Stephen Voss for Politico Magazine DES MOINES—The man knows how to make an entrance.
During his opening swing through Iowa after declaring his candidacy for president, at his very first campaign stop inside a bustling brew pub here south of downtown, John Hickenlooper arrives to find a crowd of more than 100 voters buzzing about the latest applicant to join the strangest job-interviewing process on Earth. Bending his lanky, 6-foot, 1-inch frame to fit through the crowded doorway of the events room, all eyes on the White House hopeful, the celestial nature of his moment shatters with the pint glass meeting the concrete floor just a few feet away.
It spawns something of a Zapruder film debate: Some attendees say they saw Hickenlooper fumble the glass, others insist he bumped into the man who dropped it, while the candidate himself swears he had nothing to with the accident. Whatever the real explanation, it’s less compelling than what happens next. Hickenlooper instinctively kneels and begins picking up the shards with his bare hands, shooing away staffers trying to stop him, and assuring them that nobody in this bar has more experience picking up broken glass than he has.
“He’s down to earth, that’s for sure,” says Pat Rynard, a prominent local Democrat who runs the blog IowaStartingLine.com . Sampling a flight of beers after Hickenlooper’s event, chuckling at the candidate’s idiosyncrasies, Rynard adds, “He’s going to be great at the retail politics.”
Anyone suspicious of Hickenlooper—anyone skeptical of a politician who acts as though he’s no better than the minimum-wage dishwasher called to clean this mess—soon finds their doubts allayed. Standing on a plastic crate in front of the room, his campaign’s “Stand Tall” signs plastered on the walls, the slouching 67-year-old starts telling stories. How his mother was widowed twice before age 40. How he had acne, coke-bottle glasses and no friends. How he moved west to work as a geologist, got laid off, then sunk every last penny into starting a brewpub in the abandoned lower-downtown section of Denver. How the community he longed for as an estranged kid—the community he found running the brewpub—prompted him to run for mayor. How his collaboration with Republicans in the suburbs created an infrastructure boom that attracted waves of businesses and young workers to the region. How he took the same approach as governor, sitting down the environmentalists and the energy lobby to broker the nation’s first agreement to regulate methane emissions. And how, watching now as a bunch of former class-president types jockey to lead a leftward-lurching Democratic Party, he can’t help but wonder if voters want something different.
Hickenlooper is certainly different.
Nothing about his appearance, from his rumpled shirts to the crooked row of bottom teeth to the untamed wisps of gray flopping over his forehead, seems especially presidential. He speaks in frenetic bursts, beginning one word before concluding its predecessor, his rhetorical pacing off-key like a garaged piano. Every question asked of him invites a story, often with no guarantee of a thematic circling back to the subject at hand. He says things like, “I’m not the smartest guy out there,” not exactly standard fare for an aspiring leader of the Free World. (Just for kicks, try imagining either Donald Trump or Barack Obama saying that.) Former Colorado governor and 2020 presidential candidate John Hickenlooper (top right) stooped to pick up shards of broken glass (left) after someone dropped their beer at his campaign event at Confluence Brewery in Des Moines, Iowa this March. | Stephen Voss for Politico Magazine The candidate’s friends call him “odd,” “quirky,” “eccentric.” For anyone who watched Hickenlooper’s recent CNN town hall—a prime-time event capable of jump-starting a longshot candidacy—these descriptors seem generous. When asked whether he would commit to picking a woman as his running mate, Hickenlooper said he would, then drew groans from the audience by adding, “How come we’re not asking, more often, the women, ‘Would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?’” (He clearly intended to highlight the historic gender imbalance in presidential politics, but the execution made him seem tone-deaf at best or pandering at worst.) Later in the program, Hickenlooper recalled the time he took his mother to see “Deep Throat” due to his ignorance of what the X-rating meant, setting social media ablaze once more and likely sending his campaign staffers scattering for the nearest cocktail hour.
Not that any of this should come as a surprise. The man who goes by “Hick” is an open book—literally. He told of the cinema adventure, and the unlikely moment of maternal bonding, in his 2016 memoir, The Opposite of Woe , and in that same book wrote extensively of his sexual undertakings, naming names and even describing in garish detail the efforts to lose his virginity. Anyone who knows Hickenlooper—anyone working for him, anyone endorsing him—cannot claim to be surprised by what unfolds over the remainder of the 2020 election cycle. To be exposed to him even momentarily is to encounter a mass of unfiltered dynamism, the opposite of stage-crafted and poll-tested, a living, breathing rebellion against the norms that once narrated our understanding of presidential politics.
Sometimes Hick’s radical transparency can be painful to witness—and other times, it can be an absolute pleasure. Like when he volunteers the story, after being asked about combating climate change, of how he once took a swig of some fracking fluid to test the energy lobby’s contention that the liquid was not dangerous. Or when he doubles down on his assertion that his first move as president would be to sit down with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, dismissing criticisms of his naiveté and arguing that the only way to heal America is by engaging those who seem least likely to reciprocate. Or when, sipping a stout in Des Moines while greeting voters following his event, he responds to a practical question about how to bring people together by hoisting his beer and shrugging his head sideways, as if to say, “A few of these couldn’t hurt.”
Hickenlooper was just 8 years old when John Hickenlooper Sr. died, leaving him with few pearls of fatherly wisdom. Some years later, he met Kurt Vonnegut, the celebrated writer, whom he learned had been a friend of his father’s. Vonnegut offered the younger Hickenlooper some advice that came to guide his life: “Be very careful who you pretend to be, because that’s who you’re going to be.”
Hickenlooper spent decades searching to find himself, emerging from a “broken” childhood into an adrift adolescence into an insecure young adulthood. He finally discovered the formula for happiness and isn’t going to change anything now. Hickenlooper has no need to pretend. He likes who he is. The question is whether voters will. Hickenlooper speaks to a small crowd at his first campaign stop in Iowa, Des Moines’ Confluence Brewery, where he hopes to persuade early-state voters to back his moderate candidacy among a largely progressive primary field. | Stephen Voss for Politico Magazine There is plenty to like: a trained scientist who quotes classic literature; a self-made multimillionaire whose business successes were interwoven with urban revitalization; a big-city mayor who was recognized as one of America’s best , fixing budget shortfalls and expanding public transportation by persuading Republicans to support a sales-tax hike; a two-term, purple-state governor who has real results to show for his efforts in expanding health care coverage, reducing gun violence, spurring economic growth and tackling climate change.
But presidential elections are beauty pageants, and Hickenlooper is hardly a knockout. Every speech he gives ends with the story of a rhetoric professor who taught her students the importance of contrasting opposites for emotional impact. “If you talk about the worst of times, talk about the best of times; if you talk about the agony, talk about the ecstasy,” he says. The punchline: When the professor asks her class, “What’s the opposite of woe?” one of her students yells, “Giddyup!” It’s good for a folksy giggle—at least, it is in Des Moines—with Hickenlooper using the story to illustrate how moments of sorrow are best met by getting back on the horse and charging forward. But it hardly carries the emotional weight of Obama’s hair-raising tale of the American Dream, the visceral resonance of Trump’s chant to build a border wall, or, in the case of 2020, the populist punch of Bernie Sanders’ crusade against economic inequality.
Whether he becomes a serious threat to win the nomination depends on whether he’s taken seriously—by rival campaigns, by voters, and above all, by the media. Surmounting a funny last name and made-for-gaffe personality is a tall task; it’s altogether towering as a moderate white man in a diverse, sprawling, progressive primary field.
Hickenlooper has his work cut out for him: In the latest Des Moines Register poll , not a single likely caucus-goer named him as their first choice, an insult that even the likes of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock managed to avoid. These numbers are hardly relevant 10 months ahead of […]
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