Thursday’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami will give two Coloradans a chance to introduce themselves to a wide audience of voters nationwide. But they’re no strangers to each other.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet’s lives have intersected and at times ran on parallel tracks. Now, they each want a moment to stand out.
“If they aren't able to really distinguish themselves in these first two debates, there's not necessarily much that will propel them into the next ones,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “Some of the winnowing is going to start going on pretty shortly. Probably the worst thing would be to do nothing and to simply be not noticed.”
On paper, Hickenlooper and Bennet sound kind of similar: Both hail from the East Coast, both are graduates of Wesleyan, a small liberal arts college in Connecticut and both moved out West to start their careers.
When it comes to Colorado politics both got involved around the same time. Bennet was Hickenlooper’s chief of staff during his first years as mayor of Denver.
“Mayor Hickenlooper appreciated the role of Bennet as a buffer from a lot of the people who worked at the city and some of the community issues,” said James Mejia. In 2004 Hickenlooper appointed Mejia to be the project manager on Denver’s Justice Center, but Mejia said he dealt more frequently with Bennet.
He remembers the pair having a good working relationship but “wouldn’t call them close friends.”
“Hickenlooper fancies himself as a good squash player,” he said. “That’s not something Bennet would be caught doing. On one occasion Hickenlooper told me he was disappointed Bennet didn’t take up the sport more.”
After he served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, Bennet went on to become the Superintendent of Denver Public Schools. Congress came calling in 2009 when Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Bennet to the U.S. Senate — a seat Hickenlooper was also in the running for.
Instead, two years later, Hickenlooper was sworn in as the Colorado governor, the first of two terms.
“We have smart people here. We have ambitious people here,” said former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. He isn’t surprised the two decided to enter the crowded presidential field.
“It fits Colorado's lifestyle. It fits Colorado's image. I have friends of mine back east that call me all the time and say, ‘You live in a weird place,’ I say ‘yeah it’s colorful Western Colorado, the Wild, Wild West.’ So, why would not you think you got two people?”
They may come from the ‘wild west’ but on the campaign trail, both have taken a moderate tone. Hickenlooper has emphasized his Colorado successes and an economic argument. He’s attacked other Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders for their embrace of socialism. Hickenlooper was even booed at California's Democratic Convention when he said socialism wasn’t the answer.
As for Bennet, his national profile got a big boost when he went on the attack against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz over the partial government shutdown. The viral moment on the floor of the U.S. Senate preceded his entrance into the 2020 race. He jumped in after he received a clean bill of health from a prostate cancer diagnosis. Bennet’s major theme is to fix Washington’s broken political system and restore faith in institutions.
Webb’s advice for both is to try to stand out.
“At the same time, you don't want to do anything silly where people will perceive that you're either grandstanding or that you just trying to be cute. You want people to see you as being someone that can lead this country and someone that can beat Donald Trump.”
The candidates say the debate is as much about personality as it is policy. Hickenlooper wants to use stories to show voters who he is, especially that he’s someone that can be relied upon. He doesn’t want to go on the offensive.
“If you spend as much time behind the bar serving beers to people, you've got lots of stories, but in a debate and you've only got 60 seconds to tell them, and that makes it a little tougher,” he said. “I don't think I'm going to attack anybody. That's never been my style. I want to create a positive vision that just when it seems darkest is when you can do the greatest things.”
For Bennet, he said it will be important to contrast his own values with the current president.
“We lost such faith with our institutions that we sent an American reality TV star to be president,” he said. “I hope our nominee doesn’t set such a low standard again.”
And how would Bennet measure success Thursday?
“For me, I think it would be having the chance to introduce myself to the American people. Having some of them think I have a reason to be in this race. One step at a time.”
Hickenlooper was one of the people Bennet called as he considered a presidential run. They think of each other as friends but admit with their busy lives they don’t see much of each other.
“In a funny way, we complement each other in a sense that we'd done completely different things, but between the two of us, I mean, they probably should put us both in the White House,” Hickenlooper quipped.
And Bennet said when it comes to the huge Democratic field they’re not each other’s main competition.
“We have a big enough race that we’re not colliding with each other although we are going to find each other on the same debate stage Thursday night.”
As they stand on the stage next to other higher profile candidates like Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders they won’t just share a common history, but also a goal — with each hoping he emerges a favorite in the eyes of crucial Democratic voters.