John Hickenlooper makes his pitch to progressives: I "share a majority of perspectives" with AOC

Salon spoke with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper about his 2020 presidential ambitions and vision for America

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 2, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

John Hickenlooper (Getty/Drew Angerer)
John Hickenlooper (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper may be described as a "moderate" and a "pragmatist," but when Salon spoke with him in January, he identified with the values of one of the Democratic Party's leading progressive idealists: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Hickenlooper said that he admires AOC because she is "trying to speak up for the disenfranchised, speak up for the people that tend to be marginalized."

The former Colorado governor told Salon that if he runs for president, which he is rumored to announce soon, he'll pitch himself as a candidate who can turn lofty progressive ideals into real-world policy, even if he has opposed certain signature left-wing issues like single-payer health care. Hickenlooper's challenge will be convincing the Democratic electorate that he isn't too moderate for the liberals and too liberal for the moderates, and that having an effective former governor in the White House makes as much sense in 2020 as it did in 1992, when Bill Clinton became the last Democratic governor to occupy the Oval Office.

His answers to Salon's questions about AOC, and about policy in general, foreshadow how effectively he will achieve those goals.

This transcript has been lightly modified for clarity and length.

Are you willing to say for Salon as an exclusive that you are running for president?

Not yet. Not yet. Sorry.

Keep us in that rotation when you do decide to make your announcement.

Fair enough.

What do you think the Democratic Party needs in 2020?

I think the Democratic Party has to provide real solutions to the things that have really torn the country apart. Obviously, Democrats are always going to be a party that’s defending people’s civil rights, standing up for those who’ve been left behind. But I also think that we have to be the party that recognizes when the American dream is being restricted to a decreasingly smaller percentage of the population. There are things the government can do to reverse that and I think the Democrats are the ones who can do it.

Now, where does that line get drawn? This is my prediction, but I don’t think I’m off-base here: There is going to be a schism between the more staunchly liberal wing of the party which is being led by people like Bernie Sanders, [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren [of Massachusetts] and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the more moderate wing of the party which is led by many members of the problem-solvers caucus and a lot of governors, a lot of people like [Rep.] Beto O'Rourke [of Texas] and [former Vice President] Joe Biden. Where do you fall between those two different camps?

I guess I would define myself as someone with strong progressive values.

I’ve been talking about having some form of universal coverage for healthcare for almost 50 years. I wrote a letter to the editor of The Middletown Press in 1978 so what’s that? Forty years saying that we can argue about how much basic healthcare every person gets, but some level of basic healthcare should be a right and not a privilege. I’ve been saying that forever. Now, we can get bogged down in the fight of whether it’s single care, is it Medicare-for-All. In my time as governor, we reduced the percentage of Coloradans who didn’t have any coverage by 60% and I think that’s part of the challenge for Democrats, to say, “Let’s look at our values and where are the big goal is, and then let’s debate and negotiate how we get there, but let’s stay focused on those progressive values.”

I think if you look at… it’s not just healthcare, but you look at the climate change, I’m not sure where we are; but I think over my eight years as governor of Colorado, we had one of the largest reductions of climate change pollution in those eight years on a per capita basis than any state in the country. We weren't beating people over the head or pounding our chest, but we were bringing people together and spending the time to really hear each other, and make compromises so that we could take actions and move forward.

Okay. Now, the next question would be… first of all, let me just clarify, when I asked about whether you fell more on the liberal side or the moderate side, am I correct in ascertaining that you are identifying more on the liberal side?

I’m not sure that those divisions are universal. I share the values of the liberal side in terms of… again, you go down to almost every one of these issues… I mean, we’re the purple states where we actually got universal background checks passed. We limited the size of magazines. This session, I think that our general assembly will get the red flag law passed; but we did it in a more incremental way than many of the, what you call, more liberal side, than what they advocate.

I think, probably, more people look at me as closer to the Beto O’Rourke/Joe Biden side of things of "let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater," but let’s take firm steps and as we approve things, make sure we’re doing so in such a way that it’ll be permanent.

What do you think then of figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? I mean, she’s become very prominent as a voice for the left. Is she somebody whose values you would say are the same as your own?

Yes, for the most part. I think the notion… she’s being criticized for not moving to Washington right away when… everybody’s feeling she’s like all these other elected Congresspeople, that she’s got lots of money, and she’s a working person which makes her unusual and makes her a strong voice for people that have been left behind. I think that perspective of trying to speak up for the disenfranchised, speak up for the people that tend to be marginalized, I think that’s admirable.

I don’t agree with everything that she says, but I think that we share the vast majority of perspectives on a lot of… we share a majority of perspectives.

Now it’s interesting because yesterday, an editorial was published in USA Today arguing that America needs a unity ticket with a Democrat and a Republican, and one possibility that was floated was [former Ohio Gov.] John Kasich and yourself. Would you like to comment on that?

I reached out to John Kasich a couple of years ago right when Trump got elected and he said they would kind of repeal all parts of the Affordable Care Act. The only thing that I could think of to do would be to reach out and find a Republican governor who would stand up with me and say, “Wait, here’s a Republican. Here’s a Democrat. We don’t think it should be repealed,” and we can compromise and improve it, and he was… At that time, even many of my good friends who were Republican governors weren’t willing to go against the tide of the entire Republican Party who wanted a victory, but Kasich did and I think it’s important to have Republicans and Democrats standing together.

Is there a chance we’re going to run together? I don’t think so. I guess I enjoy him and he’s taught me so much I think.

I mean, in 1994, he was the chair of the House Budget Committee. I was still washing glasses behind the bar. He knows a tremendous amount about parliamentary procedure and how government works or how government should work. He’s paying attention to the deficit, which many Republicans have kind of forgotten about. But I can’t see us running together. We just disagree on too many things.

Fair enough. My next question then has to involve how any Democrat… and this question does apply to yourself, but really would apply to anyone who becomes the eventual nominee. My prediction is that there are going to be so many Democrats running in 2020 that the challenge for the successful candidate will just be getting noticed, will be making sure that their name isn’t just one of the dozens of names that voters see and forget about, and to me, that’s going to be the candidate who wins. What do you think that candidate should do, and if hypothetically you were to run, what would be your strategy?

I think that with so many candidates, it is going to be difficult to get your share of the media; but the media responds to… it’s not just the Trumpian approach of outrage that gets the media’s attention. It’s also good ideas. I think it’s also a track record of demonstrating that you can bring people together who oftentimes don’t like each other and argues, to working together. You can bring people together and get concrete, actual results and we’ll see. Not everyone agrees with me that that’s going to be a marker for this primary election, but I think it is.

I think a lot of the people… especially in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, these are the early states… which if you look at those four states, they’re also different and yet they all represent really vivid cross-sections of American values. I think those parts of the country do respond to examples of success, and do respond to those core values of decency, and it’s supporting small business.

Okay. Now, I want to discuss something a little more sensitive which are the ethics complaints that have been spearheaded by House Speaker Frank McNulty which you--

Former House Speaker.

Former House Speaker Frank McNulty. I call you governor. I call… it’s just former. I apologize, I did not mean to put him back in his job in this conversation. But yes, you’ve essentially characterized these as being a political hit without merit. How do you plan… can you elaborate on what you mean by that, as the first half of the question, and then the second half is if you do decide to run, how are you going to be able to effectively communicate that to a Democratic electorate that in my opinion, understandably, has become very cynical in the Trump era and it’s not always the fault of the politicians they’re cynical about, but the cynicism is still there?

I mean, as I said, the allegations are baseless. To my knowledge, we’ve done everything exactly the way we’re supposed to do it. I am so squeaky clean. My goal is to give… as governor of Colorado, I receive $90,000 a year in compensation. I try to give away $90,000 a year to charity just so there could never be any implication or anyone can imply that I’m in this somehow for my self-advantage. His allegations are that somehow, I wanted to take a private jet for my own benefit and not for the state’s benefit, and that… I can count on one hand the number of the times I’ve ever had… my schedule demanded that I end up on somebody’s private jet who’s already going to one of the most… going to the commissioning of the USS Colorado from Connecticut. I couldn’t get there the night before which was in all of our military, all of our national guard, everyone’s going to be there, and they wanted me to give remarks to this group. Was that somehow for my self-benefit?

Again, the whole… what they’re trying to do is… it’s kind of a nice complement. They’re worried that I’m going to run for president or that I might run for president, and they’re trying to attack me, and they’re gambling that well-intentioned journalists like yourself will keep bringing it up in the media and say, “Look, what they said. They said this. They said this.” You should go look at the Denver Post did an op-ed about a month ago, and we went… then, we showed all the receipts, we showed them everything, and they’re written McNulty up one side and down the other end. Essentially said, “This is the worst excuse for a character attack that we’ve ever seen.” In essence, that’s what the column said. I can get you a copy of it if you want.

I’d be happy to read it.

I will do that.

Yes. That’s the thing. My job as a journalist as I see it is to ask the questions that I think my readers would want answered. In terms of the 2020 presidential race, what I know from people I’ve talked to and from people who’ve contacted me, they want a Democrat who can win, who is progressive, who will fight for their values, and who most importantly when he or she becomes president will get the job done.

I remember, in one of our earlier interviews, you talked about being governor of Colorado and how in the western states, there is more of a problem-solving ethos that you think is very useful. Do you remember that comment?

Yeah, of course, that we collaborate. That’s how the west was won, was people working together.

Do you think that is something that you can transplant into Washington because, of course, in Washington (A) it’s not in the west and (B) it has to incorporate every region’s different political attitudes, I guess you would say?

Sure. In a way, Washington is becoming the Wild West. Anyway, I do think I can incorporate that into Washington and I do think that there is an appetite. You look at all these new congressional representatives coming in and you look at how many of them are just trying to get stuff done, and they don’t want to get involved in the bitter parts in politics. They’re looking for people in the other party that they can get a build on.

I think the timing is kind of right that we’re at that point where there’s a new silent majority out there of people that are frustrated by the inability of Washington to pretty much get anything done.

By the way, before I forget, I never got to tell you this: The interview we did where we discussed marijuana policy did very well. It got a lot of readers.

I’m glad to hear that. I saw that. I usually don’t get to read stuff. I mean, there’s too much… I’m dyslexic and remember, we talked about that.

We did.

I’m a very, very slow reader, but I did read that and I thought you did a nice job. Even though I didn’t agree with everything, I do respect the fact that you reported it accurately.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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