Gov. John Hickenlooper in his office, Wednesday Sept. 20, 2017.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Gov. John Hickenlooper told Colorado Matters he would support independent investigations of sexual harassment complaints among lawmakers and within his own administration.

His comments come just before a bipartisan legislative oversight committee meets to review current harassment policies at the Capitol.

Hickenlooper recently discovered that within the executive branch, where more than 30,000 people work, there have been 62 complaints over five years, as first reported by KDVR Fox 31. The governor sought out that information after allegations arose against three current legislators. He told CPR News none of the 62 executive branch employees came from within the governor's office; they all instead work for state agencies.

"There's been no payments, and we haven't gone through and looked at them all, but ... we haven't been able to find any settlements or that kind of a penalty," the governor said.

Even within state government it's difficult to find information about sexual harassment complaints, due to laws that protect the privacy of victims and accusers.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, Hickenlooper said, and neither is the presence of complaints.

"If you think about it, we want more complaints. We want women to feel free, and safe," he said. "If they're feeling pressured in some way in the workplace, or if they're feeling diminished or verbally assaulted or physically assaulted, we want them to come forward and make a complaint. If they are told they don't have a choice and that's going to be public, you're going to suppress the number of complaints, and that's not what we want."

However, Hickenlooper does want to see something change in how complaints of sexual harassment are handled at the Capitol, and he endorses a reform that legislative leadership says is under consideration.

"My guess, from what I hear, is that [the legislature] seems to be moving to a place where they'll have an outside structure, where someone outside will assess the transgression and make a recommendation on, 'Here's what the consequence should be,' " he said.

Sexual harassment is one of the topics Hickenlooper discussed with Colorado Matters just before he announced the choice of Melissa Hart to be the next Colorado Supreme Court justice. The governor also discussed federal changes that affect health insurance in the state; his level of concern about the state's long-term finances; and growth and change in downtown Denver.

Interview Highlights With Gov. John Hickenlooper

On what will happen if Congress doesn't renew funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program:

"We have the story of one family; their solution would be to leave the state of Colorado. The husband would quit his job, they would move back to Kansas [and move in with relatives], they'd go onto Medicaid. That's how they would make sure that they got their coverage."

On Colorado considering its own health insurance mandate if the GOP tax bill repeals the federal one:

"Certainly we've looked at that, [but] that's a pretty long, drawn out procedure. That's not an easy solution in the short-term. Maybe you haven't been up in the General Assembly the last couple years, but nothing is easy. The problem is if we get rid of the mandate, it's going to drive up the costs of people getting individual insurance. Then what happens is you're going to end up with people dropping out of coverage, which by every indication is going to drive other people's costs up. It becomes a downward spiral."

On whether he thinks Melissa Hart will make the state Supreme Court more liberal, given her "kind of liberal academic" reputation:

"I thought she spoke in a more pro-business sense than either of the other candidates ... Part of this process was we went and looked at the appointments we've made, and the other justices on the Supreme Court, and then each of the major decisions, and did they vote the way we would've expected given their interviews. And the answer is: No. Once someone's on that court, they act independently, and they should act independently."

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: Governor, welcome back to the show.

Gov. John Hickenlooper: Glad to be back.

RW: A nominating commission gave you three choices. How did you land on CU Boulder Constitutional Law Professor Melissa Hart?

JH: Melissa came in and there were three great candidates. I don't remember seeing three more different, more talented candidates. But in the end Melissa talked about things I care about and I think the State cares about.

RW: Like what?

JH: About how to use technology to lower the cost of our judicial system. And how to make sure more people have access to justice and legal representation. Again, without increasing costs. She talked about how the courts deliver their opinions and the clarity of the opinions, how you could actually reduce litigation. And her reputation was as a kind of liberal academic and the bottom line was I thought she spoke in a more pro-business sense than either of the other candidates.

RW: Am I hearing you say that you think she might make the court more efficient, even faster?

JH: Yes, but she's an innovator. And so she was the most knowledgeable of all three candidates about all the major decisions that the court had made. And again, all three of them were very knowledgeable.

RW: But might she move the court in a more liberal direction? Is that something you're looking for?

JH: Pretty much, no, it's not something I'm looking for and part of this process is we went and looked at the appointments we'd made and the other justices on the Supreme Court and then each of the major decisions and did they vote in the way we expected, or would have expected based on their interviews and the answer is, no. Once someone's on that court they act independently and they should act independently.

One of the comments that was raised against Melissa is that there was a quote on her website. She had taken her family down to Selma, Alabama for the anniversary of one of the great Civil Rights marches. And she had posted a quote from Eli Wiesel who was a great-

RW: Holocaust survivor.

JH: Holocaust survivor and talked about the Holocaust. And in that context he had said, and Melissa put this up on her website, "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim." And so that was taken out of context and that was written about the Holocaust and it was presented in one of these blogs as, "Well, she's against business. Justice should obviously make sure everyone gets a fair shake." And when I talked to her about it she said, "Of course, I would never say that you would take sides in any kind of a legal situation." And the more we thought about it, I mean how great that someone that we're looking at putting on the Supreme Court took her family to Alabama to walk across the bridge on the anniversary of that historical moment. And again, she's got the mind and the talent but she also has the heart to do the job.

RW: You've now chosen the majority of the State Supreme Court Justices I'll say. And this pick replaces a Republican whom President Trump promoted to an appeals court bench.

JH: The beauty of Melissa Hart is she is also a real student of the Constitution and an academic at the highest level, which is what Alison Eid provided. And I think that's very important. You look at Alison Eid and the decisions she made on the State Supreme Court, they were not all conservative. What you want is that horse power, that intellect that drives good decisions.

RW: To a couple of federal issues now, funding for a health insurance program for poor children and pregnant women is scheduled to run out in Colorado next month if Congress doesn't act. The state says more than 75,000 families in Colorado rely on this program called CHIP. Earlier this week you and Gov. John Kasich, Republican from Ohio rallied Governors from both parties to ask Congress to get on it and restore the Chip funding. Any response so far?

JH: We've gotten some positive feedback from offices of a number of legislators and really from a broad cross section of the public and of all the major questions facing Congress right now, one issue where you would get probably 70 votes in the Senate and probably 300 votes in the House if they'd let it come to the floor, it would be CHIP.

RW: Any needle moving with Congress?

JH: I think that's something that's gonna happen but what's so frustrating is that Congress does not appreciate the damage that this kind of stress and anxiety creates on low income families, low income people who have a child who has, let's say, diabetes and is having to face all the uncertainty of, "Are we going to lose our funding?"

RW: It sounds like you're still uncertain as to whether Congress will act.

JH: I am uncertain but I feel fairly confident they'll do the right thing. I just wish they'd do it now. They seem to feel that it should be a bargaining chip. This is something that should not be a bargaining chip. It shouldn't take days and weeks of negotiation. This is for the good of the republic.

RW: Have you heard from any of these families in Colorado and do you know if they have any realistic alternatives to get insurance after January, when you've said funding specifically in Colorado would run out.

JH: Well, we sort of have one family and we can provide the name. Their solution would be to leave the state of Colorado. The husband would quit his job. They would move back to Kansas. They'd go on to Medicaid. That's how they would make sure that they got their coverage.

RW: Why would that require going to Kansas?

JH: They were going to go back and live with their family. The grandparents, the adults in this family and then the children would all be under one roof.

RW: Health insurance is also at stake in the tax bill which Congress hopes to vote on before Christmas. The compromise bill released this week appears to take away the penalty for not buying health insurance and that's expected to weaken insurance markets. But if that happens, Colorado has options. We talked to a health policy expert who says this state could follow Massachusetts and establish its own mandate to be insured. Has that come up at all in your administration?

JH: Certainly we've looked at that. That's a pretty long drawn out procedure. It took Massachusetts several years to get to that point so we're certainly looking at it but that is not an easy solution in the short term.

RW: Why can't that be overnight to just say, in Colorado you have to have health insurance?

JH: Well, maybe you haven't been up in the General Assembly the last couple of years, but nothing is easy. I mean the problem is if we get rid of the mandate…

RW: Yeah, what are the consequence specifically for Colorado do you think?

JH: It's going to drive up the costs for people getting individual insurance. Then what happens is you're going to end up with people dropping out of coverage which by every indication is just going to drive other people's costs up. It becomes a downward spiral.

RW: And yet there are some who say people ought to have that freedom.

JH: Yeah, and I respect that but if you're really trying to expand coverage, everyone's got to pay into the system to make it work.

RW: I'd like to talk about harassment claims here at the state capitol. Formal complaints accuse three different Colorado lawmakers of sexual misconduct. This was first reported by KUNC. Many of the comments these men allegedly made or the things that they did women found offensive, were inside this building. They were not against people in your administration but you have more than 30,000 employees in the executive branch and I wonder what kind of soul searching you've done within your own administration as a result?

JH: Well, we've done, I mean, from the beginning we've had training programs and taken this very seriously. When I was in the private sector, in the restaurant business, we prided ourselves, I mean I was one of the people I can proudly say I never dated an employee in the 15 years I was in the restaurant business and I never dated a customer. We just set those standards from the top. I think that what we're looking at here, and we've had a number of complaints, we've had over I think it's 61 or 62 complaints. None in the governor's office. These are all complaints in agencies around the state but not one, there's been no payments and we haven't gone through and looked at them all, but having complaints is not a bad thing. We're trying to change the behavior of society and for too long in too many places men have used authority or positions of power to intimidate or manipulate women.

RW: What's the timing of those 62 complaints?

JH: Over the last five years.

RW: Over the last five years.

JH: Again when you look at the number of employees, that's a relatively small number.

RW: But isn't it true that these remain private until either the accused or the accuser makes that public?

JH: Exactly.

RW: In other words, there's not a lot of outside eyes that can be on those 62 cases for instance, and provide transparency.

JH: Well, but If you think about it, we want more complaints. We want women to feel free, and safe. If they're feeling pressured in some way in the workplace, or if they're feeling diminished or verbally assaulted or physically assaulted, we want them to come forward and make a complaint. If they are told they don't have a choice and that's going to be public, you're going to suppress the number of complaints, and that's not what we want.

RW: Has anything changed in your administration since the #MeToo movement?

JH: I would like to think that we have had an environment in the state where people, where women did feel fairly safe to register complaints.

RW: Doesn't what's happening in the legislative branch tell us that's not the case?

JH: No. I don't ...

RW: Women haven't felt as comfortable.

JH: The legislative branch is very different than looking at the Department of Transportation or the Department of Human Services. Those cultures, each of those are large agencies with many, many employees and they're their own cultures.

RW: You talked about those 62 cases over about five years in the Executive. Is that a number you were aware of prior to #MeToo or is that information that you sought out after the KUNC reporting?

JH: No, that's information that we, at least I wasn't aware of it so it wasn't something that had come through to me. We sought it out because we thought, "Hey, we have a problem here and we haven't recognized it. We better find out about it."

RW: I just want to make it clear. You're saying today in the Hickenlooper administration, on the executive side, if a woman or a man feels that they've been subject to inappropriate behavior, there is a clear method of reporting that and having it dealt with swiftly?

JH: Yes. A, we provide training for everyone in the executive side, and the goal is to make sure that there's a safe environment where people can come forward. If there are women that don't, within the executive office, if they don't feel that they are safe in making those comments, that hasn't gotten to me.

RW: It's incredibly rare, on the legislative side, for a lawmaker to be expelled, since two-thirds of their colleagues have to vote to do that. Do you think that the legislative branch is dealing with this the right way?

JH: Well, I think they're getting to the right way, and they are certainly examining what is the process, what are the standards that have to be achieved, and I think they seem to be moving towards a place where they'll have some sort of outside structure. So, someone outside the general assembly will-

RW: And that political environment.

JH: And that political environment. Someone else, outside that, will assess the transgression and make a recommendation on, "Here's what the consequence should be."

RW: Do you support that?

JH: Yeah.

RW: And would you support it for your own administration?

JH: Sure.

RW: A new analysis from Moody's, says Colorado is unprepared for the next recession. It could be a wake-up call for a state budget that another analyst described to us as precariously balanced. Meanwhile, you released your budget plan for next year, and you've asked lawmakers to put more into reserves. That suggests to me that you're concerned, as well. How worried are you about the budget, and the state finance situation you'll leave to the next governor?

JH: Well, I think that our effort has been to create jobs, to drive entrepreneurship, and I think the economy in Colorado is as strong as anywhere in the United States, and that's not to say there can't be a recession. So, we've been increasing the rainy day fund that's larger almost every year. Is it as large as I want? No. I'd like to get it up to 10 or 12 percent. But-

RW: There's some outside analysts who are saying the same thing.

JH: Yeah, of course.

RW: That they want to see it at 10 percent, for instance.

JH: And I think we're moving in that direction. If you actually take all the cash funds that we have, and there are a number, and maybe I should pull this together. In historic recessions, the state always goes into a number of cash funds that are set aside for certain purposes, but they're not primary purposes of government, right, necessarily. So, there are places, where in times of dire need, we can raid these cash funds, and they actually, when you add them in, they increase our reserve fund significantly. So, I think Moody's, I mean these guys are using one standard to judge all states just based on what they can get off the surface. I think we have an obligation to go out and begin to look at some of those cash funds.

RW: Can you put a face on those cash funds? What would you raid?

JH: Oh, I can. I'm not going to do it here, because that would cause a, I haven't sat down and thought it through.

RW: OK.

JH: But look at severance taxes. Right? When we have a serious recession, we'll take some part, or a significant part of the severance taxes, which traditionally are awarded in grants to small communities all over the state-

RW: Often affected by oil and gas development.

JH: Yeah. Often affected by oil and gas, but not always. I mean, they go all over the state. But we can take those and help us balance the budget. So that's like having an additional reserve.

RW: Now, I normally wouldn't ask you about a restaurant closing, in Denver, but this is really a question that speaks to growth and change. Wazee Supper Club was a catalyst in transforming downtown Denver in the '70s and '80s. Downtown at that time wasn't a place people necessarily wanted to visit, and a lot of people say businesses like Wazee Supper Club were what started to change that. You were later part owner of it. Now it's closing. Does losing institutions like that matter in the face of progress? And if it doesn't matter, does it at least make you a little sad?

JH: You know, when I got laid off in 1986, there was an industrial psychologist that came and talked to each one of us. And the nutshell of what he told each of us was that all change involves loss, and all loss should be mourned.

And Wazee Supper Club, the guy who used to own that, Angelo Karagas, when I first came up with the idea and was sketching out what the floor plan of the Wynkoop Brewing Company, if we could ever raise enough money, what it would look like, I did that in the Wazee Supper Club. I remember the first time he came and looked over my shoulder and said, "What are you working on?" I said, "Oh, we're looking at how we would do this. We might open a brew pub two blocks from here."

And he kept asking me these questions, and he says, "What would you do different about this place, the Wazee?" And I said, "Well, I'd probably pull that balcony out a little bit further, you'd get more seating up there." You know, I had no idea who he was, and at the end, he said, well, I introduced myself as we were leaving, and he said, "Yeah, I'm Angelo Karagas. I own this place." And I felt two inches tall, but we became friends over the years, and after he died, his widow came to me, personally, and said, "I can't keep running this restaurant. And you're the one person, the one company that I'd want to sell it to."

RW: And you later helped take it over. Are you going to miss it?

JH: And we bought it then. And I have a tremendous emotional attachment to it and when I read the news that it was no longer going to be the Wazee Supper Club, I did, I took it personally that I had not done enough to make sure that it was going to stay the Wazee Supper Club and evolve, right. No restaurant can stay the same and succeed. It's got to keep investing in itself, it's got to keep finding out what new things the public wants and delivering it to them at a fair price. So I mean, I do feel a sense of loss.

RW: Governor, thank you for being with us.

JH: You bet. Always a pleasure.