Election 2010: John Hickenlooper
Five years ago, John Hickenlooper jumped out of an airplane to promote two referendums designed to loosen the stranglehold the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was having on the state’s ability to pay for transportation, education, health care and other services.
“In the ’90s, Colorado’s economy was flying high. Then we fell into a recession,” Hickenlooper said in the TV commercial before boarding a plane.
The 58-year-old Denver mayor won’t be skydiving this time, but once again he’s campaigning to help lead the state out of an economic slump.
We talked with Hickenlooper about his bid to be Colorado’s next governor in July. Watch video highlights from the interview and read the complete transcript at cobizmag.com.
The following was edited for space and clarity.
Mike Cote, ColoradoBiz editor
ColoradoBiz: How has your tenure as the mayor of Denver prepared you to become governor?
John Hickenlooper: I think my 20 years as an entrepreneur and small businessperson really help set me up for being mayor – that sense of having made a budget, made a payroll, attracted a team of talented people. A lot of the success we’ve had in the city is that talent. And I think that’s what the state needs right now. You need people who can manage and find savings, find different ways of delivering more with less resources.
ColoradoBiz: The Legislature just finished one of its most difficult sessions ever, and business took some hits during the budget slashing. Would you have done anything differently?
Hickenlooper: The first thing you have to do is brand the state as pro-business and really start creating jobs. I think we have to rebrand the state of Colorado so people all over country recognize that this is a place not just of ski resorts but of innovation and small businesses. And we make it the No. 1 place for young entrepreneurs, young would-be business owners that this is where they want to start their businesses.
I think we should do a bottom-up economic development plan for the state, county by county. The state has nine economic development regions. Have each of the counties come up and join their plans together so they have those nine regional plans, then you have a summit and make one statewide plan.
In terms of cuts, the first thing I would do, bring in real managers, not political appointees, but people who have managed complex enterprises and have them work with the employees of the state to try and find the savings.
ColoradoBiz: Gov. Ritter made the new energy economy one of the primary focuses of his administration. What would you do?
Hickenlooper: I think we need all energy. I’m a believer in the new energy economy. I think solar, wind, geothermal – they’re all coming. But they’re going to take awhile to get here. I spent five years as an oil and gas geologist. I think I understand that industry pretty well. We have to hold ourselves to high environmental standards.
If we hold oil and gas exploration companies to high standards, we should reduce the permit time, make it easier for them to do the bureaucracy, we should get out of their way wherever possible. Natural gas is the perfect transition fuel to a new economy.
Recently, Senate Bill 1365 took some of our old really filthy coal plants and said, “All right, over the next few years we’re going to convert these to natural gas.” That should be happening not just in Colorado but in other states as well.
ColoradoBiz: Arizona has brought immigration reform back to the forefront. Scott McInnis has said he would favor passing similar legislation in Colorado. And Dan Maes has said he plans to call you on Denver being a “sanctuary” city for illegal immigrants. What do you think needs to happen?
Hickenlooper: Denver is not a sanctuary city and never has been. If we arrested someone for a crime and they don’t have the appropriate paperwork, we send that information over to ICE, the federal immigration folks, immediately and detain the person to make sure ICE if they can deport them they will deport them.
The federal government has put small businesses and citizens in a ridiculous position. I think the federal government needs to secure the border. We need some sort of national ID. We have to hold businesses accountable. It’s not that hard to imagine a system where we could solve this.
ColoradoBiz: How do we improve
education in K-12 so that more
Hickenlooper: In Denver, we’ve expanded early childhood education to make sure kids arrive at kindergarten knowing how to hold a pencil, knowing their alphabet and their numbers. Every study shows if kids arrive behind they never catch up or it’s very, very expensive to get them to catch up.
We also got Tim and Bernie Marquez to donate a $50 million matching gift to create the Denver Scholarship Foundation. In my first four years, I visited every school in Denver. I saw kids who weren’t working hard in school because their family had no money. They didn’t believe they could ever go to college. Well, now when I walk into a school I can say, “If you work hard enough no matter how little money your family has we guarantee that you’ll be able to go to college if you go to college in Colorado.”
Let’s get rid of CSAP. You’ve got to measure performance. But with (the Colorado Student Assessment Program) they take the tests and they don’t get the results back for four months. What private enterprise, what business, would ever have a performance measure where you get the results back in four months?
ColoradoBiz: By some measurements, Colorado ranks at the bottom in aid to higher education. How do you ensure universities and community colleges have enough funding?
Hickenlooper: You’ve got to make sure that every kid who wants to go there can get there, and when they go won’t end up with a huge debt when they leave school. I think it’s part of our economic development equation.
Higher ed really has to begin being more accountable. I think the public feels – I’m not saying right or wrong – that there’s waste, not just in administration but in teachers and the workloads. I think universities have to do a better job of communicating where they found savings.
ColoradoBiz: What do we do to ensure we have enough water for agriculture and for development as it comes back?
Hickenlooper: You know what they say in the West: Water’s not for drinking, it’s for fighting. I don’t control Denver Water, but I appoint the board. And we have put together the most conservation-minded board of any water utility in the history of the country. And our focus has been: Let’s recognize that Denver may have senior water rights legally, but that’s not the point. The point is it’s not just Denver’s water, it’s Colorado’s water.
ColoradoBiz: After Gov. Ritter announced in January that he would not seek reelection, you took a little bit of time to think about whether you were going to run. Now that you’re doing this, how are you balancing running the city and county of Denver?
Hickenlooper: I have been mayor now for seven years so I have a really remarkable team. If I’m out going around the state, I’m in constant communication through e-mails and text messages so pretty much anything that happens I’m involved in that decision as it happens.