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David Thielen Headshot

My Lunch with Hizzoner

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Note: This interview occurred July 2009 and was originally posted at John Hickenlooper Interview. But with Hick about to become our gubernatorial nominee, I think it is worth posting here.

I got the chance to interview John Hickenlooper during lunch today. The most interesting thing about the interview was that his answers were not political. It's a hard thing to describe but with everyone else I have interviewed, there is a political influence to what they say. What they talk about, how they phrase it, what points they touch on. With Hickenlooper it was more like a conversation with a fellow business owner (which is his previous job).

When he was first considering running, he went and talked to a number of mayors to find out from them what the job was like and if they enjoyed it. That makes perfect sense to me but I wonder how many politicians understand that. And then starting to campaign just 6 months before the election, again something that is "too late" by the conventional wisdom yet makes good sense (and worked).

For those wondering what Hick is going to do next and why he isn't running for higher office - I think he finds the job of mayor rewarding and that a lot remains to be done. Just as you don't leave a start-up until it is successful, you don't leave the mayorship until you have got the city running smoothly. I don't think he views being mayor as a stepping stone, nor do I think he's got any real plans on what to do once he gets the city running smoothly.

As I said, not looking at things like a politician.

Ok, so on to the discussion. I told him he found a magic lamp and he got one wish. He asked if it could be for the Rockies to win the World Series (notice how with Elway gone the Broncos get no love). I said sure but that would be an interesting statement about him as a mayor. He agreed, and then said he would ask for 2 small wishes - to complete FastTraks and to improve our K-12 schools. It's interesting that he put FastTraks so high and if there had been more time I would have asked why.

I asked him what on K-12 and he listed out numerous areas for improvement, including all the major ones. But he then zeroed in on two items. His first was to get every child reading by 3rd grade. From his discussion he doesn't see it as a panacea but he sees it as an important & necessary step. And also as something specific that can be accomplished. This is his start-up background - you find some key step and you make it happen.

His other major point, and this was I think really good, was that we all say that education is of the utmost importance. But then we go work on other issues. He wants to see the Chamber of Commerce and others actually put their primary effort into improving education. Because what we have today is everyone gives lip service to education, and then puts their effort into something else.

I then asked him what he thinks is the big issue Denver will face over the next 10 - 20 years. He had an immediate answer - that it will be our adapting to an economy where energy will change everything. That oil will stay expensive and climb again and green energy will become pervasive. And how this changes everything from industry to what we build and where we live.

It's an interesting answer because this will have varied impacts across the spectrum. And it will lead to some businesses going away while others expand, as well as new ones coming into being. All of that has a significant impact on a city, especially a core city like Denver. It's also interesting because he spoke of how it will impact people and how they live. These are not direct issues for a city government, but they have a tremendous impact on the city as a whole.

Mayor Hickenlooper clearly considers the large issues and trends and how they will impact the city. A very useful trait in today's world.

We then discussed the economy. A lot of what he discussed is what everyone I talk to says - worst since the great depression and worse than even it in some ways. City revenue dropped horribly in February and they are working to determine how to handle it. I asked him specifically about increasing taxes and/or layoffs and he said both are on the table. But that first they have to show that they have wrung every last savings they can out of the system before going to the taxpayers or employees and saying there is no alternative.

And he said they are not there yet. He talked about how they centralized their IT operations and through a single central team and standardizing on their h/w and s/w they saved a boatload of money. (The guy who headed that up is now running OIT.) He's now looking at doing the same thing for additional systems like their motor pool (they have 5). What's funny is that the various departments fight this because they are worried that a central system will be too bureaucratic. As Hick said - no one worries more about inefficient bureaucratic systems than government employees.

He also said the unanimous feedback he has throughout all departments is everyone would like to see across the board pay cuts instead of layoffs. And throughout the discussion of the economy the mayor kept repeating that an individual laid off is then out of the economy and that is a really bad thing. So I think it is safe to assume that we will see pay cuts before we see layoffs or tax increases.

I also think he will have to face pay cuts, layoffs, and tax/fee increases before he can wring every inefficiency out of the city government because there just isn't time to find and improve everything. This downturn is gigantic and we are in a world of hurt. We don't have 2 - 3 years to work through additional efforts that bring about the improved efficiency. With that said, Hick is clearly someone who sees the situation as it is and is focused on handling it as well as can be done.

He talked a bit about saying "I was wrong" when he makes a mistake (the Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays sign being his big example). This is interesting because in my world that is what you do - mistakes are expected and you just say "my bad" and figure out what to do next. But as Hick said, it's rarely done by a politician and so his owning up to being imperfect is viewed as different. I think it easily makes him a better mayor - and I think more popular too.

He also talked about how his administration works very hard to cooperate with the other cities in the area. I'd say he's been very successful in that you never hear any other cities complaining about Denver. That is an amazing accomplishment, but one that no one involved in will ever get any credit for. Quiet competence is always under appreciated.

So what do we have with Mayor John Hickenlooper? We have a very unusual elected official in that he has found his own path both to running for office and running the city. (He appointed people based on qualifications for the job, not political connections.) This approach is part of what makes him such a compelling figure. But only part of it. After all, there are lots of experienced executives, with a science degree, who would take his approach to governing (like yours truly). But you don't see us getting elected.

I think the other significant attribute (for those wanting to clone his success) is he has a way of being straight with you in a way that you appreciate it. It's like the occasional teacher who makes you work like crazy to excel in class - and you thank them for it. Or the boss at work where you knock yourself out to accomplish more than you ever thought you could - and you love the job. Part of this he learned running his restaurants but it's different talking to an entire city in this way.

Or as he put it - he has this ability to get everyone a little bit mad at him. And that's a good thing.