A Conversation with John Hickenlooper

John Hickenlooper

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper says negative politics erodes citizens’ faith in government. Hear his views on the founders, participation, and local involvement.


Harmony Hunter: In July 2012, governors from across the country met in Williamsburg, Virginia to discuss the issues that Americans face today. It is fitting that the conversation took place here in Williamsburg, where more than 235 years ago, patriots debated the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the future of an independent America.

We spoke with governors from across the political spectrum about the ideals first articulated by our founders, many of which are still alive today in our political debate. The views expressed here are those of the governors, and not Colonial Williamsburg.

Welcome to the podcast. Today we’re continuing our occasional series with public leaders. We’re talking about the republic that was created 200 years ago and how it’s evolving with us as a society. Our guest today is Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper. Thank you for being here with us today.

John Hickenlooper: Oh its fun. Glad to be here.

Harmony: Well we started out by thinking about two prominent governors who went on to become presidents: Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. With that legacy of governorship do you often think back to the founding generation and their ideals when you are in public office today?

John: You know it’s funny I was a very slow reader. Wonderful college I went to, Wesleyan University, legendary for all its goodness. I was such a slow reader I couldn’t take history then, but now I read it all the time. I love it. I mean I almost say I’m addicted to it. And I do go back and look at the founding fathers and what were their real intentions? I was a mayor before I became a governor and there’s a real difference between the governors who were attorney generals first, versus those who were mayors first.

There seems to be a difference. I was talking to Governor Haslam from Tennessee and he, like me, was from the private sector, had a business career first, and then he was a mayor, and then he became the governor. Between attorneys general or mayors, I mean those are the two major components of people who become governors. And there’s a difference. It’s sort of akin to looking at somehow there’s a granularity. If you’re a mayor or a governor they’re more similar to each other because in both cases you’re directly responsible for the condition of people’s roads and streets and plowing snow and putting out fires. I mean there’s an immediacy that you don’t really get in most of the forms of government.

Harmony: We are seeing right now in our political forum a state of fractiousness and a breakdown in civility that a lot of people are saying is the worst we’ve seen since the Civil War, but you are unique in that you ran your campaign on positivity, or the absence of negativity. Talk to me about your philosophy of political campaigning and your philosophy of governance.

John: It’s my philosophy of business, really. You know I started out as a geologist and the price of oil collapsed, our company got sold and I got laid off and I guess I wasn’t that good a geologist. So I ended up having to do something else, and we opened a brewpub: a restaurant that brews its own beer. And you learn in the first couple months that there’s no margin in having enemies. No matter how unreasonable that customer is you’ll do whatever it takes to build the relationship, to make sure they’re not going to go out and bad mouth you.

Whereas in politics so often folks are, they feel like putting down the other person raises themselves up. I always joke, you know, whether you’re running a big city, or a state, or running a restaurant, three things are always the same. In both cases you never have enough capital, you’ve got a diverse group of people you’ve got to make into a team, and the public’s always ticked off about something

You know when I’ve run, so far I’ve been lucky enough I guess that I’ve never done a negative ad. We’ve never done opposition research, we haven’t gone out and attacked people in the debates. We did an ad the last time where I got in and out of a shower and changed my clothes each time just to kind of dramatize. The voiceover was saying, “You know, every time I see a negative ad, an attack ad, I feel dirty, I want to take a shower.” And people loved it. I mean total strangers come up to me on the street even today and say, “God, you know, I love that approach to politics.”

I mean think about it. You never see Coca-Cola doing an attack ad with all the dark images and the deep dark language. Coke’s never doing an attack ad against Pepsi. GM doesn’t do an attack ad against Ford. They realize that what happens is, you just diminished the brand, the category. And I think in politics what’s happening is those attack ads are diminishing politics and how people think about their elected officials.

And that’s one of the reasons I ran for mayor back in 2003 and, you know I never ran for student council or anything, but so many of my customers, every elected official was a bum and yet this is us, right? Go back to the founding fathers and look at, I mean, we are the great experiment in democracy and if we can’t get people from the private sector to occasionally come back -- almost all of those founding fathers had careers before they got into politics. And again, you need some people that are lifetime public servants and some people who are career, just like career diplomats, career politicians, but you need a lot of mixture of people from the private sector as well and they’re resistant to come into politics if it’s so tawdry, right? If there are all these attack ads and accusations and innuendos so we’re trying to clean it up one state at a time.

Harmony: You’ve taken a really humorous approach to this and it’s likeable and funny and affable, but underneath it it’s something that’s really very noble. You gave a speech in 2011 where you said that when people watch negative campaigns it erodes their faith in politics and in our government. And so I feel like with your campaign, you’re not only advancing your own initiatives, but you seem to be advancing a change in the way that politics is conducted. Is that a fair assumption?

John: Well I’d like to think that we can. You know I have great trust in this country to do the right thing and I have a great trust in belief. That if we can get people to believe in America and believe in their leadership again that, you know, the sky’s the limit. But, you know, a lot of the world’s waiting for us to resume our leadership and for the last several years we’ve been kind of scuffling about.

Harmony: We were thinking about the power of the dollar versus the power of the vote. Do you feel like in today’s political climate, super-PACS and fundraising have become more powerful than one voter?

John: Well certainly it is unfortunate that the level of influence that money has taken in politics and certainly the escalation with some of the recent rulings that, you know, the corporations are treated like people are therefore fully occupied freedoms of speech. And again, I’m not a lawyer so I’m not going to argue what the Constitution did or did not say. I just think it’s regrettable in the sense that it does begin to diminish people’s believe that their vote matters, or that the system isn’t being controlled by forces much larger than anything they really can comprehend.

And I think that, you know, that just makes it harder for people like me that are trying to get people to believe that people should have some ownership of their neighborhood and their community and their state and their country, but we’ll get through it.

I mean, money in and of itself isn’t an evil. It’s how it’s used. I think there are all kinds of things we can do. In other words, I think if we make companies, let them do what they want, but make them disclose it. Make their boards vote on it. And states have the right to do that. I think those are the kinds of things that, you know, full disclosure and transparency. Most boards of most companies want to do the right thing and they’re not going to go out and get too cranky if it’s going to be on the front page of their local newspaper.

Harmony: You said something so great that I had to write it down and it speaks so strongly to what we believe and what we espouse here at Colonial Williamsburg with initiatives for active citizenship. You said, “We own our own government. If we’re unhappy, if we’re disenchanted, we have the control to change it.” And it’s such a simple thing and it’s such a powerful thing, citizenship and active citizenship: if you don’t like what government looks like, if you don’t like what you’re seeing on the news you can become a part of that system. And that’s what you yourself did. Talk to me about that change for you, that realization for you or the moment when you decided to be involved and become part of the change.

John: Well like a lot of the several pivotal moments in my life, it happened on the other side of the bar. So I was washing pint glasses, and there was just a moment at which I’d heard one more person complain about this city council member or this legislator, everybody was a bum. And I just said to them, “This is us.” My dad loved the comic strip Pogo, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and one time Pogo walks in and says, “We’ve met the enemy and they are us.” And to a certain extent we’re back at that same spot.

And I think, you know, at that moment, that moment of recognition that maybe, you know, I was thinking well if people are supposed to go back when they have had great success and give back and do some public service, and then standing there washing pint glasses, I thought, “Hm, maybe.” Several people had been pushing me to run for mayor. I kept saying, “Why would I do that?” You know, why would I…I mean, A) would I like it, could you make a difference, the loss of privacy, all those things. But there was that moment where I said, “Hm, maybe this does make sense.”

Harmony: So if citizens find that their elected officials do not represent them, they don’t resemble them, they can become a part of that process.

John: Absolutely.  And that’s the founding fathers. That’s what the founding fathers were willing to sacrifice their lives for. What generations of, you know, our incredible soldiers and, you know, whether you’re in the Navy or the Marines or the Air Force or the Army, people willing to sacrifice their lives. Because we do control our government in a way that no other country really ever has. And we continue to be that great experiment in democracy.

You know, educational reform, which is a huge issue these days, one of the interesting arguments you hear all the time about, “Well, we’ve got to be able to compete with China and India. We’ve got to create the workers of tomorrow. We got to make sure we’re training people for the work force.” But equal to that, and I mean side by side, we’ve got to be training citizens. We’ve got to be training individuals that can think independently. And take complex information and have an opinion and say, “We should do this, or we should go that way, or we should support this person.” So it’s, I mean one of the key tenets of educational reform, I think, is to expand citizenship.

Harmony: That’s such a fascinating way to put it that you’re training citizens. That we’re not born knowing how to do this or that we might need practice at it. When you’re training for citizenship what do you need to learn?

John: A.) I think you need to learn the basics of how our government functions. You know it’s funny, a couple of day ago we had to chair something called the Education Commission of the States. We had our annual conference and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor came, and she’s working on an initiative now where they go out and their using creating video games, you know these little games, but they’re games that actually train kids on how does the Supreme Court work, how does Congress work, who gets elected, what powers do they have, what’s the difference between the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch? So I mean, that’s kind of the foundation of training citizens is to make sure you understand how your own government works.

Harmony: And we forget that citizenship is work whether you’re an executive like yourself or whether you’re just a citizen of the state. What would you like to see your citizens in your state or in any state in America be doing?

John: Well I think the first task for citizens everywhere is to pay attention, to show up to meetings. And then again, you don’t have to join everything, but join something. Join the PTA, run for the school board. That’s civics. That’s people in a community helping each other. Once people do that kind of stuff, they pay more attention. They’re more likely to know who their city council member is, or more likely to know who their state legislator is. It does sometimes seem like there’s just too much going on in life. We don’t have enough time. How can we keep it all straight? And yet we really don’t have it that hard. You think about our founding fathers, think about Patrick Henry, how much stuff he had to keep in his mind. We’ve got it easy to a certain extent.

Harmony: John Hickenlooper, thank you so much for being our guest today. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

John: Pleasure’s all mine.


  1. This interview is deeply disappointing. It does not inform about Colonial Williamsburg, and his opinions about politics or life during the colonial period are of no interest to me.
    He’s entitled to is thoughts about the style of political discourse these days, and I might even agree with him. However, he offers no new insights and I can get all the punditry I want, and more, without having to get still more on your, otherwise interesting, podcasts.

    Do you have a new mission? Please don’t.

  2. Wow! Campaign on positivity or absence of negativity. That would seem so unique to some politicians.

    And yes, I think SUPER Pacs are sometimes way too powerful.

    Very interesting podcast.

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