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Democratic Primary Candidate John Hickenlooper Makes His Case For The U.S. Senate Seat

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Courtesy of Hickenlooper U.S. Senate
John Hickenlooper, candidate in Colorado's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate

This week, Colorado voters will start to receive ballots for the June primaries in the mail. This year, two candidates for U.S. Senate — Andrew Romanoff and John Hickenlooper — face off in the Democratic primary for the chance to take on incumbent Republican Senator Cory Gardner in November.

Colorado Edition spoke with both candidates. John Hickenlooper discusses his candidacy below. The conversation with Andrew Romanoff can be found here.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Matt Bloom: To start, for voters who are not familiar with you, could you briefly give us a sense of your background?

John Hickenlooper: I was originally a geologist. When the commodities markets busted in the 1980s, I was out of work for over two years. But then I opened the first brew pub – the first restaurant that brews its own beer, in 1988, in an abandoned warehouse district in Denver they now call LoDo. My rent was $1 a square foot per year. I worked 70 and 80 hours a week for five or six years.

Then things took off. I ended up running for mayor in Denver, in 2003. I had never won for student council before. In a surprise landslide, I got two-thirds of the vote and became the mayor in Denver in 2003.

We did major police reform, 10 years before Ferguson. We got early childhood education passed for every four-year-old. We created Denver Scholarship Foundation.

I ran for governor in 2010 on that same premise. All those things I had done to get people working together in the city should work in the state. I made a promise to raise the whole state up economically. I made a promise to address climate change, to address healthcare costs.

I won that election in 2010, again another surprise: I was the first Denver mayor in 120 years to get elected governor. But then I went to work.

For the past three years, according to the U.S. News and World Report, we’re the no. 1 economy in the country. But even more importantly, we’re one of the top rural economies.

By the end of this year, we’ll have broadband in every city and town in Colorado. We’ll be the first state in America to do that. It was part of my commitment to bring change, to do things differently

And now I’m ready for the U.S. Senate. I used to badmouth the Senate: it’s broken, it’s a mess. No one works together. And what I call the Colorado Way needs to be transported to Washington. I’m working as hard as I can to become the next U.S. senator from Colorado.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Coloradans at this time?

We’re in the middle of COVID – so the risk of our healthcare system being so ill-prepared. We didn’t have enough testing capacity. We didn’t have the preventive equipment we needed. And there’s been a huge economic hit. We’ve got to respond to COVID.

My first four years a governor, we had the worst wildfires in history, the worst flood in history, the worst mass shootings. We had the Great Recession. My commitment then was if we work together, we could come back better than we were before. Now, Colorado has to do that again. I know how to do that, I’ve done it. I have to go to Washington to do that with other senators and bring this country back better than we were before.

As the issues of racial justice rose up, there’s a lot of better to be demanded. It’s not just about police reform. It’s about equity in housing, in education, in job opportunities.

Now we’re going to zoom in on a few issues important to Coloradans, beginning with climate change. Do you have a number one priority for legislation related to climate change?

Our highest priority has to be to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, at the latest. Maybe 2040 or 2045 is a better goal. To do that, we need a comprehensive focused program, and a lot of it is based on what we did in Colorado.

We’ve got get rid of all the coal-fired electrical generation, replace it with wind, solar and batteries, like we did down in Pueblo. We’ve got to build the foundations for a rapid transition to electric vehicles – as we have in Colorado.

We have to attack fugitive emissions. Methane, when you vent it, is 80 times more harmful to climate change than CO2. And yet, people used to vent it, until we sat down and fought with the oil and gas industry and compelled them to create the first methane regulations in the country. We also had to drive innovation in agriculture and industry to reduce carbon emissions.

The key is to recognize that this won’t cost a fortune. It’s going to be an incentive and a catalyst for our economy. It’s going to create far more jobs than we’re going to lose.

Many people talk about the isolation period of COVID, when everyone was locked down – they came out and the skies were blue. They felt like they were in a much cleaner, safer environment. Why can’t that be the normal?

Just like people never thought there would be another pandemic, people don’t think climate change is real. I got a masters in environmental science 40 years ago. Back then, we called it the greenhouse effect. But it is real, and it’s got to be one of our highest priorities.

Currently, we’re seeing protests across the nation against police brutality. How would you specifically address police reform moving forward?

At one of the protests this weekend, I kneeled for eight and a half minutes. It is an eternity. To imagine what he went through is so powerful.

Black lives matter, whether it’s Breonna Taylor, Amaud Arbery, or George Floyd.

Two weeks before I was inaugurated mayor, there was a young 15-year-old Denver boy who was shot down by a police officer in his front hall. I went to his funeral. I met some of the black pastors in Denver. I enlisted the Ministerial Alliance – I think back then it was 34 or 35 black pastors — as my partners in creating the foundations for police reform.

We created an Office of the Independent Monitor, so there was an oversight commission, minority hiring in the police force. But all these foundations clearly didn’t go far enough.

Denver announced a couple days ago: no more chokeholds. Every officer has to turn their cameras on.

We have to go even beyond that. We have to hold police officers accountable for their brutality. Fellow officers, if they stand by and watch – that to me that was almost the most troubling part of the whole experience – three other officers did nothing to stop this man from basically strangling George Floyd to death.

I did feel uplifted by one thing. I would never condone violence and looting. But thousands – millions — of black and white and brown Americans were in the streets, in the parks, protesting together.

For the first time in my life, corporate America was listening. The large foundations were listening. That’s a huge step forward, because indifference and inaction have been a plague on the inequalities in this country.

Hopefully, it will go beyond just police reform, but reform equal opportunity, in terms of housing, education and economic opportunity.

This might be a major turning point in the history of this country. If enough of us believe that, and talk about it and push it, then it will be.

Getting any gun-related legislation passed takes an enormous amount of political capital. What would be your number one priority there?

When we passed universal background checks, everyone said that was impossible, and it did take a huge amount political capital.

But for the life of me, I cannot believe that we are not able to bring the bill supporting universal background checks onto the floor of the Senate. Cory Gardner supports Mitch McConnell. Cory Gardner’s not sure that universal background checks make a difference.

They cost $10 to buy a gun; they take a few minutes. When we did the analysis back in 2014, we got to about 50% of the gun purchases back then. We found over 3,000 violent criminals had tried to buy guns and we stopped them. One hundred forty people, when they came to pick up their gun, we arrested them for an outstanding warrant for a violent crime.

Crooks are stupid; they do get caught by background checks.

The problem is this money in government. I’m supported by End Citizens United Now — that’s one of the largest grassroots in the country. Cory Gardner has received a little more than $4 million of support from the NRA and gun manufacturers. Where I grew up they used to say “you’re gonna dance with the person who brung ya.”

That’s why so much of the legislation coming out of Washington is so broken. It’s why Washington needs to be changed. We need to get the dark money, the big money, out of politics.

Healthcare became a focus for the presidential primary for the Democratic nomination. Briefly, summarize what you would do as Colorado’s senator to change America’s healthcare system. A how has the coronavirus pandemic influenced that?

Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. I’ve always believed that. The coronavirus has demonstrated: a) how inequitable our healthcare system it. But, b) the importance of making sure that everyone has a medical home, everyone has some healthcare.

As governor, we reduced the number of people who didn’t have healthcare by two thirds. We expanded Medicaid by 400,000 and added another 100,000 through the exchange.

In Washington they haven’t passed a single bill to improve the Affordable Care Act in the last 10 years. I want to change that. We need a public option — some combination of Medicare, Medicare Advantage or Medicaid — that allows everybody to get healthcare coverage on a sliding scale.

We can pay for that by letting our U.S. government, for the first time, get bulk discounts when it purchases prescription drugs for Medicare.

This is long overdue. Donald Trump continues to pursue the lawsuit to take down the Affordable Care Act. Cory Gardner supports that lawsuit.

In Colorado, we have 2.4 million people with pre-existing conditions who will lose protections if they repeal the Affordable Care Act,

Finally, last week the ethics commission ruled that you violated the state’s gift ban while you were governor. Is there anything about that ruling or the hearing that you would like to set the record straight on?

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about it. People should know that we’re talking about travel I did while I was governor.

When I started, we were 40th in job creation. I made a commitment that I would travel anywhere and everywhere to promote Colorado – to try and bring businesses and entrepreneurs to Denver to create jobs in Colorado.

A dark money Republican group filed 97 allegations against my travel while governor. The ethics commission found two violations. I think it’s worth talking about them.

One of them was a trip to speak to a conference in Turin, Italy. Since it was Europe, but I thought it was important, I paid the flight myself. I was told I’d paid all the costs of the conference — the meals, the hotel room - I paid $6,800 between the flight and the hotel.

It turns out there was a sponsor that I didn’t know about, and they evidently paid for some of the meals and some of the transit to and from the airport. I didn’t know about this, but I accept responsibility.

The second one was the commissioning of the USS Colorado, a new submarine in Connecticut.

I flew on a plane that had all of the representatives of the foundation that was helping to fund the celebration and the ceremony.

Military is a big part of Colorado’s economy. I was going there in my role as governor. I was asked to make multiple speeches to the group – a thousand people. We read the ethics rules and we thought there was a clear exemption for that. I accept responsibility.

It’s worth mentioning again that a dark money Republican group made all these allegations. They’re going to go out and attack me or whoever the Democrat is, because Cory Gardner really doesn’t have a record that he can run on.

No matter what the ethics committee says, there’ll be attacks of a similar vein for anyone.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for June 10. You can find the full episode here.

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