DENVER (CN) – Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper kicked off a hopeful campaign for president Thursday in Denver’s Civic Center Park, overlooking both city hall and the state capitol where he served in public office for the last 15 years.
Five thousand spectators craned to hear the infamously easy-going man deliver a message of unity to a crowd of constituents from across the purple state—referring to the population’s fairly equal shares of registered Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
“This isn’t about unity for unity’s sake,” Hickenlooper said. “America stops working when we work against each other. Our country stops making progress when we hunker down on opposite sides of continental divides – blue and red; rich and poor; urban and rural. It’s time to end this American crisis of division. It’s time to bring all Americans together.”
The charismatic candidate outlined strong stances on universal healthcare, universal broadband access, an end to wealthy tax cuts and growing a green economy. After the 2016 election, many Democrats said they struggle to rebuild a party they can believe in.
“Hickenlooper is a great voice for this,” said Stephen Parlato, a lifelong Democrat. Parlato held up a sign depicting the “flag horse,” a proposed new icon to replace the Democratic Party’s donkey. “The workhorse is a reminder to the party itself that it needs to come together, that we need something more dynamic and that its coalition has widened. I think Hickenlooper has all the qualities, whether he has it in him to weather the rough-and-tumble is another matter.”
Hickenlooper moved to Colorado in 1981 to take a job as a geologist, only to be laid off a few years later. After teaching himself how to write a business proposal from a library book, he opened a brewery in a section of Denver with low rent and high potential. When the Wynkoop Brewing Company started making money, Hickenlooper opened a second pub and then a tenth. As a “pro-business, anti-waste outsider” he was elected mayor in 2003, and then served back-to-back terms as governor.
“I always like his demeanor and his calmness, I don’t know anything about his platform right now, but I’ve voted for him in the past,” said Ann, a resident of Denver for 18 years who did not want her last name used. Addressing him by his first name like an old friend, she added, “John brings adaptability and agreeability in this off-kilter time.”
Others have nicknamed him Hick. But the unlikely politician did the math for the crowd: his name is 4 syllables and 12 letters making it “the biggest name in the race.”
Keith Barth, a farmer from eastern Colorado, recalled Hickenlooper riding his John Deer tractor on the 4th of July, handing out cold chocolate milk to the kids. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb juxtaposed all the times people said Hickenlooper wouldn’t get elected with the fact that he never lost an election. Current Denver Mayor Michael Hancock recalled that his first day on city council was Hickenlooper’s first day as mayor.
“I know you agree with John when he says we need a bridge builder, not a wall builder,” Hancock concluded.
But the quirky contender is not without his challengers, which come from the peripherals of the far right and the far left. Overhead, a propeller plane streamed a banner that read “Big Hiccup for 2020.” In the back of the crowd, a group of activists operated a ten-foot tall cardboard Hickenlooper puppet, shouting through megaphones that “this is what democracy looks like.”
Still others say it’s too early to pick a presidential candidate—like putting up Christmas lights before Halloween. Nevertheless Hickenlooper “stood tall,” undistracted by the noise in the back as though he’s been ignoring naysayers all his life.
“Being a pragmatist doesn’t mean saying ‘no’ to bold ideas,” he told the crowd. “It means knowing how to make them happen, that’s my record and that will be my promise as president.”