DENVER—Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered an unsubtle message to his fellow Democrats in Thursday’s State of the State speech: No more drama.
The governor touted the state’s quick response to last year’s catastrophic wildfires and floods, played up his work in streamlining state government, and trumpeted the state’s economic growth and business climate.
He said nothing about last year’s pitched legislative battles on gun control and rural renewable energy, igniting a backlash that led to the recalls of two state senators and the resignation of a third, along with votes by five of 11 rural counties to consider forming a new state.
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said the speech comes as the latest of several shots across the bow by Hickenlooper to members of his own party warning against legislative overreach in a critical election year.
“He clearly has sent a very strong signal to the Democrats that, first of all, there needs to be a new tone,” said Ciruli. “He wants to ride a good economy into reelection. He wants to emphasize his leadership on disaster relief, which goes to the criticism that he’s indecisive.”
The biggest threat to Hickenlooper’s reelection bid would be another legislative session like last year’s, which was widely viewed as the most liberal in state history. Sweeping legislation on firearms, elections, education funding and doubling the renewable energy mandate on rural consumers was approved with no Republican votes.
“He’s looking forward to no drama and getting to May 7,” said Ciruli. “If he can get them [Democrats] out of town without doing anything weird, then he’ll have accomplished his goal.”
Whether Democrats are on board with the governor’s agenda remains to be seen. Senate President Morgan Carroll and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino have both talked about bipartisan cooperation, but Carroll’s ascension to the top Senate leadership post means the party’s left wing is in some ways stronger than it was last year.
Hickenlooper was heavily criticized during the 2013 session for talking like a moderate but then signing every liberal bill that hit his desk.
“The governor and his allies struck a very reasonable and constructive tone at this time last year, too, but the session quickly devolved into a full court press to ram through a liberal wish list, resulting in a major backlash,” said Dustin Zvonek, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Colorado in a statement.
Democrats also lost their campaign for a $1 billion tax hike for K-12 education, which voters rejected by 2 to 1 in November.
“Our hope is that intervening events, including successful recall efforts and the crushing defeat of the big tax hike, sent the majority a message that Colorado has no interest in becoming another California,” said Zvonek.
Reining in the Democrats won’t be easy, given that they still control both houses. Party leaders are under pressure from core constituencies like labor unions and environmentalists to stay the progressive course by floating bills to expand workmen’s compensation and give localities more control over hydraulic fracturing.
Oddly enough, the Sept. 10 recall elections may benefit nobody more than Hickenlooper. The loss of two Democratic state senators means the party controls the Senate by just 18 to 17, and several Democrats are seen as moderates who may join Republicans in defeating far-left legislation.
“I think he’ll be saved by the Senate recalls,” said state Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray), who’s seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination. “What really helped him two years ago was the Republican House, and what’s going to help him now is that the Senate is so closely divided.”
At the same time, allowing Republicans and a couple of moderate Democrats to do the dirty work won’t demonstrate real leadership, said Brophy.
“I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to tell the legislature to work in a unified manner, but he didn’t mention he could have moderated the extremists in his own party if he had wanted to,” said Brophy. “It’s like he has his own alternate reality.”