Denver Mayor John W Hickenlooper

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John W Hickenlooper
Mayor of Denver
By Brian Baker

5 May 2006: In 2002 John W Hickenlooper, a Denver-based entrepreneur, had never contested elected office. Three years later he was the only mayor included in the Governing magazine annual list of public officials, and was ranked among the best five large city mayors by Time magazine. Mr Hickenlooper won Denver’s mayoralty with 65 per cent of the vote in the June 2003 run-off after leaving six experienced politicians trailing in the first round. 1 May 2007: John Hickenlooper re-elected to second term.

How good is Mayor Hickenlooper?

Just before taking up office he hosted a cocktail party at his lower downtown home for the mayors of the region, telling them that the antagonism between the city and the surrounding towns was over. Subsequently, Denver’s mayor adopted a partnering mode on region-wide issues, notably to inward investment over which the cities and towns had hitherto competed. He also made symbolic changes at Denver International Airport and at City Hall, replacing large images that were only of the city with those that reflected the whole region.

The fifty-three-year-old mayor brought his problem-solving approach and his business experience to bear in tackling the city’s US$70 million deficit, and wiped it out without recourse to large-scale job losses or cuts in services. He also won early plaudits by brokering agreements at Denver International Airport which retained United and Frontier Airlines jobs and services and brought back South West, which had objected to the high costs. Administrations in Colorado have been constrained by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, added to the constitution in the 1970s by traditional conservatives. If revenues increase by more than a threshold based on population growth the state and the local governments must refund taxpayers. By 2000 this was preventing the proper delivery of services to meet the expectations of most of the growing population.

The mayor partnered with Republican Governor Bill Owens to campaign for a November 2005 referendum vote to suspend the refunds for five years. The pair made over 50 joint appearances. From a January 2005 support of just 30 per cent, Referendum C was passed. It was the second year running that Denver’s new mayor had been pivotal in a high profile ballot in the November elections. Mr Hickenlooper’s regional co-operation approach was critical to the success of the FastTracks 0.4 per cent sales tax measure in 2004. By polling day all 32 mayors in metro Denver had backed it publicly. It passed by a three to two margin and will raise over half of the $4.7 billion cost of 195km (120 miles) of additional rail system that within10 years will deliver a public transport system of European standards.

In an October 2005 poll for the Rocky Mountain News the mayor’s approval rates were 86 per cent among city residents, 77 per cent in the suburbs and 60 per cent statewide. Pollster Lori Weigel commented: “These are great numbers for a politician.” He was urged to contest the 2006 gubernatorial election but on 7 February he announced that he would not. Instead, he would seek a second term as mayor next year. He told City Mayors: “We have built foundations here and we have a lot more to do to deliver. If l had run for Governor it would have been a major distraction not just for me but for my team, too.”

His choice reflects his decision in 2002. “The principal reason l first ran was that l saw in my restaurants that people were politically cynical. It is important that people are able to believe in Government in the world we are now living in. Trust was the principal reason l sought to become mayor and for a significant proportion of people, at least 30 per cent, that trust would have been broken.”

Mr Hickenlooper used a six-week transition period after his election in 2003 to bring together teams of people from within local communities and elsewhere to analyse what was required in every department and function and to research the people most likely to deliver. Denver has a strong mayoral structure though not one in which candidates run under party labels. The mayor has control of around 65 appointments, including most of the departmental heads. Whereas some strong mayors use control of heads of departments jobs to reward badly qualified people from their campaign teams, Mr Hickenlooper instead recruited the best possible professionals from across the whole country.

Mr Hickenlooper, who grew up in Pennsylvania, initially studied English at college and had aspirations to become a writer, but later switched to geology. He moved to Denver for an oil exploration geologist job. After being made redundant from the oil industry in the 1980s slump he took time out and while staying with his brother in northern California he came across the then fledgling brew pub phenomenon. Realising that this would go well in Denver he set about finding business partners and raising finance to open the first brew pub business in Colorado.

He became a developer in the lower downtown area winning recognition from the National Trust for Historic Conservation in 1997. By 2002, his business interests encompassed property, restaurants and seven brew pubs. He has put them all into a trust and while he is mayor he has no involvement in their operations. His office has emphasised that all city departments have been told to treat them as any other business. The mayor, who has built a good partnership with the school district board, visits at least one school each week. His administration has been proactive among the very young and in the provision of after school facilities.

He is determined to make Denver’s cultural offer world-class and has built on the previous administration’s success in securing Daniel Libeskind to design the extension to the Denver Art Museum and by commissioning a new Contemporary Art Gallery from another iconic London-based architect, David Adjaye. Construction starts in May. A new opera auditorium opened in the performing arts centre last year. The mayor’s personal effort was crucial in obtaining for the city the 2,000 piece personal collection of the late artist Clyfford Still. Fundraising for a $7 million building to house the collection is current. An ambitious sustainable development strategy is being rolled out in specific actions in every function and department.

“We can do a lot in the way we design and construct our buildings,” Mr Hickenlooper said, adding: “We were working on these changes when the price of oil was $25. Now, though, we can talk about switching to solar and wind power without any immediate up-front cost. We had been willing to take that on but now it will not be necessary.”

Would regional co-operation extend to taking all the light rail network opportunities for densification and urban villages? “Even the suburbs are running out of space now,” he observed. “I don’t think they will duck out of higher densities. Higher densities create higher land values. So far, through conversation and relationship building, we are really getting around the history and each town is recognising the self-interest in density around LRT. ”

His approach within the city, similarly, is based upon finding ways to align self-interest. Commissions of residents and business people are not just set up but listened to. Partnerships are built. The workforce is encouraged to bring forward ideas.

It is not yet known if there will be a contest for mayor next year. If there is, Mr Hickenlooper plans to campaign on the importance of regionalism and on smart and efficient governance.

He is delighted with a change to a single call centre number for all residents’ enquiries. Staff have been specially trained to be able to deal with all issues. He says the process has been beneficial in re-examining service delivery efficiency A lot has been achieved in less than three years but the administration recognises that there is much more to do.

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