Self-Styled Moderate Hickenlooper Hits Progressive Notes in NH

While still undecided, he has plans for 'hopefully the next two years'

John Hickenlooper
John Hickenlooper / Getty Images

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper insists he will decide whether to run for president sometime in March, though he often sounds like a man with his mind made up on the campaign trail.

Such was the case Wednesday night at a house party in New Hampshire, when—inadvertently or not—he gave another indicator after leaving office last month because of term limits that consulting jobs or corporate board seats are not on his mind. He's thinking about a national campaign.

"I think that's part of what I'm trying to talk about over the next—hopefully the next two years, uh, I guess I should say nineteen and a half months," he said, after talking about the collaboration of western pioneers that he says he greatly admires.

The remark was only slightly less indirect than the one he made last October, when, again in New Hampshire, he told a café worker "I'm the governor of Colorado and I'm running for president."

This time, talking to maybe as many as 60 to 80 locals at a suburban home on the north side of Manchester, Hickenlooper occasionally sounded progressive tones only to soften later into a conciliatory moderate line.

Asked about the "green new deal" which has consumed Democrats over the last week, the former two-term governor of Colorado and two-term Mayor of Denver said he hadn't seen the plan "in detail" then was quick to add "the time for aggregate, you know, incremental improvement is past."

While congressional Democrats appear to be backing the green new deal in its entirety, Hickenlooper quickly sunk into moderate positions of cost-benefit analysis, seemingly betraying the urgency he mentioned just seconds before.

"I think, from what I've seen of the list, the different aspects and, and in the initiatives that are kind of collected in the green deal, the new green deal, are powerful, and useful. I think the key is to sit down and look [at] which one goes first. And which ones might go a little later, 'cause it is going to be a question of priorities. We're not going to have endless amounts of money," he said.

During his eight years as governor, he often frustrated the environmental left for his light-touch regulatory approach to oil and gas. The former geologist-turned-politician once told the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that he had taken "a swig of frack fluid" used in hydraulic drilling.

Meanwhile, conservatives have skewered parts of the plan that were temporarily released last week on the website of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, such as a call for air travel to be substituted with train travel.

Treading into the political turf of President Trump's key issue of immigration, Hickenlooper again delivered Democratic red meat, then moderated.

"These are big issues and we're fighting over some stupid wall on a border that's not really a threat," he began. "Now, again, I'm not saying that we don't have to solve our border security issues," he added in the very next sentence.

The then-governor drew heat during his 2014 reelection campaign for saying most young illegal immigrants he met with and talked with did not care about a path to citizenship, and only cared about achieving a legal status that would allow them to "come out of the shadows." He later tried to mollify the controversy by telling the Denver Post "What I said in the interview, which didn't come out, is I have always believed in a pathway to citizenship."

In 2016 during a closed-door meeting with a well-heeled statewide political organization, he repeated the same anecdote.

"I think, when I talk to the young kids—now, this, these are not politically active young kids, but the, just the undocumented workers who I run … get to meet all the time at Metro State or when I'm out at a work project or someplace I always try to seek kids out—they don't care about the pathway to citizenship," Hickenlooper told the group.

Finally, while hardline progressives have been calling for "free" college tuition for years, Hickenlooper chose a calculated middle.

"Everyone says, ‘free college, free college, free college,' and we'll get there, I'm all for that," he told the crowd. "I think it's going to take a while. But the business community is dying to invest in community colleges. I think without breaking the bank, in the next year or two, we could make, you know, community colleges free and focused on what people are really going to need in terms of skills that we've never seen before."

If Hickenlooper does run, he may face Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (D.) as a competitor for the nomination, a friend and ally whose political journey shares a significant overlap. Bennet once served as chief of staff when Hickenlooper was Mayor of Denver and later became the superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

Last Sunday, Bennet told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the most serious issue of the moment was income mobility and income inequality.

That topic was scarcely mentioned, if at all, in the almost 40 minutes that Hickenlooper spoke Wednesday night.

Update Feb. 15, 12:34 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Sen. Bennet was appointed to the U.S. Senate by none other than Governor Hickenlooper. He was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter.