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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Beer, Bipartisanship in His Blood

4 years ago
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They were swilling pints of Hickenlooper's Inaugurale in Denver Tuesday, toasting John Hickenlooper, the former brewpub owner, mayor and now Colorado governor -- a Democrat billed as a bipartisan solution in a purple state.

Hickenlooper moved from City Hall to the Capitol Tuesday, where he's likely to continue his business-friendly ways with an eye on education and a soft spot for helping Latino youth.

He's taking over from fellow Democrat Bill Ritter, a former Denver prosecutor who served a single term as governor before surprising Coloradans by announcing a year ago that he wouldn't run for re-election. That set the stage for Hickenlooper to step up, unchallenged, for the Democratic nomination. And the November election turned out to be a cakewalk over a controversial Republican and a well-known third-party upstart who placed a distant second.

With several Republicans already on his cabinet and a business background as a former oil geologist-turned-restaurateur, the new governor is being hailed as a symbol of bipartisanship.

"Hickenlooper's off to a smart start," said Rob Witwer, a former Colorado state representative and co-author of a book on Colorado politics. "It's not just the bipartisan appointments, but the effort to bring some private-sector people into government."

Hickenlooper has appointed a former consulting company CEO as transportation director, the Republican director of a prominent western Colorado interest group as director of the Department of Local Affairs, and a Kaiser Permanente human resources director as the head of the state's personnel agency. A GOP state senator resigned to take over as tourism director. His budget director worked for Republican Gov. Bill Owens for eight years.

That's not to say his two predecessors avoided bipartisanship. Owens appointed a few Democrats to cabinet positions. Ritter's transportation director, insurance regulator, economic development director and others were Republicans; several were former GOP legislators.

"Appointments are important, but will Hickenlooper buck powerful Democratic constituencies such as unions, state employees and the CEA?" asked Colorado's Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, who worked for Owens.

Witwer thinks the new governor just might. Witwer noted that the state lawmaker Hickenlooper has appointed as his legislative liaison -- Christine Scanlon -- "wasn't afraid to fight the teachers unions" on education policies.

Democrats are taking prominent roles in the Hickenlooper cabinet, too. Former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, (brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar), who was defeated in November by Republican Scott Tipton, will serve as Agriculture commissioner. And conservatives are jeering the appointment of a former union chief to lead the state Department of Labor.

Some environmentalists are questioning whether the new governor is too business friendly, after he told the New York Times Magazine, "I think we should drill the living daylights out of natural gas and cut regulation." Hickenlooper's spokesman told a media critic that "context was lost" in the quote, and said the new governor seeks to keep the environment in mind when it comes to energy.

Education looks to take a front seat in the Hickenlooper's administration. He's been named chairman of the nonpartisan policy organization Education Commission of the States, replacing outgoing Minnesota Gov. (and possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate) Tim Pawlenty.

Monday, Hickenlooper named Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia director of the Department of Higher Education. Before becoming Hickenlooper's running mate, Garcia served as president of Colorado State University-Pueblo, one of many institutions his new agency oversees. Several Republicans involved with education praised the appointment.

As Denver mayor, Hickenlooper took an active role in education issues. He helped raise private money to pay scholarships for needy students. His former chief of staff and former Denver Public Schools superintendent is Sen. Michael Bennet, who was named one of the top 11 education activists of 2011 by Time magazine. And Hickenlooper's wife, journalist Helen Thorpe, wrote a book about four Mexican girls struggling through college in Denver. The Latin American Education Foundation is one of three beneficiaries from Tuesday's inaugural events.

Tuesday's festivities represent a down-to-earth governor. There will be no fancy ball, like those some other first-term governors are holding, but that doesn't mean no celebrating. Instead, the attire is "dressy western and or business" for a barbecue dinner followed by dancing to Colorado bands at a couple of Denver concert venues.

Wednesday, Hickenlooper can welcome the reality of leading a state with a $1.1-billion budget shortfall and a state House controlled by Republicans.

"It's going to be tough to maintain bipartisanship when there are real battles in the legislature," Witwer said. "He's going to have to pick sides . . . Frankly, given the budget issues he's going to face, he's going to need to think outside the government box."

Perhaps he'll follow President Barack Obama's lead and call a beer summit. After all, the Wynkoop Brewing Co. that he founded (and later sold his interest in) has the perfect beer available.

And the new governor did note this in his inaugural speech, while singing the praises of Colorado ". . . we have the best beer."

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