Hickenlooper, 67, has since found his voice. He now calls himself a “proud capitalist” who’s able to get things done, while highlighting his background as an entrepreneur who started 20 businesses before getting elected mayor of Denver, then governor of Colorado.
“When I was a kid, capitalism provided security and opportunity,” Hickenlooper tells Yahoo Finance. “That challenge, of how do we make capitalism work for everyone again, is critical to the future of American democracy.”
As the former governor of a prosperous state with a thriving business sector, Hickenlooper may define the centrist boundary of the 2020 Democratic presidential field. At the other end is Bernie Sanders, who favors sweeping government programs such as Medicare for all over private-sector solutions. Front-runner Joe Biden, who hasn’t clarified his economic policies yet, may lie between the two. The primary elections will determine how left the Democratic party has drifted and whether its nominee can win the independent voters who are probably necessary to defeat Republican President Donald Trump.
Hickenlooper is a geologist who lost his job in the energy bust of the mid 1980s. A couple years later, he founded a brewpub with partners, becoming a successful Denver restaurateur. Hickenlooper favors many reforms meant to help more people prosper from capitalism. First, he says, raise the federal minimum wage to $15, or even higher in costlier places like the west coast. Then, help more workers get the skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow, partnering with businesses in states and cities. “Every business I know is happy to invest in their local community college, if they can get workers with the skills they need,” he says.
Like most Democrats running for president, Hickenlooper favors universal health care coverage for every American—but not through a single government program such as Medicare for all. “A hundred and fifty million people have their health care through private insurers,” he says. “Many of them hate it. But more than half are content and happy with it. In this country, government doesn't strip something like that away from the people.” The solution, he says, is a new public option for people who can’t get affordable coverage any other way, perhaps letting such folks buy into Medicare before they turn 65.
A pragmatic approach in Colorado
Colorado is an oil and gas state with ongoing tensions between drillers and environmentalists. As governor, Hickenlooper generally opposed bans on hydraulic fracking that some cities wanted to impose, arguing in favor of mineral-rights holders. But during his tenure, Colorado also became the first state to limit methane emissions from oil and gas wells. That makes him more pragmatic, and less idealistic, than supporters of the Green New Deal, which would entail billions in federal spending to overhaul transportation, energy and other sectors of the economy, under Washington’s direction.
Hickenlooper would raise capital gains taxes for investors and other taxes on the wealthy, and use the money to fund free community college for qualifying students—much as President Obama wanted to do. He’d also ditch the Trump tariffs on imports—which he calls a “dismal failure”—and return to Obama-style free trade, but with more protections for workers hurt by cheap foreign production.
America, he insists, can become more like Colorado, which is a purple state dialed into the global and digital economies. “When I was building my restaurant business,” he says, “everyone who came to Colorado went right to the mountains. Denver was a flyover town if there ever was one. Metro Denver now has over 1,000 miles of bike trails and more live music venues than Austin or Nashville. We also made sure we had our universities turning out electrical engineers and the kinds of workers that people need. Anybody can do that.”
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman