The United States Congress is more polarized and deadlocked than it’s been in generations. Still, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper remains stubbornly optimistic that Republicans and Democrats can work together.
“Maybe I’m going to be cruelly disappointed. But I don’t think so,” Hickenlooper told me in a recent interview. “I honestly believe Congress is going to have to go back to the more traditional approach of doing several things at once. I know it sounds heretical, but we’re facing serious timelines.”
Hickenlooper also says he isn’t blind to what’s going on in the US Senate. The power of individual senators and committees has diminished over the years, becoming concentrated in the hands of the Senate majority leader — currently Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Under McConnell’s leadership, the bulk of the Senate’s work has been confirming judges rather than passing legislation.
“In the vast majority of cases, the problems have been the leadership. People like Mitch McConnell just trying to stop everything,” Hickenlooper said. “America is sick and tired of that, and I think there will be enormous pressure on Republicans to find places where they can collaborate. We’ve got to build infrastructure, we’ve got to address climate change. Well over 50 percent of Republicans believe that climate change is a serious issue. We don’t have to get everything done in a day, but we do have to take significant steps.”
I pressed Hickenlooper on whether he’d support eliminating or curtailing the filibuster if Democrats are in the majority and Republicans in the minority refuse to cooperate. He wants to try bipartisan legislating first, he said, but “if push comes to shove, I have to look at everything. There’s no question.”
Hickenlooper is one of four Democratic Senate candidates running in the Mountain West or southwestern United States, along with Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana, former astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan in New Mexico. Lujan is expected to keep the New Mexico seat blue, and Hickenlooper and Kelly look to be the most likely Democratic challengers to flip Republican seats. Both Arizona and Colorado are rated Lean Democratic by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
If they win, they would make moderate Western Democrats a powerful bloc in the Senate. Already the group includes Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Michael Bennet of Colorado. All are focused on issues such as health care, the economy, and solving climate change — which has led to droughts and wildfires in many of their states.
“We are pragmatic. We are problem solvers, by nature,” Hickenlooper said, pointing to the bipartisan work he and Bullock achieved as governors. “That’s exactly what the Senate needs. I’m old enough, I’m never going to get seniority, I’m not going to be fighting to be the chair of a committee. I’m going to be that foot soldier in the trenches that takes the time, weeknights, and weekends to build relationships with people in my party and the other party.”
I recently interviewed Hickenlooper on his first priorities if elected, the Senate filibuster, and how he plans to fight climate change. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What would your first policy priority be if you take office next year?
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
I don’t think we have the luxury of having just one. But obviously, in the middle of a pandemic, we’ve got to confront Covid-19 — stamp it down, get on top of it. Even as we’re doing that, we’ve got to address the damage that has been done: The long period of inaction from the White House that I call their negligence. And then once they finally took on Covid-19, the incompetence; so many people have been brought in as budget cutters, but not really having the necessary skills to deal with a pandemic like this. I mean, this is the worst economic situation — this is the most significant level of economic damage, even worse than the Great Recession.
Talking to a few other Democratic Senate candidates, I’ve heard from a lot of folks who think that passing an anti-corruption bill, similar to House Democrats’ HR 1, should be the first priority. With limited political capital if Democrats flip the Senate, how does that idea stack up to Covid relief and a jobs bill in your mind?
I absolutely believe that you’ve got to do more than one thing at once. The necessity to get dark money out of politics is a priority for everyone. But I don’t think that it’s going to be the only thing that we address in those first six months. I honestly believe Congress is going to have to go back to the more traditional approach of doing several things at once. I know it sounds heretical, but we’re facing serious timelines, whether you’re talking about health care and actually getting to universal coverage, which Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of that. We’re also going to have to rebuild the economy, and rebuild it in a way that respects the environment, respects the American worker, but begins to address the issues of equity. Why is opportunity still so unequal in this country?
You were Colorado governor for quite a while, and you previously talked about your executive experience as a reason that you initially didn’t want to run for the Senate. If elected, how do you plan to operate in a space where you’re one of 100 people and Senate leadership obviously has a large role in deciding what bills come to the floor?
Sure, and this is one of the things that a couple of my neighbors and an old friend, Ken Salazar, this was how they persuaded me and got me excited about running. The skills that you need to be successful in the Senate are exactly the skills you need to be successful as a mayor, as a governor, and as a small-business owner. In other words, those skills revolve around being able to bring people together and really hear what their concerns are.
By making them feel heard, by putting yourself in their shoes, you’re able to get to a place where you could begin. You change the line you weren’t going to cross, and they change where the line is that they wouldn’t cross, and you begin to work together.
When I ran for mayor of Denver in 2003 — I’d never run for anything, I’d never run for student council — I ran on the premise that the city of Denver, which had been at war with the more conservative suburbs for over a century ... the city of Denver could never succeed, never be a great city without great suburbs. Republicans, Democrats, before we got involved, they had hated each other. They think Denver had always thwarted their water rights, which is a big deal in the West. I went out of my way to make sure that we were responsible in our water use, and that we tried to do everything we could to make sure there was more water for farmers and ranchers. And that’s a big part of it.
When I got elected governor in 2010, I was the first Denver mayor in 120 years to get elected governor of Colorado. I look at what I did to bring those warring factions together. That’s exactly what the Senate needs. I’m old enough, I’m never going to get seniority, I’m not going to be fighting to be the chair of a committee. I’m going to be that foot soldier in the trenches that takes the time, weeknights, and weekends to build relationships with people in my party and the other party, and really find out where are those places [for compromise]? They seem impossible now.
But I can tell you, when I ran for mayor, people said what I was saying was impossible. We would never get the metropolitan area to work together, it would never happen. Sometimes you look at things in a different way. And I’m not naive, and don’t think that I don’t recognize that Mitch McConnell is an immovable barrier to collaboration in the Senate. For the last long period of time, he has staked his reputation on making sure that nobody ever works with anybody else. I think he’s going to be gone. That’s why I’m working so hard to make sure that the Democrats get the majority in the Senate.
If you and your colleagues are in the majority, and you’re facing a situation much like in the first Obama administration where Republicans in the minority are blocking everything that you want to do — if it got to that point, do you think Democrats should consider curtailing or eliminating the filibuster?
Well, I think that more often than not, in the vast majority of cases, the problems have been the leadership, people like Mitch McConnell, just trying to stop everything. America is sick and tired of that, and I think there will be enormous pressure on Republicans to find places where they can collaborate. We’ve got to build infrastructure, we’ve got to address climate change. Well over 50 percent of Republicans believe that climate change is a serious issue. We don’t have to get everything done in a day, but we do have to take significant steps.
I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a small-business person. When I get there, assuming I win, there are only five small-business people who actually started and managed a business from scratch. I’d be the sixth, and when you’re a small-business person, you’ve got to get people to work together. There’s no other choice! To be an entrepreneur, you’ve also got to be an optimist.
So maybe I’m going to be cruelly disappointed. But I don’t think so. I think this is that moment in time where the American people have had enough, and they’ve been pushed into these two tribal camps that won’t speak to each other. That’s a guarantee that you’re not going to get make progress on any of these major issues — which pretty much everybody accepts are significant issues.
But if you get there and you’re cruelly disappointed, as you say — and Republicans still don’t want to work with Democrats — then would you consider curtailing or eliminating the filibuster?
There are certain things we’ve got to address. We’ve got to address Covid-19, we’ve got to rebuild the economy. I think that we’re going to have a strong group of principled and progressive but moderate Democratic voices there. If Steve Bullock wins in Montana, and Mark Kelly wins in Arizona, and I win — we’re going to have 10 Democratic senators from the Rocky Mountain West. We are pragmatic. We are problem solvers, by nature. Look at Steve Bullock, who as governor, all the things that he got done in the state of Montana where sometimes he felt like the only person on the boat, but he still got an amazing amount of stuff done.
If push comes to shove, I have to look at everything. There’s no question.
Do you support Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate and clean energy plan? I read on your website that your standards for net-zero emissions is the year 2050. Some of the targets Biden has in his plan are a little bit more aggressive, including standards for the country’s power sector, targeting net-zero emissions by 2035. And so I wanted to ask you if you’re supportive of that plan, or if you have any critiques of it.
I have not had time to go into [it] — it’s a long, detailed plan. We do have a couple staffers who are working on it; we should get to that pretty quickly. In Colorado, we closed two coal plants — we’re right in the process of closing them right now and replacing them with wind, solar, and batteries. We have every confidence that the monthly electric bill is going to go down. Once we’ve proven that there’s the ability to bring market forces to bear on accelerating the transition from coal into wind and solar and batteries — to clean energy ... once you’ve done that, the transitions are going to happen a lot faster.
Again, we might have to spend tons of money to build these things, but that money will be paid for. It’s not like it’s got to come out of the taxpayers’ pocket. People are gonna be paying just what they were paying before for their electricity, even a little less. But the difference will be they’ll have absolutely clean energy.
Same thing with electric vehicles. People are going to spend millions of dollars buying new cars and electric vehicles, but that transition is going to happen over a number of years. Electric vehicles are a lot less expensive to operate; they have far fewer moving parts. They perform better. People like driving them. Once we make sure that we have rapid recharging stations and a network together, and as they scale up, the cost of electric vehicles comes down. Again, that’s going to be a natural acceleration.
I look at the rate of innovation being a key component of how we make estimations of timeline and cost. I think it’s going to happen much faster once we get going. Now, I’ve put myself at 2050, but it could easily be 2040 or 2030 because I think the innovation is going to come quickly. There are already people working and making great progress in agriculture, in industry, finding replacements that are better and less expensive for concrete — which gives up a bunch of CO2.
How did we eliminate fugitive emissions like methane, which is 80 times worse for climate change than CO2? We did that in Colorado, it was cost-effective. It cost the oil and gas industry almost nothing. It’s now national policy in Canada, it was national policy here until Trump pulled back. I think we’re going to get there faster than people think. Certainly, we will be spending a bunch of money, but we’re going to be creating not just hundreds of thousands and millions of jobs, we’re going to be creating whole new professions. We’ve got to make sure we ramp up our skills training, so people can transition to these new professions rapidly.
I know that Colorado is a big oil and gas state and certainly was when you were governor. Have your positions on climate and how bold the US needs to be in order to tackle it evolved since you were governor? The wildfires in California and in Oregon have been so devastating this year; you’ve had wildfires in Colorado. Has your thinking on this changed at all since you were governor?
We have had the worst wildfires in the state’s history, in 2002, 2003, 2012, 2013, and now 2020. I think that’s five of the six worst wildfire seasons. The wildfire season now starts earlier and runs longer. There’s 40 extra days in the wildfire season. When I was in office, we were spending $2-3 million, maybe $4 million for wildfires. Now we’re spending 10 times that sometimes.
I got a master’s [degree] in what they called Earth environmental science, back in 1979. We didn’t call it climate change, we called the greenhouse effect, but we knew it was a threat to life on Earth as we know it. That our entire ecology and how we live would change. And I’ve been fighting climate change ever since.
When I opened my brewpub, one of the first brewpubs in the country, we recycled our wasted heat when we would brew, or our spare heat. We did natural carbonation. We were one of the first green craft breweries in America. When I became mayor, we were one of the first major cities to have an office of sustainability. We made a pledge to plant a million trees in 2004. We rehabilitated and did energy conservation in pretty much every city building, every library, every recreation center. We made this a full-court press.
Then when I became governor, within a year and a half, we took on the oil and gas industry and we became the first state in the country to create methane regulations. That was no easy feat. The animosity between the environmental scientists and the oil and gas scientists was decades-long. No trust; both sides felt they had been betrayed many times. And yet we created methane regulations. I’ve been endorsed by every major, you know, environmental [groups]: the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC, the Sierra Club. What I’ve done consistently for 40 years is tried to address climate change.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the Senate. If elected, Hickenlooper would be one of 100 senators.