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Hickenlooper Talks Climate, Inequality, Presidential Run

Aspen Public Radio


Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper is back on the campaign trail. After dropping out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, he is now one of a host of Democrats who hope to win the primary and then challenge Republican Cory Gardner for his U.S. Senate seat.

Hickenlooper stopped by Aspen Public Radio on Tuesday afternoon to talk with reporter Alex Hager about climate change, income inequality and more.

Below are some highlights from Aspen Public Radio’s interview with John Hickenlooper. The text below has been edited for length, and responses do not always include the full text of Hickenlooper’s answers. For the complete, unedited interview, listen to the audio file at the bottom of this page.

You wanted to be president and it didn't work out. And on the campaign trail, you said you weren't cut out to be a Senator. What changed your mind?


I realized I kept telling people on the presidential campaign, I'm the one guy who's actually done what everyone else was talking about doing. No one really seemed to pay much attention. 

And as I began thinking about pulling myself out, I heard again and again, people came to me and said, "You should give it a second look, and you should really look at the Senate and, you know, think about it."



"Most of us go through life hoping at some point we'll have a chance to actually do something that matters, that might actually nudge history."

So I looked at it and I talked to a couple people like Tim Wirth, who was a US Senator from Colorado from 1986 to 1992. He ripped me up one side and down the other. He said, you know, most of us go through life hoping at some point we'll have a chance to actually do something that matters, that might actually nudge history. And you're going to be one of three or four people that might actually give us the Senate and take Mitch McConnell out of the majority leader chair. 

We spent about five weeks, my wife and I, and the last two weeks we spent pretty much landlocked in our house. Didn't go out much and called people, talked to a bunch of governors who had become senators.Tim Wirth told me, he said, "Hickenlooper, you're not sure you'd like it, you're not sure you'd be good at this. I know you, you fool, you be great at it. You'd love it. What are you waiting for? Get out there and change the world.”



This is a town where the dominant industry is entirely dependent on snow falling every year. And that's something that could change if we see some of these potential devastating effects of climate change. Do you have a plan to alter the course that might steer us away from some of those potentially devastating effects?

I'm the, I think the only scientist running for Senate. I was the only scientist who was a governor, unless you include doctors, M.D.s. I've got a masters in earth and environmental science. So I studied geology and environmental science. And so I understand in detail what the challenges are. That this is the most real threat to humanity in the history of the world. 



"This is the most real threat to humanity in the history of the world."

When I was mayor of Denver, I got elected in 2003. We created a climate change plan back then, that was a model for the country. And then when I became governor, when Trump came in, we re-upped the Paris Accords. We were the first state to really go after methane. People don't talk about methane very much. The oil and gas industry always fought to be able to just vent it and flare it whenever they want. But methane is 25 times worse for climate change than CO2.


And it took a while. It took 14 months of negotiation, but we got them to agree to create methane regulations that, according to the environmental defense fund, it's the equivalent of taking 320,000 cars a year off the roads. 

And we also are closing two coal fired plants down in Pueblo. Replacing with wind, solar and batteries. The first time in America where there'll be no natural gas for cycling on and off. And at the same time we worked very hard for them to lower their costs of the wind and the solar, so that this will be the first time where we've replaced coal with renewables. And the monthly bill for the customers of Xcel down there, the average bill is going to go down. And that's when you begin to bring market forces into this. 

I would match what we did in Colorado with any state in the country, including California.

You hear a lot of national conversation about income inequality. Here in Pitkin County, a lot of people see that really up close. It's the worst income inequality in the state and among the worst in the country. Do you believe there's something inherently wrong with such a wide gap between the top and the bottom?

[Trade organizations] each have lobbyists and they're all trying to get an advantage. And their advantage comes from one of two places. Either they get lower taxes or they find a way to pay their employees less. In other words, get laws passed that somehow benefit the employer rather than the worker. 

And we've just let that go on for 40 years. And over a period, they're all little changes. But now, I mean, for 25 probably 30 years, the middle class has been shrinking every single year. And you talk to any business small or large, and ask them whether they think American capitalism can succeed without an expanding middle-class. Everyone I've talked to said, yeah, we have to have a middle-class that is expanding. So I think everyone is willing to recognize that it's a problem. We just have to get people to sit down and say, all right, we're going to raise the minimum wage.

We're going to dramatically expand the earned income tax credit. We're going to make sure that the people who are middle-level managers are getting paid a wage that's worth being called a manager. Like, not just $29,000, which is what some, some companies are paying their middle level managers now. I mean, there's a whole long list of things we'll have to do.

The plans to relocate the Bureau of Land Management offices to Grand Junction stirred up a lot of controversy. Advocates say the move will bring the BLM closer to the land it manages, and critics say it's just an effort to weaken that agency. Do you see that BLM move to Colorado as a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, it remains to be seen. I mean, certainly I hope it's more than 27 jobs. Some people suggest that people who don't want to come out and make the move aren't going to be replaced. I find that hard to believe. I think we should give them a chance and see.


When Ken Salazar was the Secretary of the iIterior, he had such a beautiful balance between public lands and their utilization for private enterprise, with their utilization for spiritual and outdoor-recreation-type uses as well. And that's what the BLM should be doing. They should be balancing the intense value of our public lands.



Colorado, we are, and I worked very hard to make this happen. We're the number one state in America for outdoor recreation. And really if you squint your eyes and look at it, outdoor recreation has the very real possibility to be a solution to a lot of our problems. Right? 

The guys who make those little widgets that go on the edge of your backpack, they generally don't want their 10 person manufacturing plant to be in a big city. They want to be in a rural area. That's what us governors kill ourselves to try and find businesses, to go into rural areas. 

And then you tie that together with this notion that outdoor recreation inherently makes people walk more, and hike more and exercise more. So it's probably the single most effective way to lower our healthcare costs this side of regulating the prescription drug industry.

I think the outdoor recreation industry needs to be balanced with all the other extraction industries and the other uses for public land. And hopefully the BLM will be part of that balance.

I'm sure you will make a lot of friends in this town if you keep talking about the value of outdoor recreation. 

The snow is already coming a little later. You talk to anybody, whether it's at Aspen or Vail or any of the ski resorts, their fear, I mean their biggest week, it's always that week between Christmas and New Years. They need some great snow in December. So far, there's a lot of, some years it's better, some years it's worse. But there are studies that suggest 20 years or 30 years from now, the snow will come later and won't stay as long.

There are some people who'd say historically you've showed some friendliness to the oil and gas industry. What would you say to voters who make environmental protection a high priority and are concerned that you could be an ally to oil and gas in Washington?

Well, they can say what they want. I'd match what we've done for climate change in Colorado with any state in the country. 

If I was so tight with the oil and gas industry, why is it that they agreed to spend $60 million a year for the methane regulations? In other words, they have to go out and send inspectors to every tank, every pump, every pipe, every year. And they're measuring, they're using these infrared guns to look at these connections and make sure they're not leaking methane. I mean, that is one of the essential stepping stones to getting to getting our arms around methane. We're the only state that got that done, right? 

I think my job is to have a good relationship with every industry, and in that relationship, convince them that it's worth it for them to spend money to protect our environment, to make our quality of life and our state better.

After this presidential run you had on the campaign trail, is there anything you learned out there that you're taking back here to Colorado, that you're thinking about on your Senate campaign?

Running for president, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I can't even describe how I feel so blessed to have been able to do it for six months. 

And I got up to 2%. I'm very proud of that. I tease Michael Bennet that I was at 2% sooner and longer than he was. He doesn't think it's funny. He's still running. Although you never could tell, he might actually end up to be the president. It wouldn't surprise me that much.

Anyway, I think that until you've done it, you've never realized that the people in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina, they take very seriously their job of trying to pick the next president of the United States. Or the next Democratic candidate. 



"It is so powerful to go to someone's living room in northwestern Iowa, and in 15 minutes they're telling you their deepest secrets and their wildest dreams."

And it is so powerful to go to someone's living room in northwestern Iowa, and in 15 minutes they're telling you their deepest secrets and their wildest dreams. It's very intimate. I loved it. 

I would've done it onwards, but you know, when you have so many candidates you feel it made it hard for everybody. And I thought it was important that I get out so that I wasn't drawing resources away from other candidates who might have a better chance of winning.



The full-length audio of reporter Alex Hager's talk with John Hickenlooper during his visit to Aspen.


Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.