“I’ll just be blunt. No one is ever going to accuse me of being a really good politician.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s response to a question about his leadership during the 2013 legislative session at a town hall in Craig last week came just two days before State Sen. Evie Hudak (D-Arvada) announced that she would resign her seat rather than face a recall election that would not only potentially unseat her, but swing the balance of the State Senate from a precarious 1-vote Democratic advantage to GOP control.
Democrats had held a 20-15 advantage after the 2012 election, but recalls in September ousted Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron, leaving Democrats scrambling as they faced a possible third straight setback in as many months, with Hudak opponents poised to submit the necessary signatures for a recall election despite the use of scare tactics by Hudak supporters.
It was Hudak’s comments in March that put the legislator–and other members of the Democratic delegation, including the governor–on the hot seat during an already contentious debate over a handful of gun-oriented bills. Responding to a rape victim’s testimony on a proposed concealed-carry ban on college campuses, Hudak said:
“I just want to say that, actually statistics are not on your side even if you had a gun. And, chances are that if you would have had a gun, then he would have been able to get that from you and possibly use it against you.”
Even with Hudak’s departure, the Senate will remain in Democratic control. Hickenlooper thrived early on in his administration when the General Assembly had chambers divided between Republicans and Democrats, meaning few controversial bills hit his desk requiring either a signature or veto. An actual Hudak recall, with replacement by a Republican, might have lessened political pressures on the governor. If Democrats run another ‘dream session’ this year, the governor can’t return to the political center he used to enjoy and instead could be pulled further to the political left. As odd as it may seem, a Hudak loss could have been a political gift to Hickenlooper. But with both houses steering favorable Democratic bills to the floor, Hickenlooper’s role as legislative steward for his party’s goals–and possible curb to its excesses–remains a lingering question.
A question Hickenlooper attempted to answer in his visit to the Western Slope.
“My goal last session was to try to figure out–well, everyone said you have a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate–you’re going to have to veto a bunch of stuff. I said, if I’m any good, I’ll be able to negotiate the more negative portions of those bills out of them and get something in there that’s bearable. Some sort of compromise,” Hickenlooper said. The Governor did not veto a single bill passed in the 2013 session. For comparison, California Governor Jerry Brown managed to veto over 10 percent of the bills a unified legislature sent to him for final approval.
“Once you start negotiating, sometimes on certain bills, you’re going to end up with a bill, no matter what the compromise is, that’s still a bad bill,” Hickenlooper admitted.
Hickenlooper himself pointed to the gun bills, and the background check extension in particular, as a place where his job as a politician, governor, and representative of the entire state converged. He felt that he had a much better job to do, particularly in communicating the effects of a bill that drew a lot of attention, and out-of-state interest, from both sides.
“I don’t think we did a very good job of communicating that,” Hickenlooper said, referring to the impact of a universal background check on catching criminals, one of the ostensible reasons for the bill.
“It became a big partisan battle around the Second Amendment. Certainly that was the last thing from my mind. We weren’t trying to take anybody’s guns away from them,” Hickenlooper explained, adding that both he and his son are gun enthusiasts and had recently completed hunter safety education courses.
With Democrats still in control in January 2014 and Hickenlooper facing reelection, the former geologist and restauranteur–Hickenlooper often speaks as governor from the perspective of his former occupations–faces an uncertain legislative session that could affect the outcome in November 2014.
Still, Hickenlooper remains upbeat.
“I’m learning as I go,” Hickenlooper said.
That play-it-by-ear strategy did not work well for the governor in 2013, after relatively smooth sailing through his first two years in the Governor’s Mansion, when the legislature was split.
The departure of Morse, Giron, and Hudak through recalls have dented the politician who once so easily deflected criticism as the quirky Mayor of Denver.
But while Hickenlooper faced the music–and the passion–of rural Coloradans at the Moffat County Fairgrounds last Monday, it wasn’t clear what tune would play in 2014.
Frank Moe, the owner of the Best Western in Craig who helped to petition the governor to travel to Moffat County, believes the tune is about to change. While the visit didn’t alter the governor’s position on issues like gun control or coal, he said, the effort was not fruitless. Turnout, Moe argued, showed that people are very interested in what is going on in Denver.
“This big of a group in this size of a community just shows that people are involved. So even though we might not have changed the governor’s mind, I think in 2014 we’re going to change the governor and have a new governor, because all of these people are going to be active,” Moe said.
“There is a difference between listening and turning that listening into positive action.”
Hickenlooper answers at the 5:48 mark:
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