Challenging year lies ahead for Gov. John Hickenlooper
John Hickenlooper is in for a difficult year — one that will test the Hickenlooper brand and potentially pose a threat to the overwhelming popularity he has accumulated, first as Denver mayor and now, governor.
In November, voters gave Democrats large majorities in both the state House and Senate, putting an end to a divided government arrangement in the Capitol that prevented many of the most bitter political fights from ever reaching Hick’s desk.
For two years Hickenlooper has been largely spared the pain of having to choose between his political friends and Colorado’s political center.
What better way to preserve popularity and accumulate political capital than by simply staying above the fray? With Republicans in the House doing the dirty work of killing the most controversial aspects of the agenda being pressed by liberal legislative Democrats, that’s exactly where the governor remained.
In the coming year, however, the terms are different. With Democrats in command of large majorities in both the House and Senate and progressive lobbying groups (unions, environmentalists and tax-and-spend think tanks) demanding bold action that would move Colorado decisively to the left, no more will these policy questions die a quiet death in a committee controlled by Republicans.
Next year, these big and controversial questions will sail through the Legislature and land squarely in the governor’s lap.
How he handles them will not only say a lot about the direction of the state in the coming decade, his handling of these questions will also say a lot about Hickenlooper’s own standing as he looks toward re-election in 2014.
To say that John Hickenlooper has had a fortuitous rise to the catbird’s seat of Colorado’s political power structure is to state the obviously obvious. Hickenlooper, a skilled salesman who plays the part of apolitical everyman so well that you can only conclude he is in fact an apolitical everyman, has seen fate smile unrestrained on his seemingly every political move since he first burst onto the political scene a decade-plus ago. With few meaningful examples to the contrary, that which John Hickenlooper has touched has turned to gold.
Beyond his own adept nose for the political center and a largely unquestioning political media in Colorado that can’t help but swoon at the sight of his open demeanor, the greatest gift to Hickenlooper during his first two years as governor has been something very much outside the reach of his own personal magnetism or the grasp of his executive powers. That gift is the aforementioned divided Colorado Legislature, which has spared him the pain of having to make decisions that would force him to choose between the progressive political base that controls the Democratic Party and the political center that has made Hickenlooper the most popular governor in America.
In fairness, it isn’t as though Hickenlooper hasn’t seen his share of conflict. He and the Republicans have argued a lot, though most of it only amounts to a little. And to his credit, the governor has shown a capacity to stand up to his own ranks in some key instances. But Hickenlooper will see a virtual cavalcade of these choices in the coming legislative get-together.
Will the governor sign legislation repealing of the death penalty?
Will he support new taxes and fees on industry to pay for more state spending?
Will environmentalists prevail on him to crack down on oil and gas development, and crowd out conventional energy production by expanding renewable mandates, or will these measures be met with vetos?
Will Hickenlooper sign legislation rolling back school accountability reforms, or new gun restrictions in the wake of the Aurora tragedy?
These are the kinds of sticky, divisive questions he will have to confront this year. And the stakes are high. Bill Ritter’s mismanagement of questions like these was the principal driver of the failure of his administration.
But with challenge also comes opportunity. This new crucible gives him a remarkable opportunity to prove there is a lot of bite to back up his trademark bipartisan bark. If the governor handles these choices well, he will be as close to bulletproof as any politician can be in a swing state like our own.
It has been said that to govern is to choose. This year, with the safe harbor of a divided Legislature nowhere to be found, the governor will be forced to choose plenty.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.