As lawmakers under the golden dome of Colorado’s capitol building debated overturning a law limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines earlier this month, Governor John Hickenlooper detailed the economic policies on which he’s staking his re-election.
The 62-year-old Democrat is trying to move beyond divisive debates over civil unions, legalized pot, fracking and gun control that led to a recall of two of his party’s state senators and a push by 11 counties to secede from Colorado. Hickenlooper wants to turn the discussion back to jobs.
“We’ve done 20 town hall meetings up and down the eastern plains and out on the west slope with a lot of business involvement to say we want to reorient this boat,” Hickenlooper said in a wide-ranging interview. “What we’re doing is working -- we were 40th in job creation and now we’re fourth.”
Hickenlooper won office in 2010 after running as a centrist with support from powerful Republican business leaders. As he seeks re-election, the former tavern owner is highlighting his economic credentials to try to show the electorate, split among Democrats, Republicans and independents, that he hasn’t strayed too far to the left.
He is one of 36 governors up for re-election in November, in a state where no incumbent has lost in almost four decades. Unlike Kansas, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada, where Republican governors are considered likely to win, Hickenlooper’s prospects aren’t certain, according to recent polls. Both parties view the outcome in Colorado as critical to the 2016 presidential race, as they duel to control a battleground state carried by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Hickenlooper’s reputation among voters suffered in the past two years after debates over social issues cost him crossover support from some Republicans and independents. His collaborative style boosted him into a tie with Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman as the country’s most popular governor in December 2011. Two years later, he had dropped to 30th out of 45 governors, said Tom Jensen, director of the Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling.
“Most governors in the west are pretty popular,” Jensen said. “Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii is the only one who has worse poll numbers than Hickenlooper.”
Since Hickenlooper took office, Colorado -- site of two of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history -- moved from relaxing concealed gun laws to passing the toughest firearms restrictions in a decade, from outlawing gay marriage to approving civil unions, and from rejecting a ballot initiative legalizing personal marijuana use to approving pot’s sale for recreational use in 2012.
The state’s political future is at stake Nov. 4, with Hickenlooper on the ballot along with all 65 members of the Colorado House, about half of the state Senate, all seven members of Congress and one of two U.S. senators. The state legislature is currently controlled by Democrats.
“2013 was the toughest legislative session I’ve seen since I came here in 1982,” said Tom Clark, chief executive officer of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. “The business community felt there was a significant overreach on a number of issues that combined to create a perception of Colorado that did not show off our purple colors.”
Hickenlooper’s rise to power is legendary in Colorado. After losing his job as an oil-industry geologist in the late 1980s, he checked out a book from the Denver Public Library on how to write a business plan and opened the state’s first brew pub, Wynkoop Brewing Co.
The tavern helped revitalize Denver’s lower downtown, followed by the opening of Coors Field in 1995, home to the Colorado Rockies baseball team, and the renovation of abandoned warehouses into trendy eateries, shops and loft apartments. By the late 1990s, Hickenlooper owned more than a dozen pubs and restaurants nationwide.
He sold off his interest in most of them in the 2000s as he turned to politics. He won the Denver mayor’s office in 2003 with 65 percent of the vote.
Hickenlooper still enjoys support from some of the most prominent business people in Colorado, including Liberty Media Corp. President Greg Maffei, DaVita HealthCare Partners CEO Kent Thiry, Ball Corp. CEO John Hayes and tw telecom Chief Executive Larissa Herda.
The governor, who eschews ties and wears a silver belt buckle with the image of a donkey, hosts quarterly dinners to seek economic advice from these and other business leaders, many of whom he’s known since he founded the Wynkoop brewery.
“John has a wellspring of support from a lot of guys who are natural Republicans and who generally vote Republican on a national level,” said Maffei, who raised money for Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and for Hickenlooper in 2010.
The governor’s re-election campaign reported $1.6 million in contributions as of Jan. 15, more than the combined total of about $988,000 raised by six Republican contenders.
A Feb. 5 poll found Hickenlooper regained ground he lost after signing gun-control legislation in March and a controversial decision to delay the execution of death row inmate Nathan Dunlap in May.
“He’s got a comfortable lead on all Republican challengers,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “But people are completely split on whether he deserves to be re-elected -- it’s not a total green light.”
The poll found that 45 percent of voters didn’t feel Hickenlooper deserved a second term. Although a majority of those polled oppose new firearm laws, they approved by 53 percent to 37 percent how Hickenlooper is handling the economy.
“In this election, the economy will be the No. 1 issue,” said Tom Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and co-author of “Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State.”
“The economy is getting better in Colorado, unemployment is coming down and housing starts are up, those are the broad indicators people digest in their gut,” he said.
Hickenlooper’s opponents say Colorado’s economy is benefiting from a nationwide recovery rather than his policies.
“We have one of the worst unemployment rates in the region, worse than Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota,” said Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican candidate for governor. “When you look at the regulatory and tax burden, Colorado doesn’t do well and has slipped over time.”
Hickenlooper’s administration reviewed almost 11,000 state rules and eliminated or modified some of them to “take the friction out of business,” the governor said in his wood-paneled office as his dog, Skye, scratched at the door.
A series of calamities over the past two years forced the governor to turn away from economic initiatives. These included fatal wildfires that burned hundreds of homes, a shooting during a midnight movie that left 12 dead and 70 injured, the murder of his prisons chief and a 100-year flood.
Business leaders say his quick response to these disasters -- he was aboard a helicopter that rescued residents from rising waters shortly after hip surgery -- brought him national visibility and expanded his network of allies.
“His leadership around these tragedies, whether shootings, floods or fires, helped him build relationships that are helping to drive the economy,” said Bruce Alexander, president of Denver-based Vectra Bank. Alexander, who met Hickenlooper when he was a restaurant owner, credits the governor with helping him jump-start the flow of capital to his small business customers after the recession.
Other executives say the governor’s affable manner, ability to negotiate deals between competing interests, and passion for selling the state persuaded them to locate their firms, and hundreds of jobs, at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
“He’s a force of nature when it comes to recruiting companies and extolling the virtues of this city and state,” said Thiry, who decided to move DaVita to Denver in 2009 after meeting with Hickenlooper, who was then mayor. “What was supposed to be a half hour meeting grew to 90 minutes or more.”
The governor’s challengers said that by signing tougher gun-control laws, including requirements for background checks on all firearms purchases, Hickenlooper prompted companies to leave.
“He’s run business out of the state of Colorado, specifically Magpul and their associated vendors,” said state Senator Greg Brophy, a Republican from Wray who is running for governor.
Erie, Colorado-based Magpul Industries, a closely held firearms accessories manufacturer, said last year it would move if the legislature enacted a law limiting magazines to 15 rounds. The law passed, and on Jan. 2, the company announced that it’s relocating to Wyoming and Texas.
Some small business owners are unhappy with Hickenlooper’s record, said Tony Gagliardi, the Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Business. A 2013 law that requires rural electric providers to double the amount of power they receive from renewable sources by 2020 will raise costs for his members, he said.
Several bills that would have modified the renewable energy mandate died in committee last month. A measure to repeal limits on high-capacity magazines met a similar fate on Feb. 10.
“The Democrats on this committee killed a bill that had bipartisan support in the legislature and majority support in the state senate,” said Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker who co-sponsored the bill.
Hickenlooper said in the gun debate he didn’t “really push both sides, both Republicans and Democrats, to better compromises, finding a middle ground.”
The governor said he wants to move on and continue his work to promote Colorado as a place for entrepreneurs.
“The Kauffman Foundation last year did an analysis of startups per capita and they looked at the best start up communities in America and four of the top 10 were in Colorado,” he said. “I think that’s partly tied into all the different things we’ve been doing to make this a pro-business state.”