DAVOS, Switzerland — As some of the world’s most influential people wrestled with the implications of President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum this past week, a new face in US politics grabbed their attention.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper served as a representative of the Democratic Party’s future here, just as outgoing Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry represented the past.
If this gathering is any indication, Hickenlooper may be on the verge of building buzz as a 2020 hopeful. Several attendees pointed to him as someone who could rescue the party after its disastrous 2016 losses.
One former Obama administration official suggested he could be a Democratic version of Trump — both because of his quirky, off-the-cuff nature (as seen in a campaign ad during which he takes a shower) and a laser focus on middle-class jobs and economic growth.
Hickenlooper has experience in both the private and the public sectors. He opened Colorado’s first brewpub and served as a popular mayor of Denver, Colorado’s largest city. As governor, he has overseen the state’s challenge of federal law on the legalization of marijuana for recreational use (an initiative he was at first against but on which he has since changed his views) and spearheaded a push for significant gun reforms after the deadly 2012 mass shooting at a movie theatre in Aurora.
Business Insider spoke with Hickenlooper at Davos. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Brett LoGiurato: What’s the mood here at Davos this year, given the inauguration of Donald Trump?
John Hickenlooper: It’s definitely a different energy. It’s a little more somber.
LoGiurato:As a prominent Democratic governor, what are you looking for from the president? Do you see areas where you can work with him? Where are areas where you want your state legislature to try to insulate yourself from things he might try to do?
Hickenlooper: Well, I may not have voted for the president, but I’m an American first. My entire administration is going to do everything we can to make him as successful as we can. We’re going to try to be active, strong partners with the federal government. That being said, we went through a great deal of work to expand Medicaid to a large number of people in Colorado. We cut our percentage of people who had no insurance — we cut it in half. We’re going to work really hard to protect that as much as we can, make sure that we have the support from the federal government to continue making sure people have basic rights, basic elemental healthcare.
Also, I look at some of the things that the president will do around cutting red tape, reducing bureaucracy, helping entrepreneurs, helping businesses grow more rapidly, more access to capital — I’m all for it. That’s all stuff that I’ve been trying to do in Colorado.
LoGiuratoOne area in particular that seems ripe for a clash is on marijuana legalization. Have you spoken with Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions? Do you have a read on how he’ll approach the issue, both with your state and moving forward more broadly?
Hickenlooper: I have not talked to Sen. Sessions. I know that our two US senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner — we have a Republican [Gardner] and a Democrat — are both very focused on this. We look at it as one of the ways in which states are laboratories of democracy.
People don’t realise that almost two-thirds of the population in the United States lives in a state where either medical or recreational marijuana are now legal. Two-thirds of the country. We’re looking at it as kind of a 10th Amendment, states’-rights issue. Although marijuana might be the wrong example for that. Medicaid is a better example. It’s one of the rare times where Democratic governors are saying, “Hey, states’ rights.” We don’t want the federal government coming in and telling us how to do our environmental remediation or how we’re going to do our healthcare.
LoGiurato:Do you think marijuana will at least be decriminalized on a federal level?
Hickenlooper: Well, we’ll see. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in terms of creating a regulatory system from scratch [in Colorado]. If I had a magic wand when it first passed three years ago, I would have reversed it. You don’t want to be in conflict with federal law.
That being said, we’ve now gone three years, and our voters passed it by 55-45. We’ve made a lot of headway. And if I had that magic wand now, I’d wait a year or two. If we do this well enough, we should see a dramatic reduction in the number of drug dealers out there. You take away a big chunk of the product flow, you’re going to need fewer salesmen. And there’s been no spike in usage. There’s been no spike in young people, of teenagers, using it.
We now have — again, in a $27 billion budget, $125 million of tax revenue isn’t that significant, but it is money that we can use for people with drug addictions and for rehabilitating people that slipped off the tracks. Those are programs that are hard to find money for outside of the marijuana-tax revenue.
LoGiurato:Marijuana prices are tumbling amid a growing legal supply. Do you have plans to address that on a taxation level?
Hickenlooper: We’d like to get the tax level to the point — we want the price to go down, because that’s how you get rid of the black market. And we still have — some of the laws in the state of Colorado, at least, people had the ability to grow up to 99 plants as caregivers. It’s crazy. How do you tell the grey market from the black market? So we’re tightening up a lot of those rules to make sure we can control and regulate the whole system much more tightly.
LoGiurato:I want to talk about the future of the Democratic Party. I keep hearing your name come up as a saviour in 2020. What’s your read on what went wrong in 2016 and the early steps the party has taken to rectify its losses? And are you supporting anyone to be chair of the Democratic National Committee?
Hickenlooper: [Laughs at 2020 mention.] We had a very strong relationship with the Department of Labour, so [Tom Perez] was a pretty easy choice for me [to be DNC chair]. We’re doing an apprenticeship program that I think is one of the most exciting things we’ve ever worked on. I just came from a meeting with Microsoft and LinkedIn — Allen Blue and Brad Smith — and they’re both going to help finance this. We’re also using LinkedIn to partner with. How do you get people who’ve lost their professions into new professions? It’s its own story someday!
But I think the political reality for the Democratic Party is, you know, there are two sides. There’s one side saying that we weren’t liberal enough and another side saying we’re too liberal. I think they’re both right.
The Democratic Party is always going to be the party of civil rights and fairness — everybody gets an equal, fair shot at the American dream. And we’re going to be the party that really fights to protect planet Earth — enjoy whatever time we’re going to get!
But at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with the Democratic Party that talks more about — and more loudly about — jobs, and cutting red tape, and bureaucracy, making it easier for entrepreneurs to start jobs, making it easier for businesses to grow and create more jobs. That has historically been the wheelhouse of the Democratic Party. Even as we continue to carry the banner of civil rights and environmental justice, we’ve also got to focus on many, many people — for them, life starts with a good job.
LoGiurato:I assume you want to continue to be a loud voice in the future of the Democratic Party. Do you have any plans as we head into the 2018 and 2020 cycles?
Hickenlooper: Nope. I’m not starting a PAC. I’m not going out there and putting together a phantom campaign. In two years, I think the workforce stuff we’re working on in Colorado really has the potential to be a national model, so I want to put a lot of energy into that.
We’re trying to make — have for the last four or five years — trying to make Colorado the healthiest state. So we’re rolling out a lot — we’ll have an interactive map of every single hiking trail in the state of Colorado. Everything there is. You’ll be able to go out and, while you’re hiking, you can meet up with other people on the trail, you can see other people’s photographs. You can come back 20 years later and click on the map and see all the pictures you took. It’s a pretty exciting thing that hopefully will get people out walking. We’re trying to put together kind of a governor’s fitness council to get every single kid walking at least once a day.
LoGiurato:On that note, you’ve been the mayor of a large city. A lot of the issues you talk about, and that the Democratic Party cares about, start at the local level. The party has suffered massive losses, however, on state and local levels recently. Do you think that is important start for the party’s future leaders?
Hickenlooper: Almost all government starts at a very local level at some point. And so I look at that experience as some of the hardest but some of the most exciting stuff I’ve done in public life. I think it’s valuable. Now, does that mean everybody has to be a mayor? I don’t know.
You talk to Cory Booker — I’ll bet you anything that he’ll go back and say that when he was mayor of Newark, [he had] some of the most challenging times, but also some of the most rewarding times. Mayors of big cities — we cherish it, but it’s a steep hill. We love it.
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