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'Hot Mess' Hickenlooper Stumbles into Democratic Primary

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Former Gov. John Hickenlooper was supposed to be Democrats’ surefire solution to the Colorado Senate race, but he’s stumbled badly in the weeks leading up to the party’s June 30 primary.

Hickenlooper defied a subpoena from the Colorado Ethics Commission, only testifying after the nonpartisan panel found him in contempt. Then the commission found he’d violated state ethics laws by accepting free travel while governor.

Meanwhile, as protests raged over the death of George Floyd, Hickenlooper angered Democrats over his explanation of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and had to apologize for a 6-year-old video clip in which he compared politicians to slaves “on an ancient slave ship.”

If Hickenlooper emerges from the primary victorious but battered, his stumbles could give a lifeline to the man he’d face in November: Cory Gardner, widely considered the nation’s most vulnerable Republican senator.

Hickenlooper’s rival, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, is another longtime Colorado Democrat.

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Romanoff lost his last two races — in 2010, he sold his house to finance an underdog primary challenge to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, and in 2014, he unsuccessfully challenged a Republican congressman in a swing district.

Now Romanoff is campaigning on the Green New Deal and single-payer health care, hoping to beat Hickenlooper from the left in a state that Bernie Sanders won on Super Tuesday.

Romanoff’s allies argue that Hickenlooper’s woes are about more than just ideology.

“People are realizing it now. This guy they put on a pedestal, he’s a hot mess,” said Democratic former state Rep. Joe Salazar, who often clashed with Hickenlooper in the statehouse.

Will Hickenlooper win a Colorado Senate seat?

Hickenlooper’s statewide name recognition, high approval ratings and deep campaign bank account were expected to give him an insurmountable advantage over Romanoff. On Thursday, he’s set to roll out an endorsement from Wellington Webb, a former Denver mayor, and announce a whopping $3.7 million fundraising haul since April 1.

Republicans have openly rooted for Romanoff, seeing him as a weaker challenger in November against Gardner. On Tuesday, both Gardner and the National Republican Senatorial Committee released ads bashing Hickenlooper. The Democratic Senate Majority PAC spent $1 million to air an ad defending the former governor.

Hickenlooper argued his case during a debate on Tuesday night. “Inside the state of Colorado, I haven’t lost yet, and Andrew hasn’t won an election in 14 years,” Hickenlooper said.

Romanoff shot back, “They’re not going to attack me for violating the state ethics law because I didn’t.”

Hickenlooper’s campaign said he wasn’t available for an interview on Wednesday.

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The ethics issue had dogged Hickenlooper even before he entered the race. A self-made multimillionaire, he faced a complaint filed by Republicans just as he left office that he had improperly accepted rides on private jets and cars during his governorship.

The ethics issue rarely came up during Hickenlooper’s brief bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Then Senate Democrats recruited Hickenlooper to run for the Senate instead.

The ethics investigation into Hickenlooper moved slowly, even as every other candidate besides Romanoff dropped out.

Hickenlooper was prepared to testify during an in-person hearing in March that was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. When the commission proposed having Hickenlooper testify during a virtual hearing, he objected and even went to state court to quash the commission’s subpoena, arguing it would violate his rights.

Ultimately, Hickenlooper testified via video, and the commission found that he violated Colorado’s ethics law by accepting a flight on a private plane to a ceremony naming the USS Colorado and by accepting a limousine ride at the exclusive Bilderberg meetings in Rome. The commission fined Hickenlooper $2,750 — the highest fine in its history.

Meanwhile, as protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Hickenlooper was asked during an online forum what “Black Lives Matter” means to him. He said it meant “every life matters” — a faux pas in Hickenlooper’s Democratic circle. He quickly apologized and said he “tripped” in his explanation.

On Monday, Hickenlooper had to apologize again — this time after a Denver school board member tweeted a 6-year-old video of the then-governor making a joke about how politicians’ schedules are so packed they are like rowers on “an ancient slave ship” being whipped to row faster.

“Hickenlooper hasn’t been showing up for black people until it becomes time for an election,” according to Tay Anderson, the school board member who has endorsed Romanoff.

Hickenlooper’s supporters say the goodwill he built up during two terms as Denver mayor and two more as governor will get him through.

“He is many things, but personally corrupt and racially insensitive are definitely not among his flaws,” said Alan Salazar, a former aide. “I am pretty sure that most Colorado voters know that.”


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