Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper says workers left behind in the transition to renewable energy sources should get government help.
Climate change and energy jobs have been recurring themes between Hickenlooper, who served eight years as Colorado governor, and Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner in their battle for the state’s U.S. Senate seat up for election this year. The race is one of several across the country that could determine whether Senate control remains with the Republicans or flips to Democrats.
Hickenlooper’s climate change plans call for a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050. On the campaign trail, he’s said he wants hydraulic fracturing to become “obsolete.”
His opponent argues that will decimate Colorado’s fossil fuel industries and eliminate jobs.
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Hickenlooper told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner that the move toward a greener economy will lower costs for consumers and ultimately generate four to five times more jobs than the fossil fuel industries will lose.
“Obviously there’s going to be a transition period just like there was in the Industrial Revolution like there was when automobiles came on the scene and suddenly, literally in two or three years, transformed mobility. That’s going to happen here.”
To cushion the blow for rural communities that now rely on oil, gas and coal jobs, Hickenlooper said the government has to provide skills training for displaced workers and incentives for new businesses.
“And there’s got to be some responsibility of government to provide for that transition and if somebody does have to move — which some people probably will have to move, I can’t control that, these are market forces — if somebody does have to move we should be able to provide them support so that there’s a transition, that they are not having to go deeper into debt to take care of their families.”
Editor’s Note: Colorado Matters has a standing request to interview incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner but the Gardner campaign has so far declined. Read more about how we conduct candidate interviews for Election 2020 here.
On his opposition to a fracking ban:
Hickenlooper has said he hopes fracking will become “obsolete” in the transitional economy
“(But) you might as well ban automobiles. Banning things has never been the most effective way to get this country to change.”
On whether his public option plan for health care would take away private health insurance:
“I have never, never said that we should take away people's ability to have private insurance ... You know, there are a number of people who have private insurance, the last estimate I saw on some poll was about half the people on private insurance don’t like their plan, don't think it satisfies their medical needs and they have a hard time making their financial payments. The other half is happy with it. So I've never said we should take away private insurance. We need to make sure that people that can't find coverage that they need, that they can afford, and that it serves their medical needs -- there’s got to be some sort of a sliding scale (public option). And the sliding scale is to make sure it’s not unfairly advantaging against private insurance.”
On whether a public option would endanger rural hospitals:
One study predicted a public option could put up to 55 percent of rural hospitals at high risk of closing.
“So we faced this when I was first expanding Medicaid. This was a concern that we were going to endanger the muscle of rural health care. And in fact, it was just the opposite. I think the experts believed that there were 10 to 12 rural hospitals (that) probably would have closed if we didn't expand Medicaid. Of the 400,000 people that got coverage when we expanded Medicaid something like 50,000 were in rural areas and in many cases they utilize those rural hospitals. Now it's true, the reimbursement rates are often not as high as they would be otherwise but based on our experience they were high enough to keep those hospitals in business.
Before he announced his Senate candidacy, Hickenlooper had repeatedly said he was more cut out for an executive role than a legislative one. CPR listener Alex Lakocy, a structural engineer from Lakewood, raised that issue in a comment to Hickenlooper
Lakocy: “As an executive, you kind of set your own agenda and pursue what you want to accomplish. Whereas in a legislative body, you're, in this case, one of a hundred different legislators, you can sponsor legislation, but getting anything passed requires the support of senators from other states with different priorities. I'm concerned that your past experience as an entrepreneur and mayor and governor may not be useful preparation.”
Hickenlooper: “The bottom line is as a governor you don't get to make your own agenda, right? Things happen. All of a sudden you're in the worst drought since the Great Depression, suddenly these wildfires are out of control and you don't have the resources, you don't have the personnel ready. You've got to adjust and create in real-time best practices, because we understood early on it wasn’t going to be just one wildfire, it’s going to be a number of wildfires, and what were those best practices that we could learn from other states and how do we bring people together? … And so it’s the same skills and I was mistaken in that sense, that there are different skills involved.”
Read The Transcript
Ryan Warner: If Democrat John Hickenlooper is elected to the US Senate, he’d be sworn in — in January — amidst a lot of uncertainty. The uncertainty of businesses surviving the winter. The uncertainty of how COVID-19 and the flu will interact. And the uncertainty around a vaccine. In our last big interview before Election Day, I asked the former governor why he’s better suited than incumbent Republican Cory Gardner— to guide Colorado and the nation — through that unpredictability.
John Hickenlooper: Well in the first place, I would have made sure we didn't get to the position we're in. The negligence in the White House that, you know, that, that school of thought that if we just don't talk about it, it'll go away, which is what the first month or two of the White House response was. And then the incompetence of not having a unified message, best practices, taking the advice of our top medical experts and then making sure we did it. I mean, if you compare our response to Canada and their response and the efficiency, there are some studies that show that a hundred thousand of the people who died in the United States would still be alive if we'd had the same success that Canada had.
My goal has always been to utilize — when we went through the wildfires and the floods in my first term as governor and we were upside down from the Great Recession, so we were trying to rebuild the economy in this time of crisis, and the most important thing is to keep everyone unified. And our response has not been unified from the White House, from Congress, from the Senate. Even now, six months after the CARES Act came out, we still don't have protections for COVID. I mean, we don't have relief for all the people that lost their jobs. All the businesses are trying to figure out how they're going to get through the winter. How can we be rushing a Supreme Court nomination forward when we don't have COVID relief?
So I would be out there making sure we had a supply chain and testing capacity for everyone who wanted it and it'd be fast. It could not (be) this four-day turnaround. How can someone open a business and make sure their employees are safe when they can't, they have to wait three or four days to get test results back. Same thing with facial protection, face masks and plastic shields, face shields. You know, small businesses are going to need this support to be able to reopen.
RW: Now you talk about Congress not acting on COVID relief, on stimulus, and Republicans will say that Democrats were not good partners in that conversation in Washington …
JH: They're pointing fingers right at each other. I mean, that's part of why I got into this race. That's why I want to go back to Washington, is the one thing that I remember so clearly when we had those wildfires was the importance of bringing everyone together and making sure that there wasn't a lot of finger pointing on blame or who should have done something first, or did someone make a mistake. You always want to make sure you understand what happened, but you got to get a unified response very quickly, and especially in Congress.
RW: You draw a parallel to the floods, the fires that you dealt with as an executive. And that's very different from being a legislator and I just want to point out that right up until you ran for Senate, you said repeatedly that you were more cut out for an executive role than a legislative one. Alex Lakocy, a structural engineer from Lakewood has a question about that.
Alex Lakocy: As an executive, your administration can set its own agenda whereas in the Senate, you're one of a hundred different legislators. You can sponsor legislation but getting anything passed requires the support of senators from other states who have different priorities. I am concerned that your past experience as an entrepreneur, mayor, and governor may not be useful preparation for serving in a legislative body
RW: Lakocy, by the way, says he's leaning strongly towards voting for you.
JH: That's good.
RW: But this is an important distinction, guiding an effort as an executive versus a legislator, one of 100.
RW: Why are you the guy for that?
JH: Well, here's the bottom line is, as a governor you don't get to make your own agenda, right? Things happen. All of a sudden, you're in the worst drought since the Great Depression, suddenly you've got these wildfires (that) are out of control and you don't have the resources. You don't have the personnel ready. You've got to adjust and create, in real time, best practices because, and we understood this early on. It wasn't going to be just one wildfire, it's going to be a number of wildfires. And what were those best practices that we could learn from other states and how do we bring people together. In those communities where we had the massive wildfires we created systems of addressing the shortages. So making sure people got housing, making sure they had food and resources and then when we rebuilt it, wasn't people fighting over it.
If you were to go down and talk to Mayor Suthers, conservative Republican in Colorado Springs, and ask him how our work has been both rebuilding after the fires and the flood in Colorado Springs, but also helping to rejuvenate their economy in such a way that it wasn't lagging Denver's and the Northern Front Range. I think he'd say that it was a bipartisan effort, that there was never a question of pointing fingers or not working together. So, it's the same skills. And I was mistaken in that sense that there are different skills involved.
Certainly, the jobs are different. I don't deny that being an executive is different than being in a legislative body. But I believe the way Congress was designed, and this is having talked to several dozen people, you were supposed to go out in life and get into business and make a living and you could maybe be a teacher, own a brewpub, whatever. If you're successful, you try to give back to the community. In my case, I served on 40 nonprofit boards and committees. And then somehow, I ended up running for mayor and I took the lessons of a small business, that optimism, that problem solving, and I took it into local government to try and do a better job of serving the people.
I was serving people in restaurants. I wanted to serve in government. And it worked. I took the same experiences into state government and again tried to bring people together and address issues.
I think those are the kinds of people that were intended by our founding fathers to go back to Congress. I mean, once you've been in business, when you see how laws are made and how sometimes they have unintended consequences, you get better at predicting that. So, I look at what is most needed in Washington right now, especially in the Senate, is people that aren't XX at getting on cable TV. They don't want to get on cable TV all the time. They don't need the spotlight, but they're good at getting people to work together.
RW: To health care, which is one of the biggest issues between you and Senator Gardner in this race. It's also one we know Coloradans feel strongly about. Has the pandemic increased your sense of urgency when it comes to health care, health care coverage and the changes you'd like to see in America's system?
JH: Yeah, no question. It's one thing to be talking about universal coverage and we're discussing it and negotiating it year after year. And then when you come and see a pandemic and you begin to see the grave inequities in people's access to health care and how that translates into preexisting conditions that make certain populations far more vulnerable to something like COVID-19. If you look at the Latino mortality rates where they're almost doubled what their proportionality would be in the general population, that's not acceptable.
And the best immediate way to address that is to make sure that we have again, universal health care, but we also do a better job of making sure that all communities have access to health care. I think of it in terms of a medical home, a family should know where they can go and talk to a physician's assistant or a nurse or a doctor, but have a medical home where they know they can go and not wait until they're really sick.
RW: So, do you think that the pandemic has accelerated how fast you want to get to what you call universal coverage?
JH: Yes. Absolutely. I think that we have to, this notion of having a public option that can be on a sliding scale and for people that can't find health care on the exchange, yeah, I think that's crucial. You know, one of the biggest disagreements I have with Cory Gardner is he still wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. He still wants to roll back the protections for preexisting conditions. He says he's got a 117-word bill that's going to solve that. Every fact, independent fact-finder says it's a sham. So, we have 2.4 million people in Colorado who have some form of preexisting conditions. I want to make sure we maintain their coverage at the same time, dramatically accelerate our capacity to give coverage to everyone.
RW: Be very clear about what the end goal is here. So, when you say universal coverage, does that mean a universal public option that private insurance goes by the wayside? What is, what is the end point for you?
JH: I have never, never said that we should take away people's ability to have private insurance. I got booed in California for saying that we didn't want socialized medicine in that sense. But half the people on private insurance don't like their plan — don't think it satisfies their medical needs and they have a hard time making their financial payments. The other half is happy with it. So, I've never said we should take away private insurance. We need to get, make sure the people that can't find coverage that they need, that they can afford, and that it serves their medical needs — there's gotta be some sort of a sliding scale. And the sliding scale is to make sure that it's not unfairly advantaging against a private insurer.
RW: A private insurer. So, one concern with the public option is that the reimbursement rates would drop and that this could be especially hard on rural hospitals. So, there was a consulting firm, Navigant, that found the public option could put half of rural hospitals at high risk of closing. How would your plan protect rural Coloradans?
JH: So, we faced this when I was first expanding Medicaid. This was a concern that we were going to endanger the muscle of rural health care. And in fact, it was just the opposite. I think the experts believed that there were 10 to 12 rural hospitals that probably would have closed if we didn't expand Medicaid. Of that 400,000 people that got coverage when we expanded Medicaid something like 50,000 were in rural areas. And in many cases, they utilize those rural hospitals. Now it's true the reimbursement rates are often not as high as they would be otherwise, but based on our experience, they were high enough to keep those hospitals in business.
RW: Because there was less uncompensated care?
JH: Exactly. Because there was less uncompensated care. And also, they had more people coming through. In other words, there are efficiencies of scale. So, if you have more patients and you're busier, it's easier to, to get by on, maybe you're not getting quite as much money for every patient, but everybody's being more efficient because there are enough patients. So that you're, each nurse practitioner, each doctor, their day, they're seeing patients that are actually helping pay the bills.
RW: Meanwhile, the high country, especially, has some of the highest insurance premiums in the country, John Hickenlooper, isn't that your legacy?
JH: Well, that's, that's not my legacy. That's true at every resort area all around the country. And we are still trying, I mean, Governor Polis is addressing it even as we speak. I mean, there are a bunch of different reasons. It would take us an hour or two to really go through it. We'll figure this out eventually, but you're right. That is a serious issue.
RW: We'll figure this out eventually is not exactly the kind of encouraging statement a voter might want to hear during a pandemic.
JH: By eventually I'm not talking about 10 years, I'm talking about in a year. This is an issue where you have these split demographics, you know, places like resort towns in, not just in Colorado, but across the country, end up with hospitals that are designed towards a higher- paying clientele. And they don't do as good a job of dealing with you know, so many of the workers in their community who don't have additional resources. And I think the one solution that is being expanded is to make sure we have more clinics like community health centers, things like that. Salud, I'm sure you know who Salud is here on the Eastern Plains. They have proven to be a very successful adaptation of making sure they're in situations where they have enough, it makes it sound like a factory, but throughput, a sufficient number of patients so that they can build a clinic and actually have that clinic have enough patients to pay for itself
RW: A week after the election the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. The court is expected to rule next year, by which time Democrats may, may have control of the Senate. If the court rules against the ACA, what immediate specific steps should Congress take?
JH: Well, there are a myriad of possibilities. They could completely disintegrate that Affordable Care Act. They could apportion it in certain ways. I think what's to see what that is, but hopefully, and I believe there's a good possibility of this, assuming that the Democrats have a majority in the U.S. Senate, that there will be sufficient Republicans who recognize that we have a viable cost-effective solution for coverage, for every person in this country. That we'll get the five or six Republicans we need to get to 60 votes and then actually strengthen the Affordable Care Act. I mean, don't forget the Affordable Care Act is the only major program, to my knowledge in the United States history, where when Congress enacted it, there was never the opportunity to improve it. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, you know, in the years following the original enactment of those programs, Congress said, oh, well, this isn't working. Let's improve it. And we'll fix this and let's do that. I mean, the Republicans for 10 years now have been solely focused on repealing it, getting rid of it completely.
RW: Which makes me wonder — if you have a sense that there might be five or six Republicans,with the late John McCain not on the scene, who would support the Democrats is a bit Pollyanna.
JH: I don't think so. I mean you might be right. Your crystal ball might be better than mine, but I think that we're seeing in these elections, if the Democrats do do very well in these elections, it is going to be a mandate around universal health care. In other words, this is something that the Democrats have been talking about. And when I'm out there and I talk to Republicans who are trying to decide whether they're going to vote for me, the questions they ask me are about health care.
RW: I'd like to talk about climate change, Governor. Your plan calls for, among other things, net zero carbon by 2050. You've been criticized by both sides on this one. Some environmentalists are mad that you oppose The Green New Deal, which would speed up the transition. On the other side, you have people like Senator Gardner who says that your plan is a job killer in the fossil fuel industry. Gardner often points to your statement that you'd like fracking to your words here, "become obsolete". I'm just interested as a policymaker, how you weigh those tradeoffs?
JH: Well, that's the magic, right? And that's why, it's funny that whether you're an executive or in the legislative body itself, in both cases, you're trying to align the self-interests of the competing factions. So in this case, obviously there's a —
RW: So, if both sides are ticked off you've achieved your goal? Is that what I'm hearing?
JH: Well, you're not, you're not far away from a solution. I think that many people on both sides don't see, with sufficient clarity, what the opportunity is here. The two Comanche plants down in Pueblo County that are in the process of being closed.
JH: Coal-fired plants. And they're going to be replaced with wind, solar and batteries. And this demonstrates a dramatic continuous reduction in the cost of wind. Surprisingly in the last five or six years, reduction in the cost of solar and a dramatic reduction in the cost of batteries. Because what's going to happen when we replace Comanche 1 and Comanche 2, the monthly electric bills are gonna go down for consumers. So, for the first time, we're going to get completely renewable energy competing against an existing coal plant. So, it's cheaper than an existing coal plant.
For the first time, we're going to get completely renewable energy at a lower cost. And that's going to bring the force of the market to accelerate this transition to clean energy. And obviously there's going to be a transition period just like there was in the industrial revolution, like there was when automobiles came on on the scene and suddenly, literally in two or three years transformed mobility. That's going to happen again. But just as it happened then, we will have four times, five times more jobs than we lose. And the challenge is going to be, how do we get our community colleges up so that they're training people who are at risk of losing their job or their profession, in these new skills.
RW: Four to five times the jobs. I mean, where do you get that figure?
JH: I can get you the people that gave it to me, there's a consulting group in Berkeley has been working on this stuff and looking at what clean tech, the kinds of jobs it's generating now. And then as you accelerate this transition where those jobs come from.
RW: The question is if you're a coal miner in Craig, Colorado right now you know, that job on the other side of the state isn't necessarily your jam.
JH: It's not their first choice. Listen, I got laid off July 6th of 1986. I'll remember the day for the rest of my life.
RW: As a petroleum geologist.
JH: And I didn't just lose my job. There were over 10,000 geologists lost their jobs in about a four-year period there. I lost my profession and I mean, back then there was no government program to retrain me to give me additional skills. The goal is going to be, how do we provide the financial incentives so that there are entrepreneurs, there are new businesses set up in these rural parts of the state.
Part of that is making sure we have broadband. One of the things that I worked very hard on, and I think it should be a bipartisan issue when I go to Washington, is making sure that we have broadband in every city and town in America. By the end of this year, we'll have broadband in every city and town in Colorado. Not at sufficient speed. I'm not defending the excellence of the program, but it is a foothold. And once you get broadband, then you can give tax incentives. We started Jumpstart, Colorado. Well, we talked about it probably six years ago and it provides, if an entrepreneur starts a business in a struggling rural part of the state, they pay nor did their employees pay any tax of any kind to the state for four years.
You know, I think we're at 1,200, 1,500 jobs, but they're in small towns where if you're a town of 3,000 people and suddenly there are 40 or 50 new jobs in a new small business, it makes everyone more optimistic. So, incentives, skills training so people are trained for those jobs. And then there's gotta be some responsibility of government to provide for that transition. If somebody does have to move, which some people probably will have to move. I can't, we can't control that these are market forces. If somebody does move, we should be able to provide them support so that there's a transition. You know, that they are not having to go deeper into debt to take care of their families.
RW: You favor making fossil fuel extraction and especially fracking, obsolete, but oil and gas companies have proven reserves that they want to extract. So recently we learned ExxonMobil plans to increase its carbon dioxide emissions, 17 percent by 2025, doubling its earnings. Without any limits or penalties on the production side, doesn't your plan lack teeth?
JH: It does lack teeth to a certain extent, although they're going against the market forces. And if you look at a number of the large energy...
RW: Well, they presumably aren't (going against market forces) if they foresee a profit.
JH: Yeah. Oh, trust me. I understand how ExxonMobil works. If you look at some of the larger energy companies, they are moving to wind and solar in dramatic fashion. And some of the large oil and gas companies are riding down some of their reserves — look at what BP did several months ago. This is going to be a transition period that's going to be very challenging for everybody, but we've got to recognize that the costs of doing nothing are exorbitant.
I mean this — Donald Trump, his approach to the pandemic was if we just don't talk about it, it'll probably go away, which has basically been his and the Republicans’ attitude towards climate change. And yet we are now beginning to see the enormous costs of these wildfires, the enormous cost of the hurricanes along the Gulf and the Carolinas.
RW: There are progressives in your party who look at all those factors and say, ban fracking. You know, even if you lose the electoral college votes from Pennsylvania.
JH: You'll have to talk to Joe Biden about that.
RW: They can talk to you about that in Colorado.
JH: I, again, these are market forces, we're going to move and we have to move to a clean energy economy and we've got to do it in real time. We no longer have the luxury of waiting a few years and continuing the debate. So you might as well ban automobiles. Banning things has never been the most effective way to get this country to change. And the way America historically changes in dramatic fashion is by having choices that are clearly better for their future. And I think now, as we're beginning to monetize what the costs of doing nothing are, we will begin to see real action. And again, this is not something that should be Democrats or Republicans and strictly partisan. This should be a bipartisan solution.
RW: Another issue that's come up in this race is your ethics. Earlier this year, the state's Independent Ethics Commission found that you violated the state's gift ban twice, once by accepting a ride on a private plane; another by accepting some perks on a trip to Italy. The commission dismissed four other complaints against you. We spoke to listener Johannes Loetz of Longmont, who works in the public library system. Loetz says he voted for you, but the ethics thing really gave him pause.
Johannes Loetz: Is this a pattern? And also, I think the bigger picture is how can I trust that he understands the Constitution and the law and et cetera enough so that this doesn't happen again? Where, how do I know that he gets it? That there wasn't power peddling or position peddling or what have you — influence peddling?
JH: So, let me be clear. So, this was two instances where we were found in violation, the Denver Post called them honest mistake, relatively minor. They were inadvertent. You know, I accepted responsibility. I paid the $2,700 fine. These allegations were put forward by a dark money Republican group whose sole purpose was to gather material that they could turn into attack ads. And the only reason they're doing that is because it became clear to them that they could not defend Cory Gardner's abysmal record without a barrage of attack ads against me. And, you know, the fact that Cory Gardner wanted to remove protections for pre-existing medical conditions from 2.4 million Coloradans. The fact that Cory Gardner hasn't been a champion of climate change and has continued to support Donald Trump as he rolls back protections for clean air and clean water. He can't defend that record. So, they wanted to create something they could attack me with.
RW: Mr. Loetz is asking pretty specifically here though. ‘How do I know you get it?’ That there wasn't power peddling, I mean, you know, I’ll just say, like, we're talking about private jet rides and a Maserati limo here. I mean, even if that stuff is paid for out of pocket, which would have meant that these issues were not ethics breaches. I mean, you know, like, do you worry about losing touch with average life and whether there's too much coziness and power peddling?
JH: So, the trip to Europe, I paid out of my own pocket. So that wasn't power peddling. That was, I was trying to sell Colorado to a hundred, a room full of a hundred CEOs and people that could open offices and create jobs in Colorado. The trip on the private plane was with a nonprofit foundation, that are not influencers. I was going to the commissioning of the USS Colorado to give a speech in my role as a governor. If you actually look at what the commission found me guilty of, it was the fact that, and I still don't understand the legality of this, but it was because there were a couple of other legislators from the General Assembly that were going to the commissioning and they weren't invited to a dinner that I was invited to, which was somehow connected to the flight.
Again, these were inadvertent errors. I mean, there's a team of people that looked at every single trip I took and we did everything we could to conform to it. There was never any doubt or suggestion that I was trying to do anything unethical. They were honest mistakes and I can guarantee Mr. Loetz that. I mean, I've been doing this for 16 years and I did accept responsibility. We made a couple of mistakes. It will not happen again.
RW: We have about a minute left. Are you concerned about the (federal) debt?
JH: Yeah, of course. I mean, I think anyone should be concerned about the debt.
RW: Do you imagine cuts somewhere. I mean, you've talked about massive federal investment here.
JH: Well, actually, if you look at my approach to climate change and my approach to getting universal health care there are not massive trillion-dollar initiatives in both those cases. I think that the stimulus to the economy will more than compensate the government for whatever investments are necessary.
RW: Isn't that what we were supposed to believe about Trump's tax cuts? Aren't you making the same argument?
JH: Oh, no. Quite the different, quite different. His tax cut gave a trillion-dollar tax break to corporations and wealthy Americans. And it didn't come close to paying for itself. What I'm talking about is using market forces to look at how do we take coal-fired plants and replace them with wind, solar and batteries. And we're not raising taxes. We're not, you know, if you look at what we're doing with Comanche, that's not federal money that's going in there. It's not state money. It's money that Xcel was going to use to rebuild their capacity, to generate electricity. That's what we're talking about.
So I, here's my fear about the national debt is that you give a trillion dollar tax break to large corporations that in many cases weren't even asking for it. And then suddenly you are unprepared. You are negligent, and then you are incompetent in your response to COVID-19 so that the economy gets turned completely upside down. Now we do have real issues with the national debt, but this is not the time to turn off the spigot or else this is how you can end up in a Great Depression.
RW: Governor, thank you so much for being with us.
JH: You bet. Always a pleasure.