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Posted: January 14, 2010

Mayor’s wife, would-be governor’s wife—but always a writer

Author Helen Thorpe talks immigration and politics

Mike Cote

The day the University of Denver released a 50-page report on immigration, Helen Thorpe was in a jet over the Atlantic coming home from Copenhagen, where her husband had just presented a speech as part of the United Nations Climate Change conference.

If she had been in Denver that December day, it's a safe bet Thorpe would have considered attending the DU press conference, which addressed many of the issues she encountered first-hand while spending five years writing "Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America." The book chronicles the lives of four Denver girls, including two who do not have legal documentation, and the obstacles they faced to attend college.

The trip was in part a mini-vacation from touring the country to promote the book, Thorpe says, but she was also busy accompanying the man who soon could be the Democratic candidate for governor.

Thorpe doesn't refer to herself as "Mrs. Hickenlooper," but the intersection of her role as a journalist and spouse of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper affected the writing of the book and became part of the story.

During an interview in December - a few weeks before Gov. Bill Ritter's announcement that he would not seek re-election put Hickenlooper on the short list as a candidate - Thorpe talked about how a possible run by her husband against Ritter in 2005 caused her to rethink whether she'd finish the project. And it wasn't the only obstacle: Hickenlooper also had just faced controversy an undocumented worker accused of fatally shooting police officer turned out to be an employee of the Cherry Cricket, a restaurant owned by his company.

"Four or five months after was when a lot people we're trying to draft John to run for governor so I actually thought we were about to get into the governor's race. So then I thought, ‘I won't be doing journalism. I'll be campaigning,'" Thorpe said during an interview at a Park Hill coffee shop. "Then that went away. John decided not to run. He was in the middle of his first term. It was too soon. He had a lot of stuff he wanted to finish."

Thorpe was encouraged to continue by fellow journalists, including her former editor at the New Yorker. "He said you should write about all of it. You were a journalist first, a writer first and that's who you really are and you should be true to that." The book has become a local best-seller and has earned national accolades, including being named one of the best books of 2009 by the Washington Post.

Now Hickenlooper and Thorpe, who have a 7-year-old son, are considering once again whether their family can handle the stress of a gubernatorial campaign and the possible escalation of Hickenlooper's public role should he win the race.

"Anything like this has potentially significant impact on our son," Hickenlooper told the Denver Post on Thursday. And he said his wife in particular would take "a very cautious, slow, careful study" of the decision.

That quote rings true considering what Thorpe said during the December interview. She didn't set out to spend five years writing her book. Becoming a mother shifted her focus.

"At the beginning of this project I might have been working eight hours a week when Teddy was really young, and toward the end I was working 20 to 30 hours a week but never full time," she said "I had to kind of elongate. I couldn't devote myself totally full time to the project so it just took longer to do."

In the long run, that delay led her to write a richer story.

"I kind of learned as I went that there was kind of a beauty in that, to follow them in time became more meaningful to me than just spending a whole bunch of time with them all at once," Thorpe said.

During her book tour, Thorpe has encountered employers who were moved by the book and appreciated the dilemma businesspeople face when they face the consequences of illegal immigration. At one event, a woman in the food service industry whom Thorpe described as "very conservative" was moved to tears.

"She didn't want to hire illegal immigrants," Thorpe said. "But she had people on her payroll who turned out to have names that didn't match their Social Security numbers, and she had grown really fond of them and dependent on them. They were reliable workers. It was incredibly painful for her to have to deal with the fact that they were not here illegally."

Thorpe's book could take on a greater resonance if immigration arises as a campaign issue. (One chapter of the book is based on an interview with former Colorado congressman and outspoken immigration foe Tom Tancredo.)

Thorpe has seen the issue from both sides, through her husband's business background and through the lives of the girls and families she portrayed in her book. For reform to work, it needs to consider the needs of employers, she said.

"Thinking of the employer as a bad person with immoral intentions who must be punished, going into it from that point of view, I think is a misreading of the situation," she said. "I think employers are generally well intentioned for the most part."

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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