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Gov. John Hickenlooper rises to test of Colorado's painful summer

The governor has so effectively handled Colorado's grief after wildfires and the Aurora shooting that some observers are talking presidential prospects.

August 07, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

DENVER — As he ran for governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper played up his goofy charm, standing in a shower fully clothed in a campaign ad, vowing to run a "clean" campaign. The rail-thin former geologist still mocks his nerdiness — how he peered out at the world from behind thick glasses "before the miracle of Lasik."

But during this state's difficult summer, Hickenlooper has demonstrated another side of his persona, offering Coloradans solace and comfort after the July 20 movie theater shooting in Aurora that killed 12 and wounded 58.

At Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Aurora on July 27, relatives asked Hickenlooper to speak about 18-year-old Alexander "A.J." Boik, whom he had never met.

Hickenlooper rose to speak, instantly recognizable at 6-foot-1 with a full head of boyish, shaggy brown hair. Like Boik, the governor said, he had played baseball. He had been a pitcher, his catcher his best friend. Boik was a catcher, best friends with a pitcher.

Teens in the audience hunched over, sobbing.

The governor noted something else he had in common with Boik, who played viola — they both liked music.

"He could play it and I could appreciate it," Hickenlooper joked, and he actually got some mourners to laugh.

In an interview at his Denver office, Hickenlooper had reflected on his role during the crises. "Part of this job is I become the lightning rod for the state," Hickenlooper said. "Part of that is to go and share in the grief and let them know that can be draining, but it can also be inspiring."

Over the course of three days he attended five funerals for victims of the movie theater massacre. At each, Hickenlooper, or"Hick,"as some affectionately call him, managed to impress most observers in this politically divided state.

The moderate Democrat has channeled his state's grief so effectively — not just after the shooting, but as wildfires ravaged Colorado this summer — that he has some observers talking presidential prospects.

Hickenlooper, 60, has made a career out of turning setbacks into advantages.

He often talks about how his late mother, a Quaker descendant twice widowed by the time he was 7, taught him to seek the bright side of life.

"I grew up in a house that understood grief and that you almost have an obligation to seek joy," he said.

After graduating from Connecticut's Wesleyan University with a bachelor's degree in English, Hickenlooper received a master's in geology in 1980 and moved to Colorado the following year to take a job in the oil industry.

Five years later when oil prices dropped and he was laid off, he drove out to visit his brother in Berkeley, where he discovered the Triple Rock, an early microbrewery. Hickenlooper raised money to open his own, the Wynkoop, named after a nearby street. It helped spawn development in Denver and Hickenlooper's interest in local politics.

In 2002, the longtime bachelor married journalist Helen Thorpe, and as they were expecting their first child, launched his first campaign — for Denver mayor.

His rise was rapid. He ran as an outsider on a platform of nonpartisanship, promising to streamline and restore people's faith in government. He won decisively, then and in 2007, and was named one of the five greatest big-city mayors by Time magazine.

He stuck to the same centrist platform and in 2010, when conservatives were sweeping elections nationwide, won the governorship with 51% of the vote, drawing strong support from independents.

"A lot of people were pulling their hair out at the time that he wouldn't go negative," said Mike Stratton, a Denver-based Democratic strategist who considers the governor a friend. "The guy has a sense of himself. It's really important for him to be comfortable in his own skin."

Hickenlooper refused to move his wife and son, Teddy, into the governor's mansion, remaining at their four-bedroom Craftsman in the leafy Park Hill neighborhood.

This summer, the governor's affability was tested as never before by the most destructive wildfires in state history. Local officials recalled how Hickenlooper flew home from a trade mission to Mexico to be on the front lines, not grandstanding but listening to their requests.

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, a Republican, said he appreciated Hickenlooper's focus on working across party lines.

"We're an eclectic state — we don't always follow the norms. Gov. Hickenlooper, some of his personal traits probably reflect that," Smith said. "I won't hold it against him that he's a Democrat."

Recent polls show Hickenlooper is incredibly popular, with about a 64% approval rating, said independent Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Ciruli said Hickenlooper has evolved into a moderate "western Democrat," meaning, "He is not a labor guy, not a strong environmentalist, not a share-the-wealth guy." He's also not a big proponent of gun control.

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