Republicans face an uncertain battle for governor

 

Republicans this year are supposed to start taking back those state capitols that have swung to Democrats and that looked possible in Colorado until early January. That's when Republicans closed ranks behind former Congressman Scott McInnis, a one-time cop turned Denver lawyer, who was eager to don the mantle of outsider in a year when all on the inside seemed tarnished.

Colorado's Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, looked vulnerable. He flinched too often except when championing the "new energy economy" and irked many Democrats by passing over a popular state lawmaker, Andrew Romanoff, and picking Michael Bennet to replace Sen. Ken Salazar, who was moving to Washington, D.C., to run the Interior Department.

Then Ritter bowed out, and McInnis' worst nightmare stepped up: Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper announced he was running for governor. Polls show the race as dead even, but it's Hickenlooper's race to lose. Tall with a slightly boyish look that belies his middle age, he's instantly likeable and hard to pigeonhole. The worst that can be said is that he's from Denver in a state where that's not necessarily a compliment.

He's smart but accessible, semi-geeky and funny. He always looks to find commonalities, not differences, and he has the rare talent of appealing to diverse groups, from green to corporate. Hickenlooper's everyman narrative helps him immensely. He came to the West in the 1970s as a student of petroleum geology, traipsing around the Montana and Wyoming backcountry in work that was financed, in part, by two giant mining companies, Amax and Homestake. Then, in the mid-1980s, the energy economy cratered and Hickenlooper -- like so many people these days -- was left looking for work.

"I had to rebuild my life," he says. He opened a brewpub that helped spark rejuvenation of a Denver's long-deteriorating, lower-downtown district, now dubbed LoDo.

In 2002, he was elected mayor. Self-deprecating TV ads set him apart during that campaign; in one, he dorkily plugged coins into Denver's unpopular parking meters, for example. Once elected, he supported light-rail for the city and got voters to back it, too. As mayor, he also helped sponsor a conference about peak oil and warned of the hazards of continuing to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"Even if there is only a 3 percent chance that 95 percent of the world's scientists are right that global warming exists," he has often said, "we risk the chance of being the first generation to leave a problem for which there is no solution."

His conviction on that issue was put to the test recently when he spoke to the Colorado Mining Association, a group dominated by coal producers. It tends toward deep skepticism if not outright hostility to the notion of global climate change. One member asked Hickenlooper, who'd attended the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, whether he'd developed second thoughts about the issue. Hickenlooper laughed and for a time his answer was confusing. He talked about the uncertainty of climate change, and he talked about the theory of plate tectonics. He seemed to be backing off. But though he was nowhere as definite as when speaking to a chorus of environmentalists, the mayor ultimately said what he always says -- that the risk of damage from greenhouse gas emissions means we must act: "What we try to do (in Denver) are things that actually save us money and have a five years or shorter payoff," he said, "the things we should be doing anyway."

Hickenlooper that day went on to talk about creating jobs and why he believes every elected official should have the experience of operating a small business. He also cited his record of bipartisanship, including his ability to work with the former Republican governor of Colorado. "Denver is Colorado's biggest city. But Colorado is everything to Denver," he says he told an aide. "How can we not be working together?" He also managed to slyly define McInnis, with his 12 years in Congress, as the out-of-touch insider. Along the way he got laughs from the industry honchos, usually at his own expense.

It all makes for an unsettling situation for Republicans. If they think Colorado is a slam-dunk for the newly energized GOP, they'd better think again.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in the Denver area where he writes about politics and environmental issues.