Hickenlooper sees victory for centrists and model for Dems in Virginia

Greg Nash

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) says Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race is a win for pragmatism — and a model for Democrats moving forward.

Hickenlooper, a former Denver mayor who has seen his political stock rise as Colorado has shifted into a purple state, believes Democrats can build a winning streak by focusing on multiple issues that will help middle-class families.

In an interview with The Hill, he talked of his preference for more incremental policy changes on education and health care that can improve people’s lives over more sweeping promises to deliver Medicare for all or free tuition. Within a four-minute span, Hickenlooper mentioned a permutation of the word “pragmatic” a half dozen times.  

“I look at what we’re going to see in Colorado as a result of the victory of Ralph Northam,” Hickenlooper said, “that it opens up the whole Democratic party to different ideas and more pragmatic ideas, I think, rather than just trying to have one issue that you’re going — or maybe two or three issues — that you’re going to raise up and hold as holy standards.”

Northam — who had the same campaign manager as Hickenlooper — defeated former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) in the Democratic primary before triumphing over Republican Ed Gillespie.

Perriello was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who continues to be a force in Democratic politics.

Some liberals were turned off by Northam, who voted for former President George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections and said he would sign a ban on “sanctuary cities” that refuse to help federal authorities detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

Yet he won easily in Virginia, a result that suggests centrist Democrats can win in an era where the national Democratic Party seems to be tilting left.

That’s good news for Hickenlooper, who is building a political brand that emphasizes bipartisanship and a more centrist political philosophy. He said he sees the lines between the progressive and centrist wings of the party as being “kind of blurred, to be really honest.”

“Pragmatists embrace much of the vision of the liberal wing of the party in terms of where we need to get to, but how that route goes, I think the pragmatists are maybe a little more incremental.”

Take the issue of free college tuition — “I think that’s a legitimate long-term goal,” Hickenlooper said.

But his route to helping kids afford college isn’t a sweeping bill, which progressives in the Senate have unveiled, to make public universities tuition-free for many students.

Rather, Hickenlooper is championing apprenticeships, where teenagers split their time between high school and job sites, while earning college credit.  

“Now that’s a pragmatic way to get to free college, right?” Hickenlooper said.

He explained: By the time they’re 18, “they’ll have a year of college, just about, under their belt, and hopefully, most of them are living at home and they’ll have money in the bank.”

Now, take the issue of universal health care, Hickenlooper said.

“I want universal coverage. Does it all have to be under one type of coverage? I’m not sure, maybe we’ll eventually get there. But I think to me the sense of urgency is how do we get everybody covered, what’s it going to take to get everyone covered?”

Many of the aspiring politicians thought to be contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 have backed Sanders’s “Medicare for all” bill, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).

Hickenlooper, however, is focused on a more short-term goal — stabilizing ObamaCare’s insurance markets. He put together a bipartisan plan with Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) — who Hickenlooper will eat lunch with on Sunday during a quick jaunt to Ohio for a friend’s birthday party. Congress, instead, crafted its own bipartisan bill, which Hickenlooper wants put on the floor.

“That’s the kind of compromise I think that most Americans really are hungry for, especially around health care,” he said. “If we look at Virginia, health care was by far and away the issue that drove people where to vote, and I think both parties have a lot to gain by just saying ‘all right, we’re not going to try and declare a total victory.’ ”

Hickenlooper has had to make some tough calls on policy issues.

He was governor during the 2012 Aurora, Colo., shooting, when James Holmes killed 12 people during a midnight screening of the newest Batman movie.

When asked two days later on ABC’s “This Week”  if Colorado should re-examine its gun laws, Hickenlooper said Holmes could have created “horror” even without the guns.

“This wasn’t a Colorado problem. This is a human problem,” Hickenlooper said, according to an article from The Washington Times. “Even if he didn’t have access to guns, this guy was diabolical … he would have found explosives. He would have found something.”

But by March 2013, Hickenlooper signed some of the nation’s most stringent gun laws.

He also came around to legalizing marijuana. He initially opposed the ballot-box measure, but when Colorado residents voted to support it, he went along with it.

He’s not about to tell other governors what to do, and wants to ensure his state hasn’t missed in any unintended consequences before taking a firmer position on whether all states should follow Colorado’s lead.

“I want to make sure we have all the information possible before I make a pronouncement, but the new system looks like it might be better than the old system. Clearly [we] see less drug dealers,” Hickenlooper said.

Last November, Maine residents narrowly voted to legalize marijuana, and a special legislative committee crafted a bill to implement what voters approved at the ballot box. But earlier this month, Gov. Paul LePage (R) vetoed the legislation that would have taxed and regulated recreational marijuana.

“I’ve told other governors I wouldn’t go out and support an initiative to legalize it in your state,” Hickenlooper said. “Now Gov. LePage, his voters voted for it. I think that’s different. I think he probably made a mistake, and probably should have gone forward and tried to figure out the right way to implement it.”

He added: “I opposed it, but when our voters passed it, I took an oath to obey the constitution and our voters put it in the constitution.”

The term-limited Hickenlooper’s time to make those calls in his state will come to a close at the end of 2018.

In August, rumors swirled of a bipartisan presidential bid. Likely at the top ticket: Kasich, with Hickenlooper as his vice president. Both governors quickly squashed the notion in interviews with the press.

But Hickenlooper hasn’t taken himself out of the running for anything else.

In the middle of his sentence, seated in a studio in a Capitol Hill press gallery, Hickenlooper took his phone out, fiddled with it and turned it around.

“Nobody believes that I’m so nerdy that I would do this,” he said, pointing to his screen. “You see that number up in the top lefthand corner? It says 426. Everyone in my cabinet has the same counter.”

“And so there are 426 days left in my administration, and we are all going to work right up to that last day” on Colorado state issues.

He’s not going to announce a decision about his next career move anytime soon. But he’s not discounting anything, either, whether that’s challenging Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) or running for president in 2020.

“The moment I start running for a higher office or even talking about it — Am I going to run for Senate? Would I run for president? What am I going to do? — if we do a good enough job creating this model of how a state can operate, then I can go run a foundation, who knows what I can do,” Hickenlooper said.

“I can have lots of choices.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Colorado Cory Booker Cory Gardner Education Elizabeth Warren Gun control Healthcare Medicare ObamaCare Tax reform Virginia

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