DENVER—Even though Gov. John Hickenlooper did most of the talking during Monday’s “lean in and listen” stop in Craig, the locals made it clear they’re tired of having their concerns brushed aside by lawmakers in Denver and Washington, D.C.
Chief among the issues raised at the public forum were the federal crackdown on coal, the looming sage-grouse listing, and the state legislature’s doubling of the renewable-energy mandate and limiting access to firearms and ammunition.
Brandy Meek, chair of the Moffat County Republican Party, drew loud applause when she said, “I would urge you, this next legislative session, please represent all of Colorado, not just the urban center.”
“We all kind of have same sentiment, that all of Colorado is not being represented by you,” said Meek. “I had high hopes when you came into office that that would not be the case; however, it seems every piece of legislation that was put on your desk from this liberal legislature this last session was passed by you. As governor, it is your job to create a checks-and-balances system for rural Colorado, because as you mentioned, most Colorado counties are rural.”
A packed but polite crowd of more than 200 rural Coloradans attended the town hall at the Moffat County Fairgrounds, which lasted nearly an hour and was broadcast live by KRAI-FM. Video footage of the event can be found at the Complete Colorado website.
Hickenlooper, beset by sinking poll numbers and facing a rugged reelection effort in 2014, blamed the uproar over the 2013 legislative session in part on his lack of political prowess.
“I’ll just be blunt. No one’s going to ever accuse me of being a really good politician,” he said.
The Democratic governor said he was warned that the legislative session wouldn’t be easy after Democrats took over the House and the Senate in November 2012.
“Everyone said, ‘You’ve got a Democratic House, Democratic Senate, you’re going to have to veto a bunch of stuff,’” he said. “I said, ‘Well, if I’m any good, I should be able to negotiate the negative portions of those bills out of them and get something in there that’s bearable.”
Hickenlooper did pull the rug on some bills before they reached his desk, including measures to restrict the drilling industry, but he seemed to acknowledge that he should have vetoed some bills.
“I’ve heard this from all sectors, I’ve heard this from urban communities: Once you start negotiating sometimes on certain bills you’re going to end up with a bill, no matter what the compromise is, it’s still a bad bill,” he said. “And rather than negotiate, you’re better off just saying, ‘Don’t do that, or if you do, I’m going to veto it.’ So I’m learning as I go.”
On some issues, the governor promised to take action, saying he would look into concerns about rural school funding the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to add the Gunnison sage grouse to the endangered-species list.
He said he’s met twice with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who took office in April, and that “she has an open mind” on the sage-grouse listing.
“[S]he’s not well versed in this issue, and she recognizes that,” said Hickenlooper. “What she’s hearing the first time is from her staff at Fish and Wildlife, and I think she gets a slanted version. My job is to make sure that she gets—I shouldn’t say a slanted version on the other side—let’s just say a better version, how’s that—but a balanced version so she hears both sides of the story.”
On other issues, Hickenlooper could usually find common ground. He frequently brought up the need to find “balance” between competing interests, such as by agreeing that Colorado should get credit from the federal government for its work on reducing pollution at coal-fired plants and improving wildlife habitat.
KRAI-FM summed up his appearance with the headline, “Hickenlooper Gives Vague Answers to Community Questions.”
His senior staff tried to discourage him from accepting the invitation to Craig, said Hickenlooper, telling him, “’You know, you’re not real popular out there right now.’”
“I spent 16 years in the restaurant business, and the one thing I learned is that when people aren’t happy, there’s no benefit by just sitting there, letting them be unhappy,” said Hickenlooper. “There’s probably some of this stuff I can’t help, some of this stuff I can, but I think we all do better if I come out and take my medicine, as my granddad used to tell us, and at least listen, and try to hear as clearly as I can exactly what your complaints are.”