John Hickenlooper is not your average politician. Take his background, for example. How many former geologists turned restaurant owners make it to the top tier of public service? Hickenlooper, though, has just done that. First as mayor of Denver and now as governor of Colorado, he has succeeded in building bridges across communities, collaborating with business and overseeing strong economic growth that has placed his state as one of the top in the country for business climate and job opportunities.
It’s quite a record but one that he is at pains to play down. His eyes, it transpires, remain firmly fixed on the horizon. “One of the things I love about Denver and Colorado is that we are going to be defined more by our future than our past,” he says. “I genuinely think some of our biggest accomplishments are going to be ahead of us.” Of course, this optimistic streak runs deep in many politicians. Hickenlooper, however, has made moving forward something of a lifetime trait.
Where everybody knows your name
It’s fair to say that the fields of geology and brewing rarely lead to a career in government service. When Hickenlooper was first elected governor in 2011, he was one of the first geologists to become governor in the history of the nation and the first brewer since Sam Adams in 1792.
It was actually during his time in the restaurant and bar business that he first became interested in running for office. Or rather, his customers became interested in him running for office. “I owned a number of restaurants and spent a lot of time talking to my guests,” he recalls. From these conversations behind the bar or in the restaurants, he became acutely aware of a deep sense of dissatisfaction with government, with animosity the dominant feeling towards any elected official. “I kept saying to my customers ‘but this is America and our government is us!’ Being angry with government meant being angry at yourself.”
Hickenlooper’s popularity with customers and deep roots within the community soon saw him become involved in a local battle about whether or not to sell the naming rights for Denver’s Mile High football stadium. His success in persuading the city not to sell these rights prompted many in the campaign to observe that the then mayor would be standing down in two years due to term limits and that he should put himself forward.
“I was having all these discussions around the bar and I didn’t think I could win – no one thought I could win – but I felt that I had a responsibility, as an American, to take government seriously,” he says. “Over the next 18 months I went around and visited mayors in other cities, such as Martin O’Malley in Baltimore and Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis. I had to ask three questions of myself: Can I make a difference? Do I have the necessary skills? And would I like it? As a kid my grandfather used to say that ‘this isn’t a dress rehearsal, this is your life’.”
After deciding to enter the fray, Hickenlooper was very much the outsider and underdog, but nonetheless he quickly surged in the polls, perhaps on the back of his decision not to run any negative ads or conduct opposition research on his opponents, of whom there were many. “Denver’s mayor appoints everyone and controls the budget,” he explains. “The city council needs a ‘super-majority’ to overturn one line item of the mayor’s budget – they need nine out of thirteen votes to overrule the mayor. This means that it is a very powerful mayoral role and it is hotly contested, with a lot of lobbying and a lot of money that comes into those campaigns and it is usually hard for an outsider to win. And yet in a funny way our campaign just took off and we won by two to one.”
From private to public
Hickenlooper, a Democrat by party affiliation, quickly took to life as mayor. Greeted by the largest budget deficit in Denver’s history, city expenses were soon cut (including his own salary by 25%), won bipartisan support for a tax rise while preserving key spending, even going so far as parachuting from a plane in television commercials in a suit and tie to make his point. Not easy – especially for someone with a fear of heights. Voters approved, though, and his success soon became national – within a couple of years he landed on Time magazine’s ‘5 Best Big-City Mayors’ list.
Underpinning his approach – and one that continues to this day – was Hickenlooper’s devout belief in bringing together different sections of society. Not for him the divides of business and labour, Democrat and Republican: his is a style founded on mutual collaboration which leads to results that everyone can support. Indeed, in the inaugural address that followed his landslide gubernatorial election victory in 2010, he didn’t use the words ‘Democrat’, ‘Republican’ or ‘party’, instead preferring to speak of ‘partners’. Although this reflected the political reality – the Republicans had won control of the state’s House of Representatives – his gubernatorial campaign had previously attracted support from many high-profile Republicans, and so he was no stranger to walking the talk of bipartisanship.
“I think that it is important to have a clear vision, and it is also important to have key stakeholders involved in creating that vision,” he says. “The more those different stakeholders with different perspectives and from different geographies are involved, the better. You also need metrics that everyone understands and can help define what success looks like.”
He goes on to cite some parallels with the private sector. “Government is very different to the private sector but, in both cases, generally people start with a narrow self-interest, starting with what they think they really need to get out of each negotiation,” he points out. “But when you get different voices at the table, it’s generally not that difficult to show people that they can benefit from a broader variety of outcomes. Once you get alignment of this self-interest you start to overlap – this is where transactions happen in the private sector and where you create real change and progress in the public sector.”
The myriad of voices should not, however, detract from the long-term mission of an administration – the visibility of your objective should serve as a North Star for all government programmes, he believes. “I always used to joke that there are three things the same when running a big popular restaurant and running a city or state government: you can never have enough money; you have a diverse people you have to make into a team; and the public is usually pissed off about something,” he says. “Government is always going to be underfunded and there are always going to be distractions or emergencies. But by having the appropriate vision around your initiatives you can keep focused even as you have to deal with different things. You have to deal with them well but you also have to keep everyone focused on the longer-term goals that you’re trying to achieve.”
Collaboration in action
Hickenlooper, who was the first mayor of Denver to become governor in 150 years, began his term in 2010 with a six-month programme of community engagement, talking to citizens in every county of the state to find out what they wanted in their economies over the next 20 or 50 years. “It’s what we described as a ‘bottom-up economic development policy’,” he says.
“We incorporated the results together and used them to make a regional and state plan. It was amazingly insightful and it was consistent across the state about what our priorities should be. It also brought people together from across the state to get to know each other. I think it was a great success and we’re seeing the fruits of that labour now with a lot of recognition of Colorado as the top economy in the country.”
Another big success has been using money from private foundations to give low-income women and teenagers access to low or no-cost contraceptive devices in order to lower the rate of unintended pregnancies and reduce abortions. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative has led to a 40% statewide drop in teen birth rates between 2009 and 2013 and a 35% drop in abortions. The funding for the programme is running out this year but, even though state senate Republicans have blocked the use of public money for it to be continued, Hickenlooper remains optimistic.
“The original foundation said they would only fund until we proved it would work and then they would expect us to take it forward,” he says. “We’re out there hustling trying to find the finance, and we’re also looking to make more progress on addressing prescription drug abuse and tackling obesity. Colorado has always been the thinnest state in the country but we want to be the healthiest state – but our biggest stuff is still ahead of us.”
Hickenlooper attributes much of his success to the eclectic experiences he accumulated in the bar and restaurant business. In fact, he would like more people to follow in his footsteps. “I wish we could get more people with business experience into government and public service,” he says. “This is a huge ball and chain around state and local government’s ability to really improve the lives of their citizens. Business invests so much money in hiring the right people, motivating them and measuring their success. Government doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of training and support and I think this is one of the reasons why people are so frustrated by governments.”
Campaign finance is another bugbear because the current rules governing the funding of US elections lack the necessary rigour and transparency to be truly effective. “When you don’t have to reveal where the money comes from, it makes it so much easier to do attack ads on television and I think attack ads are a cancer on not only the political system but the whole country,” he says.
Strong words, but Hickenlooper is not one to be down for long. His second term is still young and there remain many ambitions still to fulfil. “National governments around the world are becoming more constricted and more partisan,” he points out. “This means that mayors and governors are more often where you see change occur and progress achieved – I’ve still got lots to do.”
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