Colorado’s ‘Accidental Governor’ On Politics, Death, And The Clinton Question

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Photo: Gov. John Hickenlooper signing a bill in Colorado Springs
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed two new laws at the Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs on May 20, 2016.

Each day a number pops up at the top of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s iPhone, showing him the days left in his administration. But there is some question as to whether he'll see the remaining 957 days through. Speculation has intensified since Tuesday's release of his memoir, "The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics," that he may be tapped as Hillary Clinton's running mate if she becomes the Democratic nominee for president.

"It would be hard to say no," he replied to a questioner at a bill signing recently, adding, "I hope she doesn't call."

Photo: Gov. John Hickenlooper lunch at Phantom Canyon Brewing in Colorado Springs
Gov. John Hickenlooper had lunch at Phantom Canyon Brewing in Colorado Springs, a restaurant he helped found. He did not have a beer.

As his memoir hits bookstores and he submits to a flood of national media interview requests, Hickenlooper recently toured Arapahoe County and Colorado Springs for bill signings and other events. Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner went along to ask about surprising revelations in the book.

There are also more immediate questions, including whether the governor will call lawmakers back to Denver for a special legislative session this summer and whether he will veto a bill allowing more alcohol sales at grocery stores. He tackled those, and shared anecdotes about the time he took his mother to see an X-rated movie and what it was like, as a boy, to watch his father die of intestinal cancer. Excerpts of the conversation are below.

Photo: Gov. John Hickenlooper and Ryan Warner at Phantom Canyon Brewing in Colorado Springs
Gov. John Hickenlooper shows Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner a fossil embedded in the bar at Phantom Canyon Brewing in Colorado Springs.

On whether his new memoir is meant to serve national political ambitions:

"If this book was supposed to be an audition to be a [vice presidential] candidate, I mean, there's at least half that book I wouldn't have put in there. I put in warts and all, and there are a lot of very embarrassing things in that book that I don't think portray me in a very positive light."

For example, the governor once appeared on the talk show "Donahue" as an eligible bachelor, he tried to write an episode of the TV drama "Moonlighting," he was turned down by banks 32 times when he was trying to start the Wynkoop brewery in Denver, and he got a DUI.

On his father's death, when the future governor was 8 years old:

"We knew he was sick. No one talked about it. And, in those days, he would -- spent long periods of time in his -- in the bedroom, with the door closed. And we weren't to go in there. And, you know, if I was that sick, I'd want my son to be in every single day. I'd want to talk to him. I'd want him to hear every thought I was thinking. But, for whatever reason, they were trying to protect us from that. And so we never really -- I mean, he kind of disappeared, even though he was up there in that bedroom, he kind of disappeared from the active life that we were all living. And it was almost like -- the house was almost a little bit haunted. He was there, but he wasn't there. We couldn't go talk to him."

On taking his mother to see "Deep Throat," an X-rated film:

"We walk into this movie theater to see "Deep Throat" and, I mean, the first scene was kinda raunchy. I looked at my mother, and I said, 'I think we should leave.' My mom says -- you know, my mom grew up in the Depression., once she paid for a ticket, she was gonna use it -- 'No, no. It's okay. It's okay.' It was the first time I really realized how lonely she was. I mean, when I was growing up, she was always very busy, had her own life, you know, raising four kids by herself. But when we were all gone, she missed us and, you know, that she would go to an X-[rated] movie."

Photo: Liquor store owner Paul Amber with Gov. John Hickenlooper and Ryan Warner
Paul Amber, of Steins and Vines liquor store, encouraged Gov. John Hickenlooper, center, to sign a bill to phase in sales of full-strength alcohol at grocery stores, as Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner listened in.

On how face blindness affected his careers in politics and the brewery business (he co-founded Denver's Wynkoop Brewing Co.):

"Forget about government. Face-blindness, when you're in the restaurant business, is a catastrophe, because someone comes in every two weeks and you have no idea who they are. And so, you just, you learn several compensations... You always appear happy to see people, right? And you always try to act as if you know them, in case you do know them, and then you really listen to what they're saying, because as soon as you hear someone's voice or they say something, then you remember who they are."

On his unusual path to politics, from petroleum geologist to brewery owner, to mayor and governor:

"Governor Bill Ritter once called me 'the accidental governor,' 'the accidental mayor,' because... no one who aspired to actually be a mayor or a governor, to hold elected offices, would have never done those stupid things that I did through high school, through college and through my early years. They just wouldn't have done it."

Photo: Sign welcoming Gov. John Hickenlooper at Habitat for Humanity in Colorado Springs
A sign welcomed Gov. John Hickenlooper to the Habitat for Humanity store in Colorado Springs, where he signed a bill extending the state's transitional jobs program.

On whether he will call lawmakers to Denver for a special session to try to pass a budget maneuver he has advocated for:

"I think we’d have to have some confidence that both sides would be willing to negotiate and compromise... So the hope is that I’ll spend the next week or two talking to both sides and trying to listen carefully to what their real concerns are and see if I can find a middle ground."

Read the poem Hickenlooper sends to people he wants to work in his administration. It's called "To Be Of Use," by Marge Piercy.

Read an excerpt of "The Opposite of Woe: My Life In Beer and Politics:"

“What is that?” a law enforcement officer at the security gate asked me. He nodded at the belt buckle in my hand. It was my gift for President Obama. Not that I was planning on telling security this. 

Helen looked my way. The twinkle in her eyes conveyed, Oh, here we go.

“Just a belt buckle,” I said. The security officer shot me a look. He didn’t need me to tell him it was a belt buckle.

Governors don’t typically have to go through metal detectors, not even at the White House. I wasn’t expecting to have to go through one this night. Answering the security officer’s questions, I was irritated and I tried to be vague, figuring if I told him it was a gift for the president my buckle would be confiscated. I had taken the buckle out of my pocket as soon as I spotted the metal detector. As there was no way I could sneak the buckle through the metal detector, I thought I might have a better chance of getting the thing inside if I held the buckle in my hand and tried to make my case to security. The officer took the buckle from my hand and turned it over and over, inspecting it. The buckle was a large silver piece inscribed with the carving of a donkey in a ring of gears, and the phrase “Get your ass in gear.”

I like the story of how the donkey became the symbol of the party. During the 1828 presidential campaign, Andrew Jackson was regarded as a stubborn populist. His slogan was “let the people rule.” His opponents labeled him a “jackass,” saying if he was elected and the people ruled it would amount to a bunch of jackasses running the country. Jackson, a decorated hero of the War of 1812, recognized a strategic opportunity when it was handed to him. He embraced his populism and the jackass. He highlighted the virtues of the donkey: persistent, loyal, able to carry a heavy load. He put the image on his campaign posters and rode the jackass right into the Oval Office, becoming the first Democratic president of the United States. Despite Jackson’s truly disgraceful treatment of Native Americans, the donkey remained a likable symbol of the Democratic Party.

Why do you have a belt buckle?” the security officer asked. He looked down at the cummerbund around my waist and then looked back up at me.

“It’s important,” I said. “I didn’t feel comfortable leaving it in the hotel room.”

The agent remained unpersuaded. Finally, I came clean and told him I wanted to give it to the president. Sure enough, my buckle went bye-bye. As we walked away from security, I told Helen the president would now never see the damn thing; it would end up stored in that warehouse where they put the Ark of the Covenant at the end of that Indiana Jones movie.

It wasn’t just that I paid more than $300 for the thing and that it was made by a Colorado artist. I had what I thought was a pretty clever reason for wanting to gift it to President Obama in this particular moment. What’s more, I was nervous and I was counting on the buckle to be an icebreaker.

Once we were through security, a United States Marine escorted us up some stairs and into the East Room. It was stunning, just like the holiday White House you see on television. Several Christmas trees decorated with white lights, garland meticulously hung. The room was filled with people and alive with the murmur of conversation. Guests were pretending not to be discreetly sizing up one another.

Helen and I recognized very few people and suspected no one recognized us. There was a marvelous buffet and a bar and a large-screen TV. The Marine informed us that in this room guests would be watching the Kennedy Center Honors live on TV. Helen and I exchanged a puzzled look. I suggested to the Marine that perhaps there had been a mistake. I explained that the president himself had invited us.

First the confiscated buckle, I thought; now this.

The Marine politely explained that he had directed us to the proper spot and with an apologetic smile added that whatever else would or would not occur were decisions that had been made above his rank. Perfect pivot, off he went. “Crap,” I said to Helen. “Let’s get a drink.” As Rodney Dangerfield put it: no respect. I know, I know, I was the governor of Colorado at the White House, and I should have been honored and thrilled—and I was— but
I’ve had a chip on my shoulder for as long as I can remember.

Growing up, I was the skinny dork with acne and the Coke-bottle-thick eyeglasses. I was a petulant loudmouth, perpetually teased by my classmates. At home, I was the youngest of four kids: my oldest sibling, my sister Betsy, was the brilliant one; my older brother, Sydney, was the star wrestler; my sister Deborah, aka Tad, was the poet and artist; and me, I was the baby. With such competition, I never got the attention—or the respect—I wanted. More than anything, I wanted my voice to be heard.

During our family’s dinner-table conversation I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I was constantly hip-checked to last in line for the bathroom and, for that matter, pretty much everything. On my high school’s championship baseball team, I was the second-string pitcher, and off the field wasn’t exactly the socially graceful Casanova. And college, well, during my ten years there, I was told I didn’t have what it takes to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, and time and again I watched the girl I pined for walk off with somebody cooler. You know, I was your typical geek. 

So it went for my careers in business and politics: forever pegged as the goof with a snowball’s chance. Even my own mother wouldn’t invest in my first business. Now, here I was, the governor of Colorado who had hoped to show his long-suffering soon-to-be-ex-wife a night to remember by taking her to the Kennedy Center Honors where we’d be seated in the same audience as the president of the United States, and instead I was having a gin and tonic, watching poor Helen tolerate her heels, as we stood around and waited to watch the real action on TV. Though I should have been happy with where I was, I was not—the story of my life.

Just as I was motioning to the bartender for a second G-and-T, another Marine appeared and asked us to follow him. An exquisitely orchestrated whirlwind of movement ensued: We were led outside the White House and joined a handful of guests onboard a black shuttle bus. Moments later, at the Kennedy Center, we were led this way and that, up some stairs, more stairs, through double doors, and finally, Helen and I were led to a balcony box, front and center of the stage. The front row of our box had only four seats—the other two seats were empty. I pointed out to Helen that our box was labeled No. 1. “What do you think that means?” she asked. I said I didn’t know, but probably something good. Seeing Helen smile made me smile.

Excerpted from "The Opposite of Woe" by John Hickenlooper. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © John Hickenlooper, 2016.