John Hickenlooper is used to being made fun of. He’s dyslexic, and is known to say words or phrases out of order. He’s face-blind, relying on cues from the person he’s speaking with to remember if they’ve previously met. He has a gangly last name, part of which rhymes with the word “pooper.” His voice can crack in conversation, his eyes can ping-pong back and forth. None of these scenarios are ideal for someone in public service, but Hick — as Coloradans call him — has found a way to make it all work. He served six years as Denver mayor, followed by two terms as Colorado governor, and he left office in January as the state boasts the number-one economy in the United States. He routinely returns to the phrase “crisis of division” when describing America in 2019, and believes he’s uniquely positioned to end said crisis.
So, as of Monday morning, Hick’s running for president.
Reached by phone Sunday night, Hickenlooper sounded alternately pensive and at peace with his decision to enter the 2020 Democratic race already brimming with two-syllable brand names like Bernie, Harris and Warren (with Biden and Beto likely on the way).
“I am who I am,” Hickenlooper says. “True to that north star.”
He had just flown into New York City from Colorado through shitty weather. He’s scheduled to make his pitch to the country around 8:30 Monday on Good Morning America, but his campaign launch video, “Stand Tall,” already does a lot of that work. It’s a sizzle reel of his past several decades: prepubescent nerd, geologist, brew-pub owner, then a pivot to politics that never quite buffed out his folksy, unpolished public persona.
“We all have different challenges, and certainly my challenges are very modest compared to what many people have to deal with,” Hickenlooper tells Rolling Stone.
He’s a music buff, and after making the rounds in New York, he’ll head back west for a rally-cum-concert on Thursday with Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, whom he counts as personal friends. He regularly introduces or even performs onstage with various Americana and roots bands (Bob Weir, the Avett Brothers) when they swing through Colorado. Here he is plucking his banjo and singing Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with Old Crow Medicine Show. Yes, that is a Canadian Tuxedo.
In his announcement video, Hickenlooper wears a dad-core leather jacket and stands on a perch overlooking Red Rocks Amphitheatre. He’s seen weaving through various parts of the state, telling the story of how Colorado survived drought, wildfires and floods. He markets himself as a problem-solver who can bring together disparate groups like environmentalists and the oil and gas industry to reform methane emissions laws.
While in office, Hickenlooper oversaw the implementation of Colorado’s recreational marijuana law, the first of its kind in the nation. He initially opposed the 2012 ballot measure, but is proud of its rollout. “Even Amsterdam had only decriminalized marijuana,” he says. “No one had ever created a regulatory framework and legalized it. My commitment was to do everything I could to make it work, because our voters had said that.” (Legal marijuana sales topped $1.5 billion in Colorado last year; Hickenlooper concedes that the black market still exists.)
Eighteen months into Hickenlooper’s first term as governor, James Holmes stormed in through an emergency exit door of an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 and wounding dozens more. Among Hickenlooper’s most tangible achievements while in state office are the passage of background checks and magazine capacity limits in the wake of the massacre.
Despite his progressive bona fides, there’s another undeniable truth: Hickenlooper is a 67-year-old white guy from an overwhelmingly white state trying to represent a Democratic party that runs on identity politics. “I’ve been someone who’s fought for equal rights for all people my entire life,” he says.
While some percentage of voters are indeed disillusioned with both parties and looking for a more centrist candidate like Hickenlooper, increasingly the left’s most prominent voices are its most progressive. Hickenlooper calls Medicare-for-All an “aspiration” and boasts that 95-percent of all Coloradans have some form of health-care coverage. “I look at Medicare advantage, which I think in a number of ways is superior to Medicare in a sense that it allows doctors to use telemedicine, and allows a number of tools that I think actually will keep people healthier,” he says. “But it’s a big, complicated system.”
Nuanced policy debates aside: Can he beat Trump?
“He’s a type-case of a bully,” Hickenlooper says of the president. “You don’t beat a bully by getting into a fight with him, trying to play his game. I think President Trump is obsessive compulsive — I think he thinks about and obsesses about what little nasty thing he’s going to say to all these people that are not doing exactly what he thinks he’d like to see them do.” He says he worries about the long-term impact Trump’s behavior will have on kids. “They’re looking at the president who really appears to make almost every decision based on his own self interest, what’s good for him, obviously driven by greed in many ways. Are they gonna really come out thinking that’s the way to a good life?” (Hickenlooper’s spot features footage of Trump’s Charlottesville press conference, and, without saying the president’s name, points to Trump as a “crisis for everything we stand for.”)
“If he was in collusion with a foreign government to influence and change an election, then absolutely he should be impeached, of course.” Hickenlooper says. “But I think we’ve got to get that information and make sure these investigations go forward before we — we don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”
After his Thursday launch party in Denver’s Civic Center Park, Hickenlooper will head to Iowa, then swing down to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.