Littwin: A very Hickenlooper State of the State speech

It was just one speech, but it looks like the old John Hickenlooper could be back.

That’s the Hickenlooper who drives Republican politicians crazy and a few Democratic ones, too. The Hickenlooper who stakes out the middle ground and then insists everyone, from the left and right, join him there. The Hickenlooper who takes on “divisive politics” by blaming no one (except maybe Washington) for the divisiveness while saying that, in any case, we (you know, all Coloradans) are better than that.

The Hickenlooper who blasts partisanship by praising all the politicians in the room and daring anyone to disagree with him — this, during one of his many ovations.

The Hickenlooper who always looked like the surest bet of any politician in the state, at least until 2013 happened.

It was a tough year, Hickenlooper granted, but, he said, “Colorado does not shut down,” contrasting our state with the ugly 17-day shutdown perpetrated in/by Washington and possibly with the fact that you can basically shut down New Jersey simply by closing two traffic lanes.

“Colorado does not quit,” he said. “Colorado does not break.”

OK, we don’t shut down, quit or break. But we do recall. We do threaten — some of us, anyway — to secede. We do have sheriffs who refuse to enforce the law. We do have a state educational system handcuffed by TABOR. We do have to deal with the effects of the proposed tax hike, to address K-12 issues, that was shut down by a 2-to-1 vote.

In his State of the State address, Hickenlooper talked about the tough times in 2013. But he was talking about the floods, the fires, the shootings, the stories of disaster, all of which obviously affected Hickenlooper deeply.

He didn’t mention the recalls, the secession vote and the rest. He mentioned guns, but only briefly, and only then to discuss mental-health treatment. He expressed his love for rural Colorado and especially for rural-Colorado Internet bandwidth, to another standing ovation.

This was the Hickenlooper message: In 2013, Colorado suffered another year of tragedies — tragedies for all seasons — but we came through it all by pulling together. And if we sometimes disagreed — and we did — we can do better. And even if we live in different places — whether we are surrounded by cows or cement — we have the same dreams. And if we basically forget the recalls, the secession votes, the sheriffs, the Amendment 66 debacle, the death-penalty controversy, we can enjoy the recovering economy and go about our business. And, by the way, Hickenlooper can be, uh, re-elected.

Republicans couldn’t have missed what he was saying: If you want to argue about 2013, be my guest. But, meanwhile, you can find me up here in 2014, where elections are won and lost.

In his speech, he made his case for an improving Colorado economy — one that ranks high in most surveys — and for a forward-looking, non-budget-busting, education-heavy agenda. He left it to others to argue whether “liberty” and “freedom” really equate to the size of ammunition magazines. Or whether we want to move backward on civil unions. Or whether these are the real issues facing Colorado.

This was a pure campaign speech as he heads toward the November elections, in which the plan was to redefine 2013 in his own terms. At the heart of it was the notion that politicians are unpopular — OK, that’s where everyone does agree — and that he had what he called an “Ask” for those concerned-about-their-popularity politicians gathered in the room.

The Ask was Hickenlooper’s hope that these politicians would tamp down the partisanship in an election year. It was vintage Hick, trying to position himself above the fray. And the beauty of it was this: Even as he was doing the Ask, he first called the gathered state legislators statesmen and stateswomen (statespeople?), as if there were 100 Churchills in the room. Could anyone really buy that? Listen in:

“Over the course of the last year, everyone in this room has been tested,” he said to the Senate and House members gathered in the House chambers for the annual speech. “Time and again, you chose to put your communities and your fellow Coloradans first. You chose to be public servants, before politicians. …

“Vigorous debate is our ally. Partisanship is not. Skepticism is productive. Corrosive cynicism is not. So, as we begin this session, my Ask is we ignore the divisive politics.

“No one needs to remind us we’re going into a political season. And I realize that if such a goal for a session ever seemed ambitious, it’s a time like this. But that’s precisely why we should set such a goal.”

Not to be corrosively cynical, but it’s easy to see what the goal is here. If there’s the usual bad blood in the Legislature this year, Hickenlooper won’t be sucked in.

Just the day before, at the opening day of the Legislature, I was talking to newly elected Sen. George Rivera, who had knocked off Angela Giron in one of the recall votes. In his hand, he was holding his first bill, which called for a repeal of the new background-check law. According to virtually all polls, background checks are overwhelmingly popular. But that bill, Rivera said, is why he was sent to the Senate.

The bill also highlights the unmentioned, but obvious, point of Hickenlooper’s speech.

If a majority of voters are primed for yet another fight over the modest gun laws, then Hick might be vulnerable after all. But if voters think they were last year’s fight and are ready to move on, then Hickenlooper will be proven right. And come Election Day, the only thing shut down for the governor will be a lot of bad memories.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he now writes for


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