Around midnight on April 2, 2003, five weeks before John Hickenlooper won the first election of his political career, Hick campaign manager Paul Lhevine and other campaign staffers arrived at the Rocky Mountain News printing plant in industrial northeast Denver.
They asked workers for the early edition of next day’s Rocky, which was just coming off the press.
“The folks at the plant were pretty amused by us,” said Lindy Eichenbaum-Lent, who was Hick’s Communications Director. They had no problem with leading Eichenbaum-Lent and the others to the printing press, where Lhevine scooped up some newspapers off the conveyer belt.
Hickenlooper’s staff was hoping an endorsement from the conservative but quirky Rocky would add credibility to Hick’s off-beat campaign. A Rocky endorsement, it was hoped, would separate him from the pack of seven candidates vying to be Denver’s mayor in 2003.
Lhevine left the printing press and took a still-warm newspaper straight to Hick’s LoDo loft in the middle of the night.
“It was just stunning,” Hickenlooper told me of the Rocky’s endorsement. “It was like, all of a sudden, the junkyard dog that finally catches up to the trash truck, right? What am I doing now?”
The editorial endorsement turned out to be essential in Hick’s first election victory.
“Voters want something more from a candidate than demonstrated competence and imagination in tackling bread-and-butter maters such as jobs, bureaucracy, budgets and productivity,” the endorsement stated. “They want someone who possesses a larger vision for the city, a genuine love for its essential character, and a passion for the welfare of every resident. But as anyone who has spent time with Hickenlooper knows, he exudes all those qualities. He has long been committed to making Denver a better place—all of Denver, not only the lower downtown area that he helped resuscitate.”
After the election, Republican strategist Dick Wadhams told the Rocky’s Lynn Bartels that in ten years (i.e., now), people would still be talking about the impact of the Rocky endorsement. (They are.) Wadhams called it “stunning” and “one of the strongest-written editorials I’ve ever seen.”
“I could not have possibly won without that endorsement,” Hickenlooper told me last year, apparently speaking to a reporter about it for the first time.
The governor said the “glowing” endorsement legitimized his unlikely candidacy and pushed influential players and others into his corner. Helen Thorpe told me via email that it was a “game changer.”
That’s exactly what Rocky editor John Temple and editorial-page editor Vincent Carroll hoped they’d achieve by publishing the raving endorsement five weeks before the primary election.
“That was a deliberate decision to go early, in part to make a splash, I will admit, and to beat The Post, but in part because we thought, if we could provide a kick to the campaign, now was the time to do it,” said Carroll, who wrote the editorial. “It was best to do it early to focus his name in the minds of people who up to that point, perhaps, had not taken him seriously. So that was very deliberate to go early.”
“If we were going to endorse him,” said Temple, “we needed to do so in a way that was really going to bring attention to him.”
“We’re Worried that You Don’t Have a Shot”
But first, Temple and Carroll, like everybody else, had to be convinced to take Hickenlooper seriously.
“Initially, I couldn’t believe that a guy was going to build a campaign for mayor based on essentially a campaign against a stadium name,” Temple told me, referring to Hickenlooper’s earlier efforts to keep “Mile High Stadium” as the name of Denver’s football stadium. “And I didn’t take [Hickenlooper’s campaign] very seriously.”
But after “doing our homework” and meeting multiple times with Hick and his staff, Temple says he became convinced that Hick had more potential than another candidate Temple liked, Ari Zavaras.
“We thought that he had political skills, that he was clearly intelligent, that he seemed to have this curiosity that allowed him to propose one variation of an idea after another,” said Carroll. “He had a fertile mind. He talked seriously about public policy. He was not a Johnny-come-lately to civic affairs. And I don’t mean in terms of his sitting on boards to build up his resume, but he had actually done some things like try to save the Mile High name but also some things behind the scenes that were substantive.”
So Hickenlooper seemed serious and smart, but the question for the Rocky was, as a practical matter, did he have a decent chance of winning?
It looked like Hickenlooper could “raise significant money,” Carroll said. In fact, in the month prior to the Rocky’s endorsement, the brew pub owner though still behind in overall money-in-the-bank, was collecting about as much cash as the leading candidates.
But money aside, you don’t want to back somebody “if he’s going to make you look foolish, to be quite honest,” Carroll told me.
“I remember there was one concern expressed by Peter Blake, who was on the [editorial] board at the time, that we could look silly if he ended up with five percent of the vote and never took off, never gained any traction, like some of these guys who try to make the transition from business to politics,” Carroll said. “They just bomb.”
Temple informed the Hickenlooper campaign that the Rocky was serious about endorsing him but, according to Hick, Temple said: “We’re worried that you even have a shot. You’re so far behind in the polls. You’re so unlikely a candidate.”
Hickenlooper asked campaign advisor Mike Dino to help make the case to the Rocky that he could win.
Rocky Had Big Influence on Previous Denver Mayoral Races
Dino was Wellington Webb’s campaign manager in 1991, and he’d seen how the Rocky’s endorsement of Webb (two weeks before the primary, on the same day The Post endorsed Norm Early) had given the underfunded Webb campaign a “huge boost” in credibility and momentum. Webb has been quoted as saying his Rocky endorsement was “the turn-around” for his campaign.
Dino was also aware that the Rocky’s track record on mayoral endorsements included not only picking Webb but Federico Peña in 1983. The Rocky’s Peña endorsement wasn’t as effusive as Hick’s (neither was Webb’s), but it, too, came out early (three weeks before the primary and two weeks ahead of The Post’s endorsement of Dale Tooley) and surprised many political types. It’s widely seen as having given Peña a serious boost.
“I certainly thought, from previous experience, that if then-candidate John Hickenlooper could get one of the newspaper endorsements, it would be a huge shot in the arm for what was already a promising candidate and campaign,” said Dino.
First Hick Campaign Ad Impresses Rocky
Hickenlooper recalls Dino laying out the case to Carroll at a breakfast meeting at Dixon’s restaurant in Lodo.
“Vince was saying, ‘Hickenlooper doesn’t have a discernible constituency that’s going to get behind him, like the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or the enviros or this or that,’” recalls Dino. “And I said, ‘That’s what’s so unique about [Hickenlooper]. He’s going to get realtors. He’s going to get business organizations. He’s going to get nonprofit associations. He’s a different type of political animal with a different constituency.”
Hickenlooper told me: “Dino did a brilliant job of saying, ‘Colorado loves underdogs. If you look at who’s supporting [Hickenlooper] and who cares, if there was credibility and people thought he’d win, things could change dramatically. And wait until you see the first TV ad.’
Hick’s debut ad, which political junkies still talk about, depicted an unpolished candidate trying on cheap suits. “Everybody says I need better clothes,” says Hick in the ad, and at the end, he zips away on a motor scooter. Its light humor and outsider tone appealed to multiple audiences, including the disheveled demographic.
According to Carroll, the ad closed the deal for Hick.
“The ad demonstrated that he could probably run a competent campaign,” Carroll told me. “And that’s important.”
Endorsement a Risk but Focused on “Stuff We Were Comfortable With”
During my interview with Hickenlooper, I handed him a copy of the endorsement. He read the first line aloud:
“John Hickenlooper is the only serious candidate for Denver mayor who has actually done what all the other candidates say they want to do as a top priority: create an impressive number of private sector jobs.”
Hick stopped reading and said: “Holy smoke! Look at how long the endorsement is. It doesn’t mention a single other candidate. When do you ever see that? And not at any moment do they say, well, he has problems here. He has this problem there or whatever… It’s cool to read this again. It’s actually the first time I’ve looked at it in years.”
Carroll told me that in the endorsement he focused on the “stuff we were comfortable with.”
“We actually mentioned the Chinook Fund [which Hickenlooper helped establish], although I referred to it as ‘edgy Chinook Fund,’” Carroll told me, reaching across the table and circling the word “edgy” on the copy of the Hick endorsement I’d shown him earlier in our conversation. It was clearly a word he’d picked carefully ten years ago.
“I didn’t want to give it away,” Carroll said. “It’s actually a left-wing fund.” The editorial also states vaguely that Chinook “funnels grants to maverick activists.”
“I won’t deny; it gave me pause,” Carroll said. “Does this guy have an ulterior agenda that he’s not letting on to? But I don’t think he did, after all, at the end of the day. I think he pretty much wanted to do what he said he wanted to do. Fortunately, I was right.”
“Whatever his views on social issues, or issues we might have been more conservative on, didn’t matter, because that wasn’t the purview of the mayor,” said Temple. “It really mattered to us that he brought that business experience and when we met with him it was obvious that he had that.”
Hick Campaign Surges after Endorsement
The Rocky’s endorsement gave the beer guy the springboard that both Hickenlooper and the Rocky had hoped it would.
Hick took off.
Two long weeks after the endorsement, The Denver Post also picked Hick, complimenting other candidates but writing that Hickenlooper stands out as having an “exciting agenda of change for a city stalled in the economic doldrums.”
Three weeks after the Rocky endorsement, Hickenlooper had a 13-point lead over his opponents, after trailing by as many points about eight weeks before. (Unfortunately, more polling info isn’t available.)
“It was a big boost at an important time when people were wondering if they should take a risk with this guy,” said Dino. “It made it easy for a lot of people to say, ‘Oh, yeah, now I can get on board.’ [The Rocky endorsement] probably had a better effect than it did for Wellington. People were ready for John. They needed a nudge.”
“The Rocky moved him from the guy with the quirky campaign to someone to be taken seriously,” said Penfield Tate, who ran for mayor that year, adding that he expected the Rocky to endorse Hick because it was the “conservative newspaper.”
Most Influential Newspaper Endorsement in Colorado History
Don Mares, who faced Hick in the mayoral runoff election in 2003, told me Hick’s creative ad campaign, not the Rocky endorsement, separated Hickenlooper from the other mayoral candidates. The ads were particularly effective with so many candidates in the race, he said. Dino also thinks Hick would have won without the endorsement.
But most people I spoke with, on and off the record, agree that the Rocky editorial, coupled with the ads, was indispensable in the first election victory of the guy who’s gone on to become governor.
This leaves little doubt, and former Post journalist Fred Brown agrees with me on this, that it’s the most influential editorial endorsement in memory—if not in the state’s history.
As such, it’s distinct from most newspaper editorials, which, as former Post editorial writer of 32 years Bob Ewegen put it, “probably fit in the classic definition: Writing an editorial is like wetting your pants in a blue serge suit. You feel warm all over but nobody notices.”
But in this case, there’s substance behind the warm feeling Temple got after endorsing Hick.
“The day after the mayoral election, the mayor-elect and his wife, and Michael Bennet and his wife, invited Judith [Temple’s wife] and me to dinner at Hickenlooper’s loft in Lodo,” said Temple, who’d not met the brew pub owner prior to the election campaign. “We had a barbeque outside, and it was sort of in recognition of the role that the Rocky Mountain News, not me personally, but the Rocky Mountain News had played. They knew it was absolutely critical. He obviously had to win and to do it himself. But they knew that the editorial had been the key.”
Carroll Doesn’t Regret his Role in Launching Top Dem
Former Rocky cartoonist Ed Stein, who drew cartoons at the Rocky for over 30 years, told me that “Vince felt strongly that the Republican agenda was preferable to the Democratic one.”
Stein’s liberal bent doesn’t stop him from referring to Carroll as a “wonderful editor,” but Stein says Carroll generally “felt he should support any, even marginally acceptable, Republican candidate, even if he/she was a dim bulb or politically inept, so long as it represented a reliable vote for the good guys [the GOP].”
But the Denver mayoral election is nonpartisan, and as Stein put it, “It’s kind of pointless in the mayoral election here to support a Republican.”
So you might think Carroll, who’s a mix of social conservative and libertarian, might have regrets about his role in launching the career of Hickenlooper, who’s turned out to be such a successful Democrat, considered presidential material.
But even now, with Hickenlooper presiding not over the liberal city Denver but the centrist hotbed of Colorado, Carroll expresses no regrets about the editorial he wrote 10 years ago.
“I still like now-Gov. John Hickenlooper,” Carroll told me in December, before he became editorial-page editor of The Denver Post. “On the spectrum of politicians, I think he’s a good one, on the upper end of the spectrum. I don’t always agree with him on policy, and I don’t expect to. But, since he’s been governor, he has continued to be something of a maverick on some issues. And that’s good enough for me, for a state-wide Democrat. You don’t always know what he’s going to say on an issue. But some prominent Democrats in this state, I do. And I find that refreshing. I find it refreshing in any politician. It worked out. And as you recall, the alternatives in 2010 were Tom Tancredo and Dan Maes, neither of whom I voted for. Leave it at that.”
Jason Salzman was a freelance media critic at the Rocky. He now blogs at www.bigmedia.org. Contact him at Jason@bigmedia.org Twitter: @bigmediablog