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Denver’s mayor-about-town

Hickenlooper breaks bread with GOP Lincolners

By Leigh E. Rich

Denver’s seeing much more of its mayor these days.

Though the geologist-turned brewery owner-turned politician is always out and about on his city streets—he lives in a loft, after all—the tall, lanky visage of John W. Hickenlooper is frequently finding its way onto television, into newspapers and glossy ads, and as the keynoter for local luncheons.

This upsurge in Hicken-sightings is mainly due to Measure 1A, a proposal to build a new justice center in the city that would include a courthouse, a detention facility and a parking structure. Hickenlooper’s been asking citizens to vote yes on May 3.

Whether due to Good Friday or the fact that a Democrat was slated to speak at a Republican function, several tables were empty at the March 25 Lincoln Club of Colorado luncheon that featured Denver’s mayor. Still, about 60 people turned out for the event held at the Denver Athletic Club.

If any were prepared to ignite fireworks or throw hardballs, the mayor escaped unscathed.

This wasn’t surprising—even Hickenlooper admitted he’s “the closest Democrat you’ll ever get to being a Republican” as the mayor of the donkey-dominated domain. He even joked that Gov. Bill Owens still pushes for GOP conversion.

But rather than talk partisan politics, Hickenlooper spent much of his time at the podium shrugging off his somewhat ill-fitted politician’s clothing, instead relaying folksy anecdotes to make his points and invoking the concept of cooperation more often than a kindergarten teacher.

He said it was his lack of history in politics—and a subsequent lack of political baggage—that has allowed him to bridge old chasms as well as party lines. Before deciding to run for office, Hickenlooper said, he spoke candidly with then-Aurora Mayor Paul Tauer, who had for some time locked horns with then-Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. Hickenlooper says he solicited Tauer for a clean slate and asked, he explained half-jokingly, whether it would make a difference “if I made sure you got all the credit … all of the sound bites and all of the ink.”

“He leaned back and goes, ‘It might,’” Hickenlooper told the Lincoln crowd, perhaps in an attempt to further underscore what many consider his non-politician demeanor. He also reminded the crowd that, before his mayoral candidacy, he had never run for office before. “I never (even) ran for dogcatcher.”

The Denver mayor remains on good terms with Tauer as well as with his current Aurora counterpart, Tauer’s son, Ed, who succeeded him.

Hickenlooper told a similar tale involving the governor’s office and the change of tide that occurred when he took over for Webb. Within a month of being elected Denver’s new mayor, Hickenlooper said, he and Owens traveled to California together to promote business development in Colorado. This was new territory for both offices, as Owens and Webb kept their distance, even traveling separately to Japan in 1999 on similar trade delegations.

“We’re never going to agree on everything,” Hickenlooper said of the governor, “but there’s so much we can accomplish by working together.”

Working together just might be what the “W” stands for in Hickenlooper’s middle name, whether it’s sealing a deal between airline rivals United and Frontier in 2003 over a gate standoff or refraining from campaign mudslinging and promising “to run nothing but positive ads.”

Give opponents an opportunity to be a part of your success, he told the Lincoln luncheoners before launching into the meat of his speech—solving city problems in a cost-efficient manner using evidence-based research.

Hickenlooper advocated for a new approach to resolving homelessness in the metro area, one based on “objective measures” of how much it costs the city.

There are about 1,000 individuals in metro Denver who are “chronically homeless,” he said, many of whom struggle with a mental illness or drug addiction or are abused children. Chronic homelessness is defined as being homeless for six months or longer or having three episodes of homelessness in two years.

Citing a recent study in Seattle, Hickenlooper said that it costs a city about $40,000 per year for every person who’s chronically homeless. Health care costs make up a significant portion.

“If you sleep under a bridge, you don’t get a common cold,” he said. “You get bronchial pneumonia.”

Rather than waiting until the problem requires hospital stays that average $800 a day, Hickenlooper says that for about $18,000 per year the city can place homeless individuals in transitional places to live “and give them a legitimate shot.”

What’s more, “I think we’ll end up saving money” and end chronic homelessness, he predicts, in seven or eight years.

He invoked a similar concept when asked about privatizing Social Security.

“The key is measuring productivity,” he said, referring to a program in Baltimore that rewards solid waste collection workers with cash bonuses for improved performance.

“They’re working smart,” he said. “I think we can do that in almost all agencies.”

And his tune didn’t change when queried about the proposed justice center, even after one Lincoln Club member reminded the mayor of the initial costs and problems associated with Denver International Airport.

“That’s a fair criticism of the past,” Hickenlooper admitted.

But, he promised, “as long as I’m mayor, we’ll bring this in on budget and on time.”

And it’s a good investment, he says, explaining that the city’s current facilities have been “overcrowded since 1992” and pose dangers because the layout is an “outdated system” in which the accused are led to court past victims, jurors, witnesses and bystanders.

According to the mayor, there were 35 events that required intervention last year; “eight, nine, 12 of them were genuine scuffles.”

The city also spends $400,000 per year to rent civil court space from the nearby Adams Mark hotel.

The center would cost $378 million, to be paid for via bonds, amounting to about $8 million per year. Hickenlooper compared that number to the approximately $120 million spent each year on public schools—using the comparison to show that “that proportion is not an unjust one.”

The best part, the mayor beamed, is that all of it can be accomplished without raising taxes.

Invoking phrases such as “no new taxes,” Hickenlooper’s reputation as a Republican in Democrat’s clothing have many wondering whether he’ll run for governor in 2006. When asked, however, Denver’s down-to-earth leader resorted to a story about a prized bird dog named Mayor.

When someone tried to rent Mayor one weekend for a hunting trip and found the talented dog not only available but inexpensive, Mayor’s owner had only one explanation for the change: “Some fool started calling him ‘Governor’ and now he won’t do a lick of work.”

Though with a caveat of “never say never,” Hickenlooper said to a round of applause that—despite all of the phone calls and prodding to throw his hat into the ring—“no one’s moved me an inch.”

Rich, L. E. (2005, April 8). Denver’s mayor-about-town: Hickenlooper breaks bread with GOP Lincolners. The Colorado Statesman.

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