concept but that the plan as written “limits our prospects for success” by setting “unachievable goals.” Hickenlooper said the proposal sets a potential Green New Deal up for failure by “shifting away from private decision-making and toward the public sector.”

Romanoff said that even on issues in which Coloradans are split, like fracking, politicians should be in favor of “rescuing the planet even if it’s not popular.”

“Unlike Donald Trump, Coloradans know the climate crisis isn’t a hoax — it’s a real emergency,” Romanoff said in a statement to The Intercept. “We deserve leaders who understand that too. Colorado’s next senator should champion the Green New Deal, challenge the fossil-fuel industry, and chart our course toward a clean-energy future.”

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