Last week Speaker of the House, Crisanta Duran opened a joint session of the Colorado legislature and handed the gavel to Senate President, Kevin Grantham to introduce Governor, John Hickenlooper to deliver his final Colorado State of the State. In the address, Hickenlooper sounded more like a man on a political mission than one in the final year of his final term. Touting outstanding economic progress, Hick laid out a plan that would both resonate with his Colorado constituency as well as a national audience that might be willing to consider him a presidential candidate.
With Speaker Duran seated behind his right shoulder, Hickenlooper spoke to a standing-room only chamber with familiar centrist themes. Starting with saying, “Topophilia, which means our love of place and reflects our love of Colorado,” Hickenlooper invoked the term when presenting necessary conditions for economic development, our need to protect the state’s natural beauty, and providing better opportunities for the next generation. “I believe love of place is a key ingredient of almost all economic development.”
The Governor called for civil discourse in Colorado, a tradition for which we have become known, and as a juxtaposition to the massive partisan divide at the national level. “Collaborative cooperation has always been the defining part of our DNA.”
Several other points gave special note to the plight of rural Colorado, a perspective that will help policy positioning for a political future beyond next year. He touted fixing a hospital fee structure, allowing the continuation of fiscally struggling rural hospitals, a 100,000 expansion of rural home broadband connections, and a $10 million Rural Venture Fund to incentivize entrepreneur-ism in small and rural communities. His promise to address teacher shortages across the state stressed the importance of doing so for rural areas.
Not surprisingly, Hickenlooper chose State of the State themes to appeal to both sides of the aisle, a hallmark of his two terms in office. Even in his introduction he struck the tone, thanking legislators for their friendship. “I am grateful to all of you to have been allowed to be your friend these past seven years… most of the time.”
Hickenlooper emphasized the rights of states to determine their own policies when he brought up pioneering cannabis legalization and laying a road map for other states. “I don’t think any of us are wild about Washington telling us what’s good for us,” he said, when referring to Coloradans’ vote for cannabis legalization and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent decision to buck state votes in favor of a more restrictive national anti-marijuana policy. Hickenlooper continued, “We expect that the federal government will respect the will of Colorado voters.”
His biggest applause line came when he introduced Colorado Springs seven year-old, Ashley Scott, who took it upon herself to collect blankets and other items for area homeless. Hick lamented the fact that she was 23 years shy for running for Governor noting, “everyone else is” and nodding toward Republican candidates, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, seated in the front of the gallery.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates were also out in force, working the room before and after the presentation. Hickenlooper gave a special nod to Donna Lynne, a reminder of the power of his incumbent platform. The other Democratic candidate on his home turf was Senator Mike Johnston. Perhaps the happiest candidate after the briefing might have been Democrat Noel Ginsburg who is the Executive Chair of the Board of CareerWise, a work preparation nonprofit training students with practical experience and apprenticeships. Citing 60 percent of Coloradans would not earn a college degree, Hick offered CareerWise as a solution, saying the organization could help address “new industries that will require a new set of skills” and could add “skills-based training in addition to degree-based” education.
The presentation wasn’t all good news as Hickenlooper outlined major challenges for Colorado to tackle this year. The Governor called for a “…halt [to] the opioid epidemic that continues to destroy lives and families and disproportionately affects our rural communities.” He also decried the poor condition of Colorado’s roads and bridges noting that Coloradans “haven’t raised the state gas tax in 25 years,” while neighboring Utah has done so twice. He suggested that Coloradans should have the opportunity to vote for new resources for improved infrastructure – a crafty way of suggesting we need more tax dollars for road improvements.
Hickenlooper’s most controversial moment during the State of the State came when supporting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) known as Obamacare. A decidedly partisan perspective, Hickenlooper said the ACA was not perfect and needed improvement but held an important place in Colorado’s healthcare system. He noted that two-thirds of bankruptcies were caused by medical debt and that post ACA, that figure dropped by 60 percent. Again, Hickenlooper stressed negative effects were disproportionately absorbed by rural areas.
This kind of talk on healthcare is a useful stance both for the well-being of a state that has fared well under the system but also necessary positioning for a national Democratic platform. It was this issue that propelled him into the national spotlight as a presidential hopeful when bipartisan solutions to the health crisis were sought alongside Ohio Republican Governor and former Republican presidential candidate, John Kasich.
The State of the State narrative carried through to the following day as a group of business people gathered for the annual MLK Business Awards. Moderator, Tamara Banks noted Hickenlooper’s use of the term, “topophilia” or “love of place” at the State of the State. Hickenlooper took the opportunity to acknowledge 50 years of excellent Mayors seated at the same table – Wellington Webb, Michael Hancock, and Federico Peña, all of whom addressed the audience during the lunch, including Peña’s keynote address. A few days later, Hickenlooper helped lead the MLK Marade along with Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne, Mayor Webb, Mayor Hancock and a collection of legislators including ‘Doghouse Dems’, State Representatives Jovan Melton, Leslie Herod and State Representative and Attorney General candidate, Joe Salazar.