John Wright Hickenlooper II (1952– ) is a Colorado businessman and politician who served as mayor of Denver from 2003 to 2011 and forty-third governor of the state from 2011 to 2019. In 1988 he founded Wynkoop Brewing Company, Denver’s first successful craft brewery.
A member of the Democratic Party, Hickenlooper is known for his political stunts, including skydiving to support state ballot initiatives and drinking water from a major river to prove its quality after a toxic spill. As mayor, he expanded public transportation and created programs for Denver’s homeless population. As governor, he sought to balance oil and gas interests with government regulation and led efforts for gun control, for increased health insurance coverage, and for compromises on the state’s water supply. His tepid support for regulating hydraulic fracturing (fracking) endeared him to some in the oil and gas industry but has drawn criticism from other Democrats and progressives.
In 2019 Hickenlooper briefly ran for the Democratic nomination for president, suspending his campaign after five months. He is currently a candidate for the US Senate.
John Wright Hickenlooper II was born on February 7, 1952, in Narberth, Pennsylvania, the son of Anne and John Wright Hickenlooper. He was raised in a Quaker household with two older stepsiblings, Sydney and Betsy, and an older sister, Deborah. As the youngest, John has said he spent much of his childhood trying to get “my voice to be heard.” In school, he was intelligent but struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. He was bullied for his small frame and his coke-bottle glasses, and he often acted out in class as a result.
Hickenlooper’s father died when he was just eight years old, and he would later say that his grief expressed itself in the form of anger and risky activities such as shoplifting. His dyslexia-fueled reading struggles led him to repeat seventh grade, and Hickenlooper remembers feeling “less than” his classmates. Hickenlooper did not discover he had dyslexia until he was attending Wesleyan College in Connecticut in the early 1970s.
Despite his dyslexia, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Wesleyan in 1974 and completed a master’s degree in geology in 1980. The geology degree allowed Hickenlooper to find a job with Buckhorn Petroleum, and in 1981 he moved to Denver to join Colorado’s oil and gas boom.
Hickenlooper’s career as an oil and gas geologist was cut short by the abrupt end of Colorado’s oil and gas boom in the 1980s. In 1986 he was laid off, and in 1988 he cofounded Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver with fellow entrepreneurs Jerry Williams, Mark Schiffler, and Russell Schehrer. The brewery was housed in the historic J. S. Brown Mercantile building, and it became the cornerstone of the city’s efforts to revitalize the LoDo neighborhood.
As his brewpub became the linchpin of a downtown revitalization strategy, Hickenlooper became more familiar with city politics. Despite having no political experience, Hickenlooper decided to run for mayor of Denver in 2003. His awkward wardrobe and background as a laid-off geologist-turned-brewer proved endearing to voters, who elected the political novice in a landslide over city auditor Donald Mares.
From Mayor to Governor
As mayor, Hickenlooper led efforts to reduce the city’s $70 million deficit and expand public transportation, including the addition of 119 miles to the Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) light rail system. Hickenlooper also attempted to address Denver’s homeless problem, which he had ironically helped exacerbate as the owner of a business that sparked the gentrification of a low-income neighborhood.
In 2005 Hickenlooper established the Denver Homeless Planning Group, which brought together city officials, homeless people, and activists to propose solutions for a homeless community that had grown by 500 percent from 1990 to 2003. The solutions would be implemented by a new program called Denver’s Road Home, operating under the city’s Department of Human Services. While not without flaws or critics, Denver’s Road Home has since helped thousands of people experiencing homelessness obtain shelter, services, and jobs.
During his two terms as mayor, Hickenlooper developed his trademark affinity for political stunts. A 2003 campaign ad featured the brewpub owner donning multiple eccentric costumes to show his individuality and everyman spirit; in a 2005 ad, the first-term mayor jumped out of a plane to promote two ballot initiatives that would help the state invest in health care and transportation infrastructure.
After his reelection to the mayor’s office in 2007, Hickenlooper sold his interest in Wynkoop Brewing Company. He ran a successful campaign to hold the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, widely seen as an economic and political win for the city. As he finished his second term as mayor in 2010, he decided to run for governor of Colorado.
On November 2, 2010, Hickenlooper prevailed in a three-way gubernatorial race, defeating runner-up Tom Tancredo of the Constitution Party by fifteen percentage points and Republican Dan Maes by forty points. Hickenlooper’s win came despite a wave of Tea Party–inspired conservative electoral victories that year.
Like his predecessor, one-term Democrat Bill Ritter, much of Hickenlooper’s two terms as governor were marked by the intensifying debate over the state’s energy economy, especially the role of fracking. Although its safety had not been definitively proven, fracking—a process by which energy companies shoot a highly pressurized mixture of water and chemicals deep underground to release oil and gas deposits trapped in rock—had caught on in Colorado in the mid- to late aughts. Local antifracking activists were pitted against oil and gas interests intent on expanding the practice. In 2008, while Hickenlooper was still mayor of Denver, Democrats in the US Congress, including Colorado representatives Jared Polis and Diana DeGette, introduced a set of bills to have fracking activity regulated under the Clean Water Act, reflecting local concerns about the process.
As a former petroleum geologist, Governor Hickenlooper often disappointed activists and his own party by opting to balance industry interests with community concerns. In 2013, as four Front Range municipalities (Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins, and Lafayette) enacted local fracking bans, Hickenlooper testified to Congress that some preparations of fracking fluid—a noted concern of the communities—were so safe that “you can drink it” and that, true to form, he had even drunk some himself. A few years later, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found “evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.”
In an attempt to bridge the gap between activists and industry, Hickenlooper formed the Oil and Gas Task Force in September 2014. The task force included representatives from the industry as well as environmentalists and local government officials. Among its accomplishments was agreement on a law that forced companies to be more vigilant and transparent about their fracking operations, especially the mechanical integrity of underground equipment, which if compromised could create groundwater and other public health hazards. The law, which contributed to a 75 percent drop in Colorado well leaks, remains in effect as of 2020 and has been emulated by California as well as the EPA and Bureau of Land Management under President Barack Obama.
Despite these achievements, environmental groups remain supportive of fracking bans and are convinced that Hickenlooper’s tolerance of fracking harmed the state. In an interview with Mother Jones in 2019, Jeremy Nichols, a Colorado member of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, said Hickenlooper’s strategy as governor reflected a mistaken belief that “we could somehow frack our way to a safe climate.”
Other Achievements as Governor
Governor Hickenlooper also took his compromise-first approach to the issue of water in Colorado, overseeing the collaborative process that eventually produced the 2013 Colorado River Water Cooperative Agreement, a landmark compromise with other states that resolved long-running disputes over allocation of Colorado River water.
During Hickenlooper’s governorship, the tragic Aurora movie theater shooting took place in July 2012, which killed twelve people and renewed the debate over gun control. After the theater shooting, Hickenlooper signed controversial bills that created universal background checks for gun purchases and banned the sale of high-capacity magazines.
Although he was personally opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana, Hickenlooper carried out the will of the voters to create one of the nation’s first-ever regulated markets for the plant and its products. After he signed Amendment 64 in November 2012, putting legalized cannabis into the Colorado Constitution, Hickenlooper promptly convened a task force to determine how to best implement the law. Despite early hurdles such as the continuation of the black-market marijuana trade, pesticide enforcement, and lawsuits from neighboring states over alleged drug trafficking, Colorado’s marijuana program has been widely deemed successful and has been emulated by other states. After having some initial concerns about its effectiveness, Hickenlooper considers the state’s cannabis program a “success.”
In a victory for LGBTQ rights, Hickenlooper signed legislation legalizing civil unions in Colorado on March 21, 2013. He had previously called a special legislative session to defeat efforts by state Republicans to block the bill.
After EPA workers at the abandoned Gold King Mine accidentally unleashed a torrent of toxic metal sludge into the Animas River in 2015, Hickenlooper oversaw local recovery efforts in Durango and elsewhere throughout the watershed. Barely a week after the spill, while the EPA was still hesitant to declare the river safe for recreating, Hickenlooper performed another of his trademark political stunts: he drank a bottle of river water—albeit treated with iodine—to demonstrate that cleanup had been successful and to show that “Durango is open for business.”
Hickenlooper’s political ambitions did not end with his second term as governor. During the 2016 campaign season, he published a memoir and was rumored as a possible vice-presidential candidate. He then sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 but dropped out before any primaries were held. After suspending his presidential campaign in August 2020, he joined the crowded field of Colorado Democrats vying for Republican senator Cory Gardner’s seat in the 2020 election.
In 1999 Hickenlooper met journalist and author Helen Thorpe at her birthday party; the two were married in a Quaker ceremony in 2002. They divorced in 2015 and have one son, Teddy. In 2016 Hickenlooper married Robin Pringle, an investment manager for Liberty Media.