Governor-Elect On His Transition

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Governor-elect John Hickenlooper's transition office looks down on the Colorado Capitol, where he'll be inaugurated in two weeks. Until then, he has a lot to get done. Hickenlooper is hiring his cabinet, studying upcoming legislative issues and thinking about how he'll balance his family life with his new job. Ryan Warner talks with Hickenlooper from his transition office in downtown Denver.


Colorado Matters

Interview with Governor-elect John Hickenlooper

December 28, 2010


This is Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio. I’m Ryan Warner and we’re standing on the 41st floor of a high-rise in downtown Denver with the next Governor of Colorado. John Hickenlooper, these are your transition offices and there’s quite the view out this window.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER, Colorado Governor-elect:

Well, as we look to the south, we are looming over the State Capitol and Civic Center Park and City Hall.

Warner: And you’ll be moving into the State Capitol very soon under its gold dome. When you look at that building, what are your feelings about moving into it?

Hickenlooper: Well, certainly when they designed and built the State Capitol they wanted to create a building that was symbolic. Again, the dome implies that it’s bringing people together. They wanted to build a building that was symbolic of the importance of a successful, efficient government and I think our job is to go in there and say, all right, Gov. Ritter’s done a great job. He built on the hard work of Gov. Owens who built on the hard work of Gov. Romer.

We’ve got to go over there and continue to find improvements, find savings, find ways of reinvigorating our economy and creating jobs, you know, at least in terms of the role of government. That’s where it all starts.

Warner: I understand that just before this interview you were in interviewing job candidates. I imagine you’re doing a lot of that these days.

Hickenlooper: Well, in my life, on three periods of times have I had huge avalanches of interviews to be done. One was when we first opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company, the first restaurant. One was when we first, you know, took office as mayor and then this time. There’s just a lot of positions you’ve got to get filled very quickly.

Warner: Is there more interest, do you think, given the job climate, too?

Hickenlooper: I don’t think so, because I-- it’s interesting. I think there’s a sense of patriotism. Call it, you know, people wanting to do public service. An awful lot of the people that are applying for jobs are, you know, employed at highly compensated jobs already and, in many cases, are considering taking serious pay cuts. So I’m not sure that has as much to do with the job climate as a sense that this is a critical time for people to give back and for, you know, all hands on deck.

Warner: My understanding is that you are looking for a good number of people outside of government.

Hickenlooper: Yeah. We’re trying to find people from all walks of life. So, we obviously want some people who understand state government, understand county government and municipal government. We also want people from the non-profit world and people from the private sector.

I am, obviously, a huge believer that you need lifetime public servants but you also need, injected into that, that attitude that small business people so often have to just pragmatic common sense.

Warner: What would be a red flag in an interview, a job interview, with John Hickenlooper? What would come out of my mouth and immediately get me disqualified from being a part of your administration?

Hickenlooper: Oh, there’s nothing. Unless you said, well, listen, I don’t really worry about telling the truth so much, but I’ll always tell you the truth. That would-- you would not get hired. Far more common is you end up with two or three people that you really want to hire.

Warner: So we’ve talked about filling positions in the administration, but let’s talk about the position that you’ll be in next month as Governor of Colorado. What have you been boning up on when it comes to state government?

Hickenlooper: It is like standing under a waterfall. You know, I have to bone up on everything.

So, obviously, the budget is first and foremost and how we are going to, if the economy doesn’t rebound like everyone is hoping, what would be the next level of cuts? We’ve got to be prepared for that. And simultaneously, we have to be working aggressively and really boning up on where do we stand in terms of economic development. What are the projects that we really support and believe in? How can we get government to play a larger role and a more supportive role in helping our small businesses, our middle-size businesses grow?

Warner: Do you think there’d be incentives, new incentives, the state would offer businesses to come here?

Hickenlooper: Well, there’s not a lot of money right now and, to be honest, as a small business person running my restaurant in LoDo, often times they’d give developers large incentives to take over an old building and renovate it and end up putting a couple restaurants in and it always bothered me a little bit. I understand why incentives are there. Businesses come here. They’re catalysts and they attract other businesses and you really do create, you know, a snowball effect.

Certainly, we will look at incentives. We want to attract businesses here, but we’re also going to focus very strongly on how do we help businesses already here. How do we help them grow?

We have so many people throughout the state. If you were to look at how many executives, CEOs, chief marketing officers, people from Fortune 500 companies retire to Aspen or Steamboat Springs or Telluride or Crested Butte, these folks live here half the year, some of them full time and they’d love to be part of Colorado. They’d love to help us.

So how do we take their expertise and use that to help our small businesses grow more rapidly and more successfully?

Warner: I mean, are you asking those executives to be a part of an advisory group?

Hickenlooper: Yeah. Well, we’re trying to figure out how could we use their time most successfully. So as I interview people to hire as the head of economic development, one of the questions I’m asking is, how would you go about this? If you know you’ve got a resource there, how do we collect and harvest that experience and that wisdom and use it help our smaller business community?

Warner: On the question of the state budget, you’re looking at a $1 billion shortfall and, in addition, an estimated $140 million shortfall in property tax revenue for schools that the state might have to make up. Gov. Ritter has already offered a proposed budget, but it didn’t include that $140 million. Wanting to make any changes so far?

Hickenlooper: Well, we’re working with the legislature. You know, everybody says the new governor’s got to come in and have his budget, right? I don’t think it has to be my budget. I think what I should be doing and what we are doing is talking to the Republican leadership in the House, the Democratic leadership in the Senate. We need both those houses, but also the minority, the Republicans in the Senate and the minority Democrats in the House, what are their priorities?

Because we all agree on the basic characteristics. We know that we need to create job growth, but within that, does lowering taxes do it more? I mean, we all understand that we’re never going to attract businesses to move here if we don’t have a good education system. If our K-12 system doesn’t teach kids how to read and do calculus, if we don’t have a higher education system that delivers qualified professionals to run businesses.

I think those discussions with the legislature and, you know, I have to say that I’m very pleased by how everyone I’ve talked to seems genuinely committed to not playing partisan politics, to rolling up their sleeves and saying, all right, here’s what we think, but we know that we may not get everything we want, but we’re willing to compromise and let’s sit down and see if we can all agree on a budget.

Warner: What have you heard, say, from Republicans in the House, who hold the majority there? What are you hearing on compromise from them?

Hickenlooper: The legislators we’ve talked to are very pragmatic, recognize that we are in a very difficult budget situation. I think a number of the Republicans would like to, you know, re-instill the business exemptions that were removed from the budget last year. You know, various aspects of the budget process last year they’d like to revisit.

But what we’ve said from the beginning is, all right, well, if you want to reinstate this exemption, where is that revenue going to come from?

Warner: Do they have an answer?

Hickenlooper: You know, we haven’t gotten to that granular level yet where you actually go dollar for dollar and if you’re going to take $20 million here or $60 million there, where is it going to come from. I think this is going to be a difficult year to reinstall too much of anything, just because the economy is still very fragile.

Warner: You said all during the campaign, Coloradans don’t have an appetite for new taxes. I imagine that’s your perception right now, just a few weeks--

Hickenlooper: No, no, no. Now that I’m elected, sure everybody wants to pay taxes. No, no.

Warner: But let me ask you--

Hickenlooper: It hasn’t changed.

Warner: It hasn’t changed?

Hickenlooper: There is no appetite for taxes that I can find.

Warner: Is that a four-year lack of hunger, do you think, or might that change?

Hickenlooper: You know, I have no idea. Part of the reason there’s no appetite for taxes is that there is a widespread perception that government is overstocked, overstaffed, not sufficiently efficient. Again, when you sit and look at all the cuts that the legislature made in the last two years, it’s hard to think that there’s too much excess capacity, but I think we have an obligation to the voters. You get a new Cabinet in there, fresh eyes, and say, all right, where can we make savings and can we find $100 million or $150 million a year in savings?

You know, you look at the committee that just came out on higher ed, they’re saying, in a perfect world, they’d need $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year to really build a higher ed system that they think would be, you know, one of the top 10 in the country. You look at the transportation, the engineers at the Department of Transportation say that just to maintain the roads and bridges we have now would take an additional $500 million a year. To really address some of the long-term issues we have, you’re closer to $1 billion a year.

These are big numbers. So, hopefully, if we can turn this economy around and stimulate companies to hire more people, pay them more money, generate more income tax, more property tax, that’ll take care of a big chunk of it. But it’s unclear whether it’s going to be enough to get us all the way there.

Warner: You mentioned the Cabinet. It seems like you are mostly bringing in new faces.

Hickenlooper: Yeah. Again, we haven’t made all the decisions yet, but at a certain point, even if you’re going to keep some people, generally you look for ways to put them into a fresh job just so that they see before them a landscape where they can tilt at windmills, you know, attack problems that people haven’t solved before, that people thought were insoluble.

You know, I remember when we first came in, in 2003, in the mayor’s office in Denver and we started talking about homelessness and people were like so cynical, but we’ve cut chronic homelessness by almost two-thirds in the last five and a half years. You know, there are a bunch of issues out there that we’d like to tackle in that same way on the state level.

Warner: And what’s an example of one of those on the state level? I mean, the budget is, obviously, not a small one, but one more.

Hickenlooper: Well, homeless is, on a small level, is something-- there are challenges around homeless all over the state.

Warner: I wonder if having seen state government up close now as governor-elect there are things you said on the campaign trail that just were misguided or, you know, you didn’t have the full picture, policies you’d change as a result of that?

Hickenlooper: You know, there are a lot of things that you, as you begin to dig into them are you going to be harder than you think, sometimes. And certainly one of the things we talked about all the time, if you want to help businesses grow and hire people, how do you cut red tape and how do you define the difference between appropriate regulation, which we all agree we need, and red tape.

And that-- as a small business person, I felt I was dealing with red tape all the time. And yet, when you actually try to define it and there’s an office, the Department of Regulatory Affairs.

Warner: DORA.

Hickenlooper: DORA, the famous DORA. You know, when you begin digging down into the nine commissions that make that up and how are they defined, it’s not going to be as easy to just go in there and helter-skelter cut red tape. You’re going to have to be a lot more careful and work with those commissions to say, all right, how do we define the difference between appropriate regulation and red tape.

Warner: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and we’re at the transition officers of Governor-elect John Hickenlooper. That’s a lot of syllables, isn’t it?

Hickenlooper: Governor-elect John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper is a mouthful on its own. You know, my son is Theodore Bailey Hickenlooper. How could we do that to him?

Warner: Well, we’re talking to the governor elect at his offices downtown before he becomes governor of the state. And to a couple of the issues that the legislature may tackle in the next session, some Democrats are working on a bill to allow civil unions for gays and lesbians. Would you support that?

Hickenlooper: Well, my sense — and I’ve said this for decades. If you accept the fact that many people are born with a sexual orientation that is different than the traditional heterosexual orientation, if you accept that that’s not something they’re choosing, it’s in some way inherent, then it’s hard for me to see how we can deny them certain legal rights. I think we have to be careful of how we use the word “marriage,” because that has an emotionally charged connotation for a lot of people, but I do think we should provide the equivalent legal rights for everybody.

Warner: Voters in this state cast a ballot a couple of years ago on this issue, creating domestic partnerships, and they said no. Should the legislature go ahead and say yes for them?

Hickenlooper: The language of that initiative had the word “marriage” in it. I personally think if the word “marriage” hadn’t been in there, would they have-- would the voters have voted it down? I think based on my extensive travels — no, I’m just kidding. But certainly many conversations of people that voted against that initiative, having the word “marriage” in there bothered them a lot.

Warner: On the Republican side, there are members of the GOP working on an immigration bill along the lines of the one Arizona has, generally seen now as the toughest in the country. Your thoughts on something like that in Colorado?

Hickenlooper: Well, there’s parts of that bill that are, you know, soon to be in front of the Supreme Court. So let’s see if that’s constitutionally responsible in the first place.

I feel that we need a federal solution. You know, I’ve already-- at the very first meeting of the National Governor’s Association they have a new governors orientation, which was striking in the fact that there are more new governors this year than any year in the history of the United States, right? Twenty-nine new governors.

So, you know, I’ve talked to them, Republicans and Democrats, and said, can’t we, as governors, begin to push Congress? And the vast majority agree that we need a secure border, that we need an identification system that works. We need some sort of guess worker system and we probably need some level of accountability for our businesses so that they don’t break the law.

If we got those passed, wouldn’t that be a giant step for the country? And, you know, the governors were, for the most part, pretty receptive to that.

Warner: Last week we had, really, what we called our exit interview with Gov. Bill Ritter and, you know, one reason he’s leaving after one term is because he didn’t feel that he struck the right balance between the job of governor and being a father and a husband. Have you given thought to how you’ll achieve that balance yourself?

Hickenlooper: Oh, of course. You know, when Gov. Ritter announced last January that he wasn’t going to seek reelection and called and asked if I’d consider running, that next night I went over to the official residence and met with him and his wife, Jeannie, and they told me in graphic detail, the challenges, both for themselves and for their children, that they felt the pressure on them.

You know, in the end, I’ve got one child. Gov. Ritter’s got four. I think our son is, being younger, it’s not quite as burdensome on him.

Warner: How old is Teddy?

Hickenlooper: Teddy’s eight.

Warner: Eight.

Hickenlooper: But the responsibility still is, you know, how do we design a system that respects that balance and allows us to get it and I think--

Warner: “Design a system?” That sounds so Von Trapp, “design a system.”

Hickenlooper: It is, but you do design a system and I think that’s where we can learn from Gov. Ritter. What happened again and again was either a Cabinet member or chief of staff would come in to the schedule and say, “Well, the governor really needs to be at this,” or “He really needs to be at that.”

And in the end, I think you’ve got to have the discipline, the self discipline, which is not my strong suit. You know, you’ve got to be able to say, I’m going to be home by 5:30 five nights a week to have dinner with my family. Now I can go out again at 7, but I’m going to have that dinner period and I-- three times a week, I’m not going to leave the house until 8. I’m not going to leave every morning at 6:30 or 7, but I’m going to stay ‘til 8 and make sure I get my son’s breakfast together and have that morning time with him and make sure the homework’s all set and we get the lunch packed.

Those little moments, I think, are critically important. We will only do one event on a weekend. If I can take Teddy to some of these other events, then I’ll go to three or four events, if it’s a family event. You know, we’ve worked very hard to keep Teddy, pretty much, out of the media. “Protective” is not the right word--

Warner: Private?

Hickenlooper: But we want him to have his own life, to a certain extent, although I’m not sure he wants that. I think he likes-- you know, he likes a certain amount of limelight and, you know, again all these decisions, you wonder. You go back and forth. What is best for him? What will give him a happy childhood and create balance in him?

But I am indebted to Bill and Jeannie Ritter for having been so candid. It’s got to be very hard to talk about those kinds of challenges and, certainly, we have a much higher chance of finding that balance because of their gift, of their generosity to us of being so candid and explaining just exactly where it was most difficult.

Warner: Are you moving into the governor’s residence?

Hickenlooper: You know, everyone keeps asking that.

Warner: I know. I know, it’s not an important policy question about, you know, the future of our state, but--

Hickenlooper: We have-- I mean, I love old buildings, but we have 16 kids that live on our block and Teddy’s an only child. It’s hard to imagine us living, you know, full time in the mansion. I just don’t think it’s the best thing for Teddy. So we’ll be partially moved in there, but I think our primary residence will most likely be in Park Hill.

Warner: For inauguration day, is there something you’ll wear, a keepsake you’ll carry, a token you’ll have on you, with you, for that event?

Hickenlooper: I have a necktie that my wife gave me that I wore-- she gave it to me right before we started the campaign for mayor. I wore it on the first TV ad. I wore it on the second TV ad. I wore it in the sky-diving ad. I wore it at the inaugural when I was first elected mayor. You know, when Time magazine did that story on best mayors, they wanted a picture of me on the scooter. I wore that tie. So I think it’s safe to say I’ll be wearing that tie.

Beyond that, I’m not sure I have a specific keepsake in mind, although I am sufficiently-- you know, I try to be in a humorous way, superstitious. I’ll probably find something to hold on to.

Warner: Well, we’ll post the photo of you in that tie on our website.

Hickenlooper: Fair enough.

Warner: John Hickenlooper, governor-elect, thank you for being with us.

Hickenlooper: You bet. It’s been my pleasure.

Warner: Fifty-eight-year-old John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, takes the oath of office January 11th.