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Colorado Today: An Interview with Gov. Hickenlooper

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“The negative ads we’ve kind of moved into, starting in the nineties, have gotten worse and worse. You never see businesses do attack ads, right? If Coke did an attack ad against Pepsi, Pepsi would have to attack Coke…. You could suppress down an entire product category.”

John Hickenlooper is nearing the end of his second term as Governor of Colorado. Before becoming the state’s 42nd governor, he was Mayor of Denver for eight years, and before that, a geologist and brewery owner. He gained national attention for his work as Mayor of Denver in working to address the City’s homeless population. He also served as the Chair of the National Governors Association. On June 12th, Governor Hickenlooper joined Merion West’s Erich Prince to discuss the divide between rural and urban Colorado (what The Denver Post called the “two Colorados“), polarization, and promoting a small business agenda. 

In an appearance on  CNN earlier this year, you discussed the divide between urban communities and rural communities on the gun control debate, stating that “[rural communities] don’t want someone in the cities coming in and telling them anything to do with their guns.” So this divide is something we’re talking a lot about in the news, and it might be especially true when it comes to social issues. As governor, how have you worked to bridge this gap between rural and urban communities and represent the interests of those who live in both?

It is about social issues, but it’s also about economic issues. So many of the great social challenges that large cities have faced in the last twenty years are facing rural areas on about the same level. On a per capita basis, opioids have about the same instances of abuse in rural areas, as in urban areas. All kinds of issues [such as] depression, other mental health issues—which we think of as more urban issues—we’re seeing them at a similar level [in rural areas].

But I would also argue that some of it does come back to economics. Smaller towns in rural areas: many of them lost their manufacturing base, and then all the accessories, like businesses and jobs, went with that base. And the way they look at it, no one did anything. The local government, the state government, and the federal government tried to say, “Here’s a retraining video. Good luck.”

In April, you signed a bill that will accelerate the construction of high-speed broadband internet in rural parts of the state. It reminds me of something the Democratic Senate candidate in Utah, Jenny Wilson, tweeted last week: a desire to improve water infrastructure in rural parts of her state. What sort of reaction to these initiatives have you received from people in these more rural parts of the state?

I think it was universally well-received. In the world of today, having high-speed internet access is the ante that allows you to play the game. It’s the foundation upon all the other things that you want to try to do to help businesses get started and help create more jobs.

Moving back to an urban issue, you’ve received a lot of attention for combatting homelessness. As Mayor of Denver, you committed to carrying out a 10-year plan to reduce homelessness. Other cities made a similar pledge, but Denver followed-through in particular. What are some lessons that other cities working to end homelessness can borrow from Denver?

A lot of the success we had back then, more than ten years ago now, was measuring where we can have the greatest impact. We saw that what we called “frequent fliers,” or the people that were chronically homeless, oftentimes had chronic health problems. They were causing the society a huge expense.

A lot of times, there are various programs that exist. Shelters are available. When the issue is mental illness, how do we encourage people to take advantage of the resources that might be out there, even if they’re initially reluctant to? Perhaps this reluctance is due to their mental illness or disability.

You have to put the priority on maintaining and expanding connections, both with the local government but also with the local nonprofits, the different pathways into the community. For example, we’ve got a program called Rural Jump-Start, so if you start a business in a rural part of the state that hasn’t experienced significant economic growth, you won’t pay any taxes for five years to the state. You might pay some federal taxes—but not to the state. We’re continuing to find [ways] to give people more incentives. Metro Denver, Boulder and even Fort Collins are some of the fastest growing communities in terms of startups. Part of this is that there’s an ecosystem that’s very entrepreneurial, really oriented towards startups; we’re trying to get that same ecosystem in the rural parts of the state.

And this answers some of these concerns that you alluded to before—that some people in these rural areas feel that they’ve been left behind? Are these programs making them feel more caught-up?

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I don’t think if they feel caught-up. A big part of why people felt left behind was there were no systems to get them training that would land them a good job. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who are working. They’re making a third less or half as much that they were making 15 years ago. And nobody likes that. That’s a hard thing. You spent the first 15 or 20 years of your career getting ready to move up the food chain, and, all of the sudden, you get thrown backwards. The most successful thing you can do is provide incentives for businesses and for startups to get more jobs created, and then make sure that kids of all ages—not just young people—have an opportunity to learn the skills so they can take on these new jobs.

Are there any new initiatives that the state is pioneering to ensure parity of education between the rural and urban communities?

We have a partnership with LinkedIn and Microsoft called “Skillful,” and it’s really trying to move away from always talking about everything [to do with] college degrees and begin moving in the direction of talking about skills-based training.

So more of a vocational approach?

Yes, but vocational implies you’re talking about plumbers and electricians. I’m talking about everything—advanced manufacturing, working at an insurance company, or a bank.

Look at some of the industries we’re going to lose, the professionals we’re going to lose. Think of a bank teller. In another five years, at those banks, the teller aspect of their business is going to be eliminated. We’re going to have robots acting as a bank teller. What we should be doing is looking at the skills that a bank teller has acquired over the years. They’re numerate, they have a high sense of precision, a sense of urgency, they’re collaborative, they understand security.

If you look at cybersecurity, which is emerging, and in Colorado a really a booming industry, not everyone they’re trying to hire needs a college degree. What are the skills a young cyber security technician would need? They need to be numerate, have a high sense of precision, a sense of urgency, they have to be collaborative, they have to understand security. If [they] take four or five months of training, the bank teller could probably make that transition and get a pay raise and still have health insurance and everything else that came with their old job.

Of course, not every bank teller is going to want to do that, but I think we have to be anticipating, what are the professions that are going to get assimilated and basically eliminated from our nation by artificial intelligence and continuing globalization? How do we go and make sure those workers fit new fields? We’re creating hundreds of thousands, millions of jobs every year. What we’re missing is the way for people to get the skills they need for the job. “Skillfull” works as well in a rural area as it does in an urban area.

This sounds somewhat similar to some of the arguments made by Brian Caplan, the economist, who had a book out recently, talking about potentially reexamining the bulk of things that are taught in school and making them more focused on what’s useful career-wise. Perhaps you’ve seen this? 

Yes, but, for the record, I think we also need people that understand philosophy and people that have studied sociology and history. We can teach people the skills in addition to teaching them the basic building blocks of [being educated].

Shifting gears in our final few minutes, I want to ask you about polarization, which is at the heart of a lot of the commentary we have at Merion West. Various explanations have been proposed for the rise of polarization and political division today. The rural-urban divide has been suggested as one possible cause of polarization. John Boehner suggested the role of voters getting their news from partisan media sources. Others, in places such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania recently, cite gerrymandering. Do you find any of these possible explanations compelling?

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I think all of them play a role. You go back to Newt Gingrich, when he first came in after Clinton got elected in 1992. [Gingrich and his colleagues] sat down and had a strategy session, even as [President Clinton] was being inaugurated, of how they were going to make him fail. That wasn’t the old America. That’s not what happened before. I think it’s all those things you said.

It’s the intensity of political TV and how they come to the news. In a certain sense, the negative ads we’ve kind of moved into, starting in the nineties, have gotten worse and worse. You never see businesses do attack ads, right? If Coke did an attack ad against Pepsi, Pepsi would have to attack Coke, Coke would attack Pepsi, Pepsi attack Coke. You could suppress down an entire product category.

Instead of a soft drink, what we’re doing is suppressing down a product category of democracy.

So you feel that it’s been brewing for a while? Maybe the manifestations are fully coming out now, but it’s been brewing at least since ‘94 or so?

I used to make beer, so I don’t usually take my brewing lightly, but, yes, I think it’s been brewing for a long time.

You’ve been described as fairly centrist, or, at least, finding the compromises when they need to be made. So, in these polarized times, how does one best resist the pull of the ideological extremes, come to the middle, and find common ground with people from across the political spectrum? Is there advice you’d give to other politicians looking to find the middle? 

I’m not sure I’m a centrist, but I think people deserve a good job. I think they deserve the opportunity to be able to work hard enough to get the skills that allow them to get the job. No one seems to be talking about it very much, but my God, it should be a foundation of all this other stuff that we talk about. I guess if I were giving advice to somebody, which generally I avoid, my advice would be to speak less and listen more. The way you ever persuade anybody to change their opinion is to listen harder.

I tell people this all the time; I spent a couple months managing a high volume restaurant, and you learn a lot of basic rules that most elected officials don’t seem to practice. Such as, there’s no margin in having enemies. If you’re running a restaurant, no matter how unreasonable that customer is, you do everything you can to make sure they leave and know that you respect them and care about the relationship. So many politicians now, they try to define themselves by who’s their enemy, how badly can they treat them. That’s not how the business world, or at least not how most of the business world, works.

I’ve been to your brewery and enjoyed it. So maybe a background in business is something you’d like to see more of when it comes to politicians? 

If you don’t have a background in business, put yourself in the shoes of small business people. I think that too often most Republicans and Democrats—in their haste to pass a law about one thing or another—don’t take into consideration the unintended consequence. Oftentimes, laws that are meant to do something beneficial end up making things harder for small business people. It’s tough. We need more [small businesses], not less.

Thank you for your time today, Governor.

Anytime.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.