Can Hickenlooper get his middle-of-the-road magic back?

The Colorado governor has Democratic politicians calmed and fractivists pissed.


Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently confirmed a fact that one of his interns unearthed — he’s the first governor in American history who was once a professional geologist. Not only is that an interesting bit of political trivia, “it’s an unusual twist of fate,” Hickenlooper says, noting that the state he governs is ground zero for just about every major source of energy — wind, solar, oil and natural gas. “Maybe that does allow me to operate in the middle on this issue,” says the governor, “and try to keep everyone at the table.”

As Denver mayor from 2003 to 2011, and now state governor, Hickenlooper has gained a reputation as a political centrist and pro-energy Democrat unafraid to clash with his own party. Witness the last-minute compromise he brokered in August, which shelved divisive anti-fracking ballot initiatives slated for the November election. Democratic Congressman Jared Polis bankrolled the two initiatives, which demanded tougher statewide restrictions and more local control of fracking. But many Democrats worried that the initiatives could spark a backlash from industry supporters and alienate the moderates who have helped turn the state from Republican red to a Democratic-leaning purplish-blue. And if that happened,  Sen. Mark Udall might lose his race against Tea-Party-aligned Republican Rep. Cory Gardner — and thereby hand control of the U.S. Senate over to the GOP.

Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to an energy and fracking task force in Denver last month. Hickenlooper told the group he that he's hopeful the suggestions they give state lawmakers can be a model for other places grappling with the issue. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

So Hickenlooper jockeyed a compromise that tabled the initiatives and created a task force to make recommendations on fracking rules and set bounds for local control over drilling.  

The fractivist movement, which has emerged in the past five years in protest of oil and gas development, has never — to put it mildly  —  fully trusted Hickenlooper. And the deal to block the ballot initiatives only deepened fractivists’ dislike. But as the dust settled, Hickenlooper won praise from others for avoiding a major political and policy fracture.

“To get everyone to agree to do what they did was really extraordinary and bold,” says Ted Trimpa, a Denver-based Democratic strategist. “This really would not have happened if not for the leadership of Hick.”

His savvy, centrist navigation through one of the most controversial issues in Colorado and the nation continues to gain Hickenlooper accolades and mentions as a promising presidential candidate. Hickenlooper has tamped down such rumors during the last bumpy few years, but they’ve never really dissipated. Now, the November election could show whether he’s on the rise once again, or whether his middle-of-the-road magic is faltering under the pressure of the fracking opposition.

Hickenlooper comes off as approachable and almost daffy in appearances and campaign ads. He wears jeans but forgoes neckties, and looks like a guy you’d like to grab a beer with. (In 1988, he cofounded Wynkoop Brewing in downtown Denver, where he shot pool with President Obama in July.) During his first year and a half as governor, Hickenlooper, a moderate with a shrewd business background, enjoyed high approval ratings and frequently made lists of the nation’s most popular governors. Speculation over his presidential ambitions grew steadily.

The honeymoon ended in July 2012 with the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, in which then 24-year-old James Holmes killed 12 people. The mass shooting brought gun control to the political forefront. The following spring, Hickenlooper signed a law requiring nearly universal background checks for gun sales and a ban on high-capacity magazines statewide; the National Rifle Association and its supporters vilified him. A year later, the governor granted a stay of execution for Nathan Dunlap, another convicted mass murderer. Colorado voters disapproved, and Republicans accused the governor of ducking an important criminal-justice matter.

In May 2013, just before the Dunlap announcement, Hickenlooper told The New Yorker magazine he didn’t want to run for president. Still, writer Ryan Lizza noted “the subject is just below the surface of many policy discussions” within Hickenlooper’s inner circle.

“That (Dunlap reprieve) decision hurt him so badly in so many ways. I think it destroyed his image as a strong leader,” says Dick Wadhams, former chair of the state Republican Party and an adviser for Western Republicans. “The days of the 70 percent approval ratings when he was a national phenomenon have slipped into the background. And I was one who thought he was a very legitimate candidate for president three years ago.”

Fracking has also played a role in the governor’s recent struggles, Wadhams says, because it has “put (Hickenlooper) at odds with a very influential part of the Democratic coalition,” the anti-fracking activists that Wadhams considers “radical environmentalists.”

Hickenlooper, like President Obama, supports an all-of-the-above energy strategy, including oil, gas, coal and renewables. Hillary Clinton recently shared similar support for both clean energy and natural gas. But what’s merely pragmatic in D.C. is often controversial at the state and local level.

There is a chasm among policymakers and citizens when it comes to fracking and whether the state or local governments should control where companies can drill and exactly how they should do it. In response to increased drilling around Front Range cities, Colorado has passed some of the toughest state rules, requiring disclosure of fracking fluid ingredients, extending setbacks from homes, noise controls, jacking up fines for drilling leaks, and becoming the first state to regulate methane releases. But the new rules have not yet appeased concerned citizens, and five cities have passed local fracking bans and multi-year moratoria. Both the governor and industry have sued several communities over those bans. The courts have so far backed Hickenlooper and the industry. (County judges struck down a voter-approved fracking ban in Longmont and a city council-approved moratorium in Fort Collins this summer. Environmentalists are already appealing the Longmont decision, and Fort Collins is doing the same.)

Hickenlooper says the billions of dollars of financial and energy investment at stake influenced his furious push to prevent the initiatives from going to a vote. Despite the wrath of anti-fracking activists, the geologist-governor believes drilling can be done without harming the environment or human health. He even testified before Congress in February 2013 that he drank fracking fluid to prove its safety.

And yet, Hickenlooper’s Republican opponent, Bob Beauprez, would likely prove much less friendly to the environment. In June, Beauprez suggested that the regulations Hickenlooper has passed are aimed at “making (industry) go away.”

Fractivists may look at the ballot initiative compromise as betrayal, but some pundits see it as the latest example of Hickenlooper seeking the ever-shrinking middle ground. An August 2014 article from Governing magazine lauded him for “his ability to rise above the partisan divide,” and that was before he even brokered the deal.

The task force he convened — a mix of 19 citizens, local officials, industry representatives and environmentalists — began meeting in September. The governor says he hopes the commission will find its own middle ground and offer suggestions to the state Legislature about how cities and counties can manage noise and dust and protect air and water while also allowing energy companies that own subsurface mineral rights to extract resources. “I’ve been called excessively optimistic,” Hickenlooper acknowledged in an interview this month.

Environmentalists and drilling proponents are more skeptical that a divided state Legislature will act on any of the commission’s final recommendations. Most people I’ve spoken with fully expect anti-fracking and pro-local-control initiatives to return to the ballot in 2015. A September 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found a majority of American voters now oppose an increase in fracking, marking a dramatic swing in opinion in just six months. Shane Davis, who runs, estimates that activists make up about 6 to 10 percent of the state vote, enough to swing an election, he writes in an email.

The unlikely alignment of anti-fracking activists with disenchanted moderates and pro-drilling Republicans could even cost Hickenlooper the election this November: Projections now show the governor deadlocked with Beauprez, and a mid-September Quinnipiac University poll even suggested the Republican is surging ahead. A defeat would be a stunning reversal for a political personality who blazed a centrist path and appeared for a while to lead a charmed existence.

Hickenlooper’s name remains in the mix of 2016 presidential candidates, according to a list of 65 who “might run” on The Hill news website. For now, he is focused on the November election and being governor: “I don’t see anything national in my future,” he declared in a recent interview, adding with the diplomatic charm of a natural politician, “Could anything that I do in Washington be half as rewarding as driving across Colorado and meeting all the people in these incredible towns?”

In the throes of his toughest campaign yet, John Hickenlooper is sticking to the middle ground. But assuming he wins re-election in November, he may recall that sip of fracking fluid on his tongue. “It was not particularly tasty,” he told a Senate committee, “but I'm still alive to tell the story.

Joshua Zaffos is a contributing editor to High Country News.

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