If Democrats decide the best way to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 is to find his opposite, John Hickenlooper thinks he might be their man.
The two-term governor of Colorado is a political moderate known for building bridges with Republicans to handle thorny issues like gun control and marijuana legalization. A former geologist and brewpub owner, he has an understated demeanor and dresses in Western business casual, like he might go for a bike ride later.
And he argues that his experience in business was basically the opposite of Trump’s.
“I’ve never been sued. I’ve never sued anyone. I’m always the antidote to Trump in that sense. In the restaurant business, you kind of define your success by the [idea] that there’s no profit in having enemies. That’s the business I came from,” he told TIME during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. “I think President Trump, when he was in business, defined himself by who his enemies were and how successfully he could attack them, or malign them or sue them.”
Nearing the end of his time in office due to term limits, Hickenlooper is crisscrossing the country gauging interest in a potential 2020 run.
In the past few months, he’s formed a political action committee to endorse candidates like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Florida’s Andrew Gilllum, received awards for the work he’s done to help the LQBTQ community and participated in public speaking engagements with Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, leading to speculation that the two might form a “unity” ticket in 2020 — something Hickenlooper said was not “remotely possible” in the current political climate, noting that Kasich, “feels the same way.”
Hickenlooper said the travel would help clarify if a run makes sense for him.
“My wife and I have spent the summer having discussions with different people around the country and a lot of discussions with some of the people I’ve known and trusted for a long time,” he said as we sat in a black SUV on the way to his next appointment. “You gotta understand that most people who are considering running for president, they’ve been thinking about it their whole lives. I never ran for office until I was 50 years old.”
Unlike Trump, Hickenlooper has also worked to turn down the heat on contentious issues during his time in office.
After a gunman shot and killed 12 and injured 70 more at a “Dark Knight Rises” movie showing in Aurora, Colorado in 2012, Hickenlooper advocated for somewhat-moderate gun control legislation and then worked to get it enacted.
Less than a year after the massacre, which was considered one of the most fatal mass shootings in United States history at the time, Hickenlooper signed bills that expanded background checks and created new limits on ammunition clips, despite over 30% of Coloradans owning guns. The state was also home to the Columbine High School Shooting that killed 13 people in 1999.
“I was ambivalent on this to a degree,” Hickenlooper said in 2013, anticipating complaints from gun owners. “But in the end, these high-capacity magazines turn killers into killing machines. I think the potential for damage seems to outweigh the inconvenience.”
When Colorado passed a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2012, Hickenlooper had a hard choice to make: respect federal law, which criminalizes the use of the drug, or respect his constituents, who voted to pass the amendment, 55-44%.
“I was against it. Almost everybody I know was against it. It’s no fun to be in conflict with federal law. It’s a real challenge. In that sense, in opposing it, it put us in a difficult situation when it passed with 55%, because I took an oath to protect and deliver on the commitments of the Colorado Constitution. Well, that initiative put it in the [Colorado] Constitution,” Hickenlooper said as we approached our destination.
His hesitance has waned, he indicated, citing the implications of strict drug laws on the disproportionately high incarceration rates for people of color, and anecdotal evidence that there are less drug dealers on the street since the amendment passed.
“Most of the worst fears that we had in legalizing recreational marijuana haven’t come to pass,” he said. “States are the laboratories of democracy, and I think this is one of the great social experiments.”
Craig Hughes, a political strategist and former Senior Advisor for Barack Obama’s Colorado campaign, told TIME that Hickenlooper has successfully led the state through tragedies, like Aurora, and strengthened the state’s economy in the process.
“I think Governor Hickenlooper has shown real ability to work with the business community, and has forged stronger relationships with the business community than most Democratic governors, and that could offer us a different type of Democrat,” Hughes said. “Our economy is in incredible shape, the unemployment rate is low, companies have moved to the state while he’s been governor. It’s a really strong record of executive leadership.”
Still, Hickenlooper is not without political baggage.
In mid-October, he was accused of taking private jets owned by wealthy benefactors and not disclosing the gifts, as required by law. The 189-page complaint, filed by former Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty’s nonprofit, the Public Trust Institute, alleges Hickenlooper took almost 100 of these flights since September 2011, the Denver Post reported.
Hughes said he thought the allegation seemed slanted.
“From what I have seen, the word scandal does not apply here. The words ‘politically motivated attack’ would be more appropriate,” Hughes said. McNulty is a Republican and has feuded with Hickenlooper over the Governor’s support of civil unions in the past.
He would also face a number of political challenges if he decides to run. Hickenlooper lacks national name recognition when compared to other Democrats expected to toss their names into the ring, such as former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But he stresses that he would not be the first outsider to run for president.
“I have a steep learning curve, but there’s something exciting about having a steep learning curve and there’s something exciting about being, somehow, different than how everyone else is,” Hickenlooper told me.
“A different kind of different than Trump?” I asked as his chief of staff motioned for me to wrap up my questions.
“That could be my slogan,” he said, laughing, “Hickenlooper: a different kind of different.”
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