Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper in 2020?

“Hick” is a centrist Democrat more authentic than Trump or Bernie, as competent as Romney or Kasich, and funnier than Seth Meyers

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (AP)

David Axelrod, President Obama’s campaign strategist, knows a thing or twenty about what it takes to win the Presidency. In a revealing conversation this week with conservative commentator Bill Kristol, Axelrod identified what he called “a leading indicator in presidential politics.”

If you look back, the most authentic candidate tends to win presidential races. Whatever you think of Barack Obama, he’s a guy who’s comfortable in his own skin. Nobody ever said, “Gee, he’s not really genuine.” Whatever you think about George W. Bush — comfortable in his own skin. Their opponents, for different reasons, did not come across that way — Mitt Romney, John McCain both having to accommodate their own views to a growing conservative movement within their party, a populist movement. John Kerry and Al Gore had these authenticity problems as candidates. I like them, but that’s clearly the case.

Later in the interview, as the conversation turned to the 2020 Presidential election, Kristol asked if Axelrod thinks the Democrats might nominate their own version of an outsider candidate like Donald Trump.

Axe demurred at first, hesitating to get into the prediction business four years out from the election. He then noted:

One of the problems for Democrats is, the Democratic Party doesn’t have very many governors any more. Governors used to be a wellspring of candidacies, you know? Now, Democrats have what, thirteen states or something?
KRISTOL: A little more than that, maybe. I don’t know.
AXELROD: I should know this number.

The number is 16.

One of them is Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, who reportedly came close to becoming Clinton’s running mate last year and who is already fielding questions about 2020.

“Hick” as he’s known here in Colorado, does not have an authenticity problem.

My wife and I campaigned for him in 2003 when he ran for Mayor of Denver. He was an unlikely candidate — a brewpub owner and former oil company geologist with no experience in government. We held signs at Speer and Federal that said “Honk for Hick.” We’d met him before he ran for mayor, and we liked him a lot. He’s a very likable guy — friendly, unpretentious, funny, an odd mixture of awkwardness and confidence.

Hickenlooper surprised us all by winning the Mayor’s race. He won his second term with 88 percent of the votes. He is now in his second term as governor.

I remember watching Governor Hickenlooper at an excruciatingly difficult press conference three years ago. I thought, “This is what a President needs to be able to do sometimes.”

His task was to comment on the murder of Tom Clements, whom Hickenlooper had recruited from Missouri to head Colorado’s Department of Corrections. The two became close friends.

Clements was shot dead at his home after answering the door the night of March 19, 2013. It turned out the murderer, later killed in a shootout with lawmen in Texas, was the son of another of Hickenlooper’s close friends from his oil industry days, Jack Ebel.

“We all stand here with leaden hearts and insufficient words,” the governor began at the State Capitol the morning after the murder. Having learned of the tragedy about 12 hours before, he had gotten little sleep. His voice was soft and halting, but he did not break down.

We are so grateful for the time that he gave us. He was a dedicated, committed, funny, caring, expert at Corrections. He had a sense of humor that all of us — you almost can’t describe it. His sense of timing when he would let a zinger fly was so unpredictable and yet so astute. He was a great friend to me and I think to all of us. He helped to define what a public servant is. He did his job quietly and intently.

After about eight minutes, after stating that Clements would be “deeply, deeply missed,” Hickenlooper paused, raised his palms upward slightly. “Questions?” he said. On the video, I can’t hear what the questions were. To the last one, he answered:

This is the hardest thing for me. When you’re in an active investigation, the less said the better. You never know when you say something, you can inadvertently somehow slow down the process that law enforcement is going through. So I’m going to avoid commenting.

I don’t remember how I knew about the governor’s friendship with the suspected killer’s father; there must have been other reports at the time. In any event, I was riveted to the press conference live when it happened. I saw a man contain unimaginably intense emotions while doing his public duty flawlessly.

He made an effective plea for privacy on behalf of Clements’s family. He gave a dignified and moving tribute to his friend. He protected the investigative process by not talking about the wrenching rest of the story. He was emotionally present and disciplined, rational.

March 19, 2013 was the type of leadership test that any governor must undergo. That’s why Axelrod and anyone else thinking ahead to 2020 really should know how many Democratic governors there are.

It’s also why I find it reassuring to imagine John Hickenlooper making decisions in the Situation Room or addressing the world media after a tragedy.

I hadn’t planned to write such a somber post about Colorado’s mayor — he is much more widely known for his quirky humor. I noticed that he put particular value on that trait in his fallen friend and Cabinet member.

Frank Bruni in a 2011 profile of Hickenlooper for The New York Times Magazine told a story that Hick has told many times since, about the “running of the pigs.” This was a silly event celebrating the anniversary of the founding of a microbrewery and restaurant he owned at the time. Ten young pigs were set loose to scurry down an alley.

After complaints from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Hick renamed his event the “pleasuring of the pigs.” Bruni’s article continues:

The animals were coaxed along gently and coddled all the while. “We used parasols, little sun hats — we made sure there was no sun on the pigs,” he says. “People would feed the pigs little treats along the way.” Still, PETA representatives complained, telling Hickenlooper he was “objectifying and making a spectacle of pigs,” as he recalls. They videotaped one year’s pleasuring, he says, and “one pig caught its hoof in a grate and had a little drop of blood on its hoof.” To head off the dissemination of that image and put an end to PETA’s protests, he shelled out about $400 to buy all 14 pigs that had been used in that pleasuring and sent them to a refuge for rescued livestock, where they could grow fatter and older without fear of becoming bacon. And the next year, he says, with a sigh, “We did a celebration of prairie dogs.”

The story illustrates a central tenet in Hickenlooper’s approach to life: “there’s no margin in making enemies.” A corollary, which he practiced as mayor, is to share the credit. His dogged, visionary work with 31 mayors of communities in the metro Denver area led to their support for construction of Denver’s fantastic $4.7 billion transportation network that is still ongoing.

I have a feeling I am going to be writing a lot about John Hickenlooper in the coming years. I hope so.

I agree with Malcom Gladwell, who wrote this blurb for Hick’s tell-all memoir, The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics, published last year by Penguin:

Pause and reflect on how thoughtful and intelligent and charming John Hickenlooper is. Then hope to God he runs for president one day.