California Nation

Who is John Hickenlooper? Five things Californians need to know as he runs for president

Former Colorado Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper offers a pragmatic set of views during April 26 talk in San Francisco, calling for a gradual phase-in for a $15 minimum wage and an option for people to keep their existing health insurance plans under his presidency.
Former Colorado Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper offers a pragmatic set of views during April 26 talk in San Francisco, calling for a gradual phase-in for a $15 minimum wage and an option for people to keep their existing health insurance plans under his presidency.

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Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper is a former Denver mayor and Colorado governor campaigning on a more pragmatic set of policies. He’s qualified for the first debate by earning 1 percent in at least three polls.

Here are five things you need to know about Hickenlooper as he campaigns in California:

1. He doesn’t support legalizing marijuana

Of the 20 Democrats running for president, Hickenlooper is the only candidate opposing federal legalization of marijuana.

His home state of Colorado legalized pot for recreational purposes in 2014, after a strong majority of voters supported an amendment a couple years earlier. Hickenlooper was a vocal critic of the policy during his tenure as governor from 2011 to 2019. Though he worried the drug would get into kids’ hands, he went forward with legalizing it so he could “respect the will of the voters.”

Hickenlooper told attendees at an April 26 San Francisco event that Colorado experienced some earlier regulatory hurdles, particularly with edibles. While he still wants states to decide for themselves whether to legalize marijuana, he acknowledged he has personally evolved on the issue.

“I have slowly but surely come around to the point that I don’t think the federal government should tell states what should be legal and what shouldn’t be legal,” Hickenlooper said.

Still, he said the federal government has a role in testing marijuana through the Food and Drug Administration and allowing cannabis companies legally selling recreational marijuana to have bank accounts.

2. Hickenlooper was unemployed for two years

After earning a master’s degree in geology, Hickenlooper moved to Colorado in 1981. Five years later, he lost his job and remained unemployed for a couple years. In an interview for the “California Nation” podcast, he described the challenges he faced getting help from the government and finding a new career.

“I got laid off on July 6, 1986, and I’ll remember it forever,” Hickenlooper said. “There were literally 20,000 geologists who lost their jobs in the 1980s, and no one was hiring. I didn’t just lose my job; I lost my profession – just like millions of people did in the Rust Belt. Government, for me, just like people in the Rust Belt, did a piss-poor job of helping us find our way.

“I got a two-hour seminar on how to write a resume and then a business application to get another job as a geologist. No one was hiring. It was a waste of my time when I went to the unemployment office.”

Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, Hickenlooper opened a small brewpub in Denver. He went on to open 14 more businesses before getting elected as the city’s mayor in 2003.

As president, he said, he’d do more to help people accumulate skills to prepare for the jobs of the future. He cited a non-profit Markle Foundation initiative called Skillful, where Microsoft and other companies are partnering with Colorado to provide skills-based job training to keep up with impact of technology.

“We need to give individuals of all ages the freedom to go into new professions if they need to, if they want to,” Hickenlooper said.

3. Hickenlooper wants universal background checks

Gun violence rocked Colorado during Hickenlooper’s governorship, most notably when 12 people were killed while watching “The Dark Knight Rises” at an Aurora movie theater.

He said Colorado was able to conduct background checks on about half of the guns purchased, and in doing so, prevent people convicted of homicides from buying one. This came before a divided state Legislature approved universal background checks.

Hickenlooper supports universal background checks at the national level and wants to encourage gun owners to have their weapons under lock and key to prevent kids who may be depressed from accessing them. He thinks it’ll be difficult to get stricter legislation passed through Congress.

“Unfortunately, the way our U.S. Constitution is structured, it’s not that easy for us to be able to impose the federal will on states,” he said.

4. He thinks a woman needs to be on the 2020 ticket

If elected president, Hickenlooper said he’d want a woman to join his ticket in order to motivate Democrats.

“It’d be hard to imagine not having a woman candidate or vice president,” he said. “So, yes, I think I would choose a woman.”

5. He insists he’s progressive enough for California

On the surface, Hickenlooper is one of the most moderate Democrats running for president.

He wants to gradually phase in a $15 minimum wage across the country by 2024, though he’d push for communities with higher costs of living to have it by 2021.

He doesn’t support free tuition at public colleges and universities. Instead, he’d rather refinance student debt to a more reasonable rate.

He also takes issue with major portions of the ambitious Green New Deal climate change plan, such as a federal jobs guarantee. At an April 26 event in San Francisco, he declined to support a carbon tax, saying such a proposal would be “so demonized it becomes a huge partisan battle.” He added, “I’m not sure it’s the first thing you want to take on.”

Yet despite these more pragmatic policy proposals, he says he has what it takes to win over Californians. He said he knows how to bridge political divides and bring people to the discussion table.

He said he changed community policing practices in Denver long before a national discussion ensued a decade later, dramatically reduced climate change emissions and got environmentalists and the oil and gas industry to work together to improve methane regulations.

“I’ve got the track record of bringing people together and getting them to lay down their weapons and actually get stuff done,” Hickenlooper said. “I think that is the dramatic difference between me and pretty much everybody else. I’m a doer. I’ve gotten stuff done, and I’ve gotten people that don’t like each other to come together and create achievement.”

Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.