If John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver (at right) appears to be an unconventional politician, it’s because he is. But, he’s become typical of Democratic politicians in the New West. He loves microbrew beer (started Denver’s first brewpub) and the Mountain West (hails from Pennsylvania before becoming an oil geologist based in Denver), and he isn’t afraid to make his voice heard. He, and his city, are basking in the national spotlight this summer as the Democratic National Convention, which he helped woo, comes to Denver. I recently asked Mayor Hickenlooper about his transitions and about politics in the region.
NewWest.Net: You’re an East Coast guy, from Pennsylvania, right? Product of a small, East Coast liberal arts college?
Mayor Hickenlooper: Yup
NW: How did you choose to be a westerner? How did that happen?
Hickenlooper: I came out when I finished my master’s in geology in 1979. If I wanted a job in geology, I had two choices, either Denver or Houston. That took about seven seconds. When I first came out, I felt kind of exposed, right? You’re used to the forest canopy on the East Coast. You can never see very far, and here, you feel just kind of naked to the world. Then, after three years, I’d go back there, and I’d feel claustrophobic. There’s that transformation that happens to a lot of people. But, you know, it was nice to be some place where no one knew me, or cared who my family was. One of the great things about the West is that it doesn’t matter who your grandparents were, right? It matters who you are.
NW: When did you realize that you were not going to go back?
Hickenlooper: It was about 1986. Our company got sold. The price of oil had collapsed, and I got a huge severance, two years’ pay. That was the time. I had a huge bunch of cash. I could have gone home and started something else. I ended up staying and starting the brewpub here in Denver.
NW: What brought you to Denver’s downtown?
Hickenlooper: You know, some people like to muck around in boats. I love being in old buildings. I worked my way through grad school in Connecticut; I renovated three houses while I was living in them.
I was out here, and I decided that I was going to do a brewpub. We were going back to that traditional, historic way of making beer. You go back to the historic way of making beer, put it in a historic building. Plus, the rent: When we did the first one, we signed the lease in 1987. The rent was one dollar a square foot per year. It was cool, you know, the lower downtown part of Denver was 22 blocks of historic warehouses, mostly preserved. It was a great place to be. And then, once I was working there every day, I thought, what a great place to live. That’s when we did the lofts up above the restaurant and started trying to get other people to do lofts down there.
We were the first restaurant to open in about five years in downtown Denver. It was a pretty bad recession back then, in the late 80s.
NW: Talk to me about your ideas of regionalism in the Mountain West. What is it that makes this region cohesive?
Hickenlooper: It’s a couple things. One is that the people who live here, by and large, are living here for quality-of-life rather than career opportunities. That’s an interesting filter. It attracts people who are, I think, more willing to invest in maintaining that quality-of-life. They’re willing to be more collaborative. People always talk about the Mountain West as kind of the last bastion of freedom, of rugged individualism, which is true. But I always tell people that there were a lot more barn-raisings than shootouts at the OK Corral.
NW: What are some modern examples of that?
Hickenlooper: I got elected in the spring of 2003. Eighteen months later, in November of 2004, we went to the ballot with a four-tenths of a cent regional sales tax, right? Eight counties, roughly the size of Connecticut. We got all 32 mayors, Republican and Democratic, big cities and little towns, to unanimously support that initiative. You don’t see that in many places, that level of collaboration.
NW: Historically, there’s this notion that the Mountain West states are anti-tax. In some of the states, we’ve got a strong history of Republican governance.
Hickenlooper: You know, I’m anti-tax, if it’s not a valid assessment. But I think the question is if it’s something that you need everyone to do together, if it’s useful.
NW: Are the politics here changing with these Democratic governors, with the Democratic National Convention? Politically, is this part of the country up for grabs?
Hickenlooper: I’m not sure that the politics and the people have changed as much as the politicians have changed, right? Look at the crop of Democrats running now. They’re pretty different from what you saw 10 or 15 years ago, right? Look at (Montana Gov.) Brian Schweitzer or (Arizona Gov.) Jan Napolitano or me or (Colorado Gov.) Bill Ritter. We are much more pro-business. We don’t have problems with guns.
I think the population has altered, too. You know, more people have moved here from other places. There’s more of a mixing, more of a melting pot.
NW: Didn’t you leave at some point and check out the brewery scene on the West Coast?
Hickenlooper: Yeah. When I got laid off, the first thing I did was go out and bought a ’57 Malibu convertible, bright red, and took my dog and my girlfriend and drove out to see my brother in Berkeley. I helped him re-roof his house, and he took us out and showed us a brewpub, one of the first brewpubs in North America. I loved the idea and took it back to Denver.
NW: That was the Wynkoop, right? What was it like?
Hickenlooper: It was smaller. It was 6,000 square feet upstairs in the restaurant and about 6,000 square feet for tank storage and bathrooms in the basement.
NW: Had you brewed beer yourself before that?
Hickenlooper: Yeah. I had been a home-brewer since 1971. “Hickenlooper Lager, if you can’t say it, we won’t serve you another.”
NW: I’ve read about your transition to politics. It’s such a random switch.
Hickenlooper: My argument is that everybody should be forced to spend six months running a restaurant, because when you’re doing that, you learn right off the bat that there’s no margin in having enemies, right? If somebody has a bad experience, you’ll do everything you can, even if you can’t make it right, to make sure they know that you care and that you’re listening, that you hear their complaint.
Otherwise for 15 minutes every day, they’ll try to ruin your reputation. It’s the same principle in politics. Instead of people fighting over these little differences, so that they can’t keep finding common ground on the big issues. I think people would be much better served, you know, to work harder at the little issues, and make sure you don’t disrespect somebody, make sure the person feels like they’ve been heard.
NW: What was the experience that taught you that lesson?
Hickenlooper: We had a guy who came in who was very unhappy with a rehearsal dinner for his daughter’s wedding. My manager felt that we had given him everything we could. He kind of got in a fight with him, and I’d keep hearing stories, every week or two. Someone would tell me, ‘God, this guy really thinks you guys are awful. He seems like a nice guy, but boy does he hate you guys.’ You hear that week after week, and all of a sudden it’s been three months, and you’re still getting this word back. Sheesh. I’m never going to let that happen again.
You learn that adversarial relationships are to be avoided. We used to put up signs in our restaurants, advertising other restaurants in our neighborhood. My staff said, ‘Why are you advertising our competition.’ I said, ‘Our real competition is the TV set, right? Our job is to get people off the couch and out the door, enjoy life with their family and friends. We do a good enough job, and we’ll get our share. That way you’re raising the tide.’
NW: Why is it important that the Democrats are going to be in Denver this summer? What does it mean for our nation and for the region?
Hickenlooper: I think a lot of what the West stands for is important for our country right now. It is a place where you can collaborate, a place where people are innovative and entrepreneurial. It’s a way of thinking about your life, right? You can have a bigger dream and try to go out there and achieve it. I had never run a restaurant in my life. Back East, I’m not sure anybody would have let me open a restaurant. They would have laughed me off the table.
NW: But out here there’s an opening?
Hickenlooper: In many ways, it’s a more open, more welcoming environment.
NW: Has Obama’s candidacy proved any theories you have about the West, and if so what were they?
Hickenlooper: He’s running on a national level exactly what I did locally. I came in without what most people would say was the requisite experience, right? I had never run for elected office at all. Denver is one of the, in terms of big city mayors, is one of the strongest mayoral systems in the country, right? If the City Council wants to change one line item in my budget, they need a super majority. Usually, you’ve got to be a pretty seasoned political warrior to wage a campaign like that. But I ran on change, on transparency, no backroom deals. I ran on attracting talented people to government and making it accountable. It’s the same important stuff that Barack Obama is talking about. It’s just a new way of doing things, not using the same old, tired models. And I think that his success in the West isn’t surprising.