DENVER–For Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the newly elected Democratic majorities in the General Assembly can be seen as a blessing and a curse.
The blessing is that he no longer has to deal with a pesky Republican House getting in the way of the liberal Democratic agenda. That’s also the curse.
“In some ways, this is John Hickenlooper’s worst nightmare,” said former Colorado Republican Party chair Dick Wadhams. “He had Frank McNulty and the House Republicans to be his backstop for a lot of crazy legislation that would have otherwise passed. Now he has an unfettered Democratic majority.”
Analysts say the 2013 legislative session will test the governor’s leadership skills. In his first two years, he emerged as a political moderate who sought compromise first but was also willing to take on entrenched liberal interest groups on his pet issues, notably energy development.
A geologist turned business owner, Hickenlooper put himself at odds with environmental groups over his support for hydraulic fracturing. Pulling Democrats to the center on energy and economic issues won’t be easy if party leaders see the session as an opportunity to expand government and tighten environmental regulations.
“As a moderate Democrat, he’s much better off having a check and balance that acts as a moderating influence on the legislature,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “The Democrats will have to be disciplined, and he has to be much more active than he was. It’s going to be a lot more work and it’s not like it can’t be done, but it’s going to be more difficult.”
For how-to advice, Hickenlooper may want to call up his friend Bill Owens, the former two-term Republican governor who was often paired with a Republican House and Senate. Owens was known as a master of party discipline who used his years of legislative experience to keep Republicans in line and ensure that no unwanted bill landed in his lap.
“There were certain things he didn’t want to see come across his desk, and he was able to head them off by working with the political leadership because he was such a strong leader himself,” said Wadhams, who ran Owens’ gubernatorial campaigns.
For an example of what not to do, Hickenlooper need look no further than 2007, the first year of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s term. Fresh off a hard-fought victory over Republican Bob Beauprez, and presented with a Democratic House and Senate, Ritter promptly hit a political minefield when a pro-union bill to modify the Labor Peace Act landed on his desk.
Ritter vetoed the bill, much to the chagrin of labor unions, but a few months later signed an executive order granting collective-bargaining rights to state employees. The executive order, seen as a peace offering to organized labor to make up for the veto, hurt his standing with moderate voters and touched off a 2008 ballot battle over union rights.
“No sooner had Bill Ritter taken office than the legislature modified the Labor Peace Act,” said Ciruli. “He was never able to get ahead of the agenda after that.”
Ritter ultimately decided against running for reelection, clearing the path for Hickenlooper to seek the Democratic nomination.
One difference between Owens and Ritter was that Owens, as a former state legislator, knew what to expect from the General Assembly, whereas Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, was a legislative newbie.
A former Denver mayor, Hickenlooper never served in the legislature, but he does have two years’ experience in dealing with the General Assembly.
“I don’t know that something as dramatic as what happened to Ritter would happen to Gov. Hickenlooper, but clearly he’s at odds with a large portion of his party over energy, particularly fracking,” said Wadhams. “The fact that he was able to get two years under his belt before the House Democrats won their majority will help him.”
Complicating matters is that Hickenlooper is viewed as a potential Democratic presidential contender in 2016. He faces reelection in 2014, and his political fortunes may depend on how well he can govern without either brawling with or kowtowing to his fellow Democrats.
“Hickenlooper is popular with the public because he’s seen as bipartisan,” said Ciruli. “He needs to manage his brand.”