When John Hickenlooper ran for mayor of Denver in 2003, the betting in local political circles was that he should keep his day job, brewing beer. A Democratic civic activist, Hickenlooper was best known for owning the Wynkoop Brewing Co., the city's first brewpub, which he had opened in 1988 and built into a successful restaurant business. He had never run for office, not even for student council of his high school or college, Wesleyan, at which he earned degrees in English and geology. He also seemed a bit eccentric. As a bachelor, he offered a $5,000 bounty to anyone who could find him a bride and went on the Phil Donahue Show to discuss the contest (he eventually married in 2002). Geeky and lanky, he sported a boyish haircut and during primary debates cited intellectual tomes like The Rise of the Creative Class. For all his talk of balancing the budget and reforming the schools, he also harped on a prosaic matter: overpriced parking meters.
That Hickenlooper, 53, cruised to victory may suggest that Denver citizens would vote for anyone who promised cheap parking (a pledge on which he delivered). But after 19 months in office his honeymoon still isn't over. Not only do 75% of voters in metro Denver approve of his job performance, but 61% of folks in the region, including the Republican-leaning outlying suburbs, rate the mayor favorably as well, according to a new poll. Asked to explain his popularity, Hickenlooper fumbles for an answer. "I try not to gloss over reality," he says. "If I don't know the answer, I'll say that."
What he's reluctant to say is that he dispensed with the partisan and sometimes imperious manner of past Denver mayors to accomplish quite a bit during his brief tenure. When Hickenlooper, who is called Mayor Hick, took office in July 2003, he inherited a $70 million budget deficit, the worst in city history. He eliminated the shortfall without major service cuts or layoffs, convincing city employees that they should accept less pay and instituting mandatory leave days (he slashed his salary 25%). Bucking the wisdom that you don't take on city-hall unions, he pushed for an incentive-based compensation system for public employees, which voters approved in 2003. And in his biggest score, he won approval for a $4.7 billion mass-transit plan, which involved persuading voters, along with about a dozen mayors in seven regional counties, to back a sales-tax hike.
Hickenlooper's honeymoon has not been without flare-ups. Before he took office, Denver's police department had been facing public criticism over allegations that officers were using excessive force. Hickenlooper appointed a task force to look into the matter and recently nominated a civilian monitor to oversee and critique internal police investigations. Civil-liberties groups complain that the civilian monitor lacks enforcement authority.
But with the Denver economy recovering, the police controversy doesn't seem to have dampened enthusiasm for the mayor, a colorful guy who rides around on an Aprilia scooter and once suggested that employers earmark a percentage of their payroll to buy local artwork. "If I make a mistake, I'll apologize," says Hickenlooper. So far, no apologies seem necessary. -- With reporting by Rita Healy/Denver