Q&A: Senate candidate John Hickenlooper talks health care fixes, climate change, attack ads and hate groups

ormer Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks on health care last month at Pazzo’s Pizza patio in Avon. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, faces Republican Cory Gardner in the November Election for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Chris Dillmann / [email protected]

A month away from Election Day on Nov. 3, U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper is running ahead of incumbent Cory Gardner in the polls in a closely-watched race that is set to break spending records.

Last Thursday, before his first debate with Gardner, Hickenlooper took the time to answer questions from the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times about lowering the cost of health care for High Country residents, his environmental record, wildfires, transportation in the Interstate 70 mountain corridor and his opponent’s actions versus his statements. The Vail Daily has made repeated attempts to have a similar sitdown with Gardner.

Here are excerpts from our interview with the former governor:

Governor, in our mountain communities, we have some of the highest health care costs and some of the highest rates of uninsured in the entire country. Too many residents are having to choose between the lone Affordable Care Act plan on the exchange or just forgoing insurance altogether to pay the bills. What’s your pitch to residents in these communities in rural Colorado who just want solutions, not politics on this issue?

That this has become such a partisan issue is not only morally wrong, but it gets in the way of making progress, right? The Affordable Care Act is the only major program, to my knowledge, ever enacted by Congress, and over the first 10 years, there has been no bill passed that improves it. In other words, the Republicans are so determined to end it. Cory Gardner is supporting this lawsuit that will be heard in the Supreme Court on Nov. 10. But in doing that, they’re trying to get rid of it without anything close to a reasonable replacement in place.

In terms of the high cost in the mountain communities, you know, the reinsurance bill that we tried to do the last two years I was in office and now I guess it’s been done — that helps. But I think that we need to really make sure, and it’s not just in Colorado … this is an issue between rural and urban costs of health care all over the country. And I think there are ways to improve the way our exchange is set up. Specifically, having more agility and more oomph in terms of the subsidies that are in the exchanges. That has the potential to attract more companies into the exchange in different regions. And any time you’re only going to have one insurance company bidding on a market, you’re toast. We all know that’s nonsense. I think the other way to address this is to hold the insurance companies accountable and have some sort of a sliding scale with a public option that, again, could be universal.

You know, when I was governor, I think we were the only state that had a split legislature. At that time, the Senate was controlled by Republicans. But we expanded Medicaid and covered 400,000 Coloradans, and many of them had never had health insurance before. And in that process, we kept 12 rural hospitals open. We allowed a number of clinics to stay open. We pushed, and COVID has been a great illumination of this, but we pushed things like telemedicine that we’ve got to make the advances in technology more acceptable and more part of our standard operating procedure if we’re gonna actually try and control costs.

And I think we saw with great clarity during the pandemic, and we’re still seeing it, that the telemedicine in many ways is much better for people in rural communities than the traditional approach where they drive an hour and they sit around waiting 25 minutes for the doctor to see them. Now they can take care of the whole thing in 20 minutes online. And it’s cheaper for the health care providers and cheaper for the patient. Those are the kinds of things we’ve got to push on.

You’ve pitched yourself in this race as the more pro-climate candidate. But as governor, your ties to the energy industry earned you the nickname Frackenlooper from members of your own party. You also said you support some of the concepts proposed by a Green New Deal, but you went on to say that the resolution sets unachievable goals and that we do not have the technology needed to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years. Residents in our mountain communities see the urgent dangers of climate change from shorter winters to wildfires to water concerns. Are you the right candidate to meet the moment on this issue before it’s too late?

Well, you know, when you’ve been governor for eight years, you’ve had a lot of people that have a self-interest in taking shots. That’s just the way the American political system seems to work. I got a master’s in earth and environmental science in 1979. Back then we didn’t call it climate change, we called it the greenhouse effect. But we recognized it had the potential to have a profound impact on the ecosystem we live in. And I’ve worked to try and address climate change.

When we opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company, one of the first brewpubs in the country, I believe we were the first brewpub to recycle our waste heat … We did natural carbonation, too, so we wouldn’t waste CO2 or put it into the atmosphere. We did all this stuff. And when I became mayor, I helped make Denver one of the first big cities to have an office of sustainability. We had the Million Trees movement. We went to every city-owned building, every rec center, every library, and went through all the revamping of their heating system and their air conditioning and their insulation. We weatherized everything. All part of this full-on approach to addressing climate change. And what we did in Colorado while I was governor was we were the first state to take on the oil and gas industry around methane and fugitive emissions. Our program became essentially the model for what is still the national regulatory framework in Canada. It was rolled out in the United States under Obama. And, of course, Cory Gardner and Donald Trump have rolled it back and fought back against it.

Sen. Michael Bennet alongside Sen. candidate John Hickenlooper speaks with local officials and community members at the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act (CORE) event held at the Fales Ranch south of Carbondale last month.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

I think we need to have a coherent plan. We’ve got to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. We’ve got to look at what those five or six key elements are. And Colorado, in almost every case, has best-use practices. We’re closing two coal plants in partnership with Xcel down near Pueblo and replacing those coal-fired plants with wind, solar and batteries, which historically was so much more expensive to use batteries. But wind, solar and batteries, and the monthly electric bill for those customers is going to go down. That brings the forces of the market to get to accelerate the transition away from coal, which is going to be a high priority not just in this country but around the planet. Same thing with accelerating the transition to electric vehicles. Looking at what are the innovations we need to use a lot less CO2 emissions when we create a lot of our industrial processes, like concrete, which gives off a huge amount of CO2. Agriculture, how do we get more regenerative agriculture and capture carbon in that topsoil? Which is, again, many people think that could be 10 or 15 percent of the solution.

There has to be a coherent plan, and it’s got to be that Congress is going to have a laser focus on this so that we don’t go past that point of no return … All around the world, we’re seeing that the consequences of not addressing climate change. I think our goal here is to go as hard and as fast as we can and to recognize and to reassure the public that this isn’t going to cost an arm and a leg. That the reality is a little bit like when John Kennedy began the race to the moon in response to the Russians’ launching of Sputnik. That this is going to be an initiative and a commitment that’s going to create not just millions of jobs but new professions, new industries, in the same way that the race to the moon did. And we’re going to create far more new jobs than we’re going to lose jobs that were part of the old energy economy. I’m excited about it. In the 40-something years since I got that master’s in environmental science, we’ve learned so much, and yet we’re still so far behind in addressing it.

In the first presidential debate, President Trump questioned the quality of forest management when asked about the wildfire situation in Western states. Do you agree that better forest management is the solution? And if not, what do you think the priorities are in mitigating wildfires in Colorado and other Western states?

Forest management is a relevant issue, yeah. But, you know, 90 percent of the forests that are in flames are federal lands. These are the same agencies where Donald Trump and Cory Gardner have tried to cut the budgets over the years, so complaining about the lack of forest management as the cause of the fires — that’s not the cause of these. I mean, certainly, there’s a point to looking at forest management. How can we do better? But one of those towns that burned in Oregon, that fire wasn’t even connected to a traditional forest fire as much as it was a wildfire going through brushlands and scrub that were just so dry and the fuel was so combustible that that fire almost exploded across the landscape. We’re seeing a different kind of forest fire than we’ve ever seen. The fire season in the West now starts 20 days earlier and it goes 20 days later than it has historically.

When I first became governor in 2011, I think we were spending about $3 million or about $3.5 million a year for fighting forest fires. I mean now, what, we’re at $30 million, $35 million … It has become something you have to budget for every year. And the forest management systems haven’t changed that much in such a short period of time. This is clearly a consequence of climate change.

When you were governor, you made a lot of improvements to the I-70 corridor, which is really important to our mountain communities. What other federal funds can you secure from the Transportation Department to get more federal dollars into fixing the interstate and perhaps maybe less state money into the interstate. How do you see that balance?

Well, I think that there’s got to be a re-assessment of how we build infrastructure in this country. Certainly, the fact that COVID-19 has turned this economy on its back. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand clearly why President Trump refused to acknowledge the threat of COVID-19. That negligence. He didn’t even tell his senior staff that we should be preparing, just in case. And yet he was saying to Bob Woodward he saw how deadly it was. I don’t understand — why the negligence?

A combination of that negligence and then the incompetence of having a bunch of people in the chain of command whose real mission in life was to make government smaller, to cut budgets, cut budgets, cut budgets. I mean, this was the worst combination to create an economic debacle. But now that we’re in that debacle, and we’ve got to figure out after the elections how do we rebuild our economy so that they come back better than they were? I think we have to recognize infrastructure is going to a big part of that. And I think the state is going to have to step up and find some more money. I also think that there are ways to charge the users. And I know that toll roads are wildly popular, especially on roads like I-70, for that lane that we’re going to build — some form of tolling is probably going to have to be part of that expansion.

But I definitely think that the federal government has to step up, has to put more money into our infrastructure, and that to do it immediately. And that infrastructure, just in terms of Eagle County or Pitkin County, that infrastructure should include things like broadband — which, for whatever reason, the Republicans fought continuously to not put more money into expanding rural broadband. Colorado, by the end of this year, or maybe by January of next year, but relatively soon, we will have broadband in every city and town in the state of Colorado. Not fast enough. I’m not saying it’s what it needs to be, and it certainly hasn’t gotten all the ranchers and farms in some of the hamlets. But we made that foundation and that should happen across the country. We should have broadband everywhere, just the same way we in the 30s we made a commitment to get electricity to farmers and ranchers. After World War II, we made a commitment to get telephone communications to every farm and ranch. We should take no less responsibility to make sure that our farmers and ranchers in our small communities are connected to the modern communications grid that is essential if they’re going to have any connection to the modern economy.

Another question from the debate Tuesday night. Given the fact that the Proud Boys group has a presence in Colorado, are you surprised that Cory Gardner has not come out with a statement against this group and white supremacy in general? Especially since Sen. Gardner did in 2017 after the president’s comments about Charlottesville?

I’m not surprised anymore. You know Cory Gardner made a decision.
He watched some of the other Republicans who dared to criticize President Trump. You watch them get primaried, you watch the president actively work against them, and you know what, he’s in lockstep with Donald Trump. For whatever reason, he’s made that decision and so he’s going to stay there. I mean, look at what the president on TV says about the new Supreme Court nomination. The president says, “Cory Gardner’s gotta get in line.” And, what, five and a half hours later, Cory says, yes, I think I will approve any qualified candidate that President Trump puts forward. He’s become a yes man. And all those promises that he would be an independent voice for Colorado, that he would never put the best interests of Colorado behind the needs of the Republican Party. I mean, he hasn’t lived up to that.

That’s a lot of what this campaign is about is looking at those places where he said one thing here in Colorado and then he’s gone to Washington and done a completely different thing. He said he’s all for protecting the protections for pre-existing medical conditions and yet he’s voted nine times to get rid of those protections. He’s part of this lawsuit to get rid of those protections. And his replacement, all 117 hollow words that every fact checker, every truthteller says it’s a sham. It’s a shallow hoax of a bill. I think 9News called it horse excrement. I mean that’s the worst lie. In Colorado, we’ve got 2.4 million people with pre-existing medical conditions and that number is only going to grow once the COVID-19 numbers come in. That’s going to be pre-existing condition. Almost certainly. And suddenly these folks aren’t going to have the protections they used to have. And there’s no legitimate replacement anywhere near. It hasn’t been negotiated and thought through in any sense. It’s all just about politics.

President Donald J. Trump brings U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner to the stage as he speaks to supporters at the Broadmoor World Arena on February 20, 2020.
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

So I want to go to Washington. It sounds crazy, but I want to go back and be part of the group of people that actually addresses the dysfunction and the lack of a willingness to listen … We’ve got to take the time to listen to the other side and then begin framing discussions so that you can get to an alignment of self-interest and actually begin to solve some of these problems like universal health care, like climate change. There’s been no progress in four years on any of these issues, except in the wrong direction.

Speaking of Sen. Gardner, his attack ads try to cast you as a corrupt politician for your ethics violations. He’ll certainly try to do the same thing in the upcoming debate. What’s your response to these accusations?

Well, I was taking notes as I watched Donald Trump debate, because you know, if you go back and look at Cory Gardner’s debates with Mark Udall, that’s what Cory Gardner did to Mark. He interrupted him, he spoke over him. He told a bunch of lies and distortions. The reason the Republican dark money organization made 97 allegations … Look, I was found in violation of two reporting errors, I paid a $2,700 fine. I take responsibility. But let’s understand that the whole effort was driven to create material so that they could generate attack ads. And that’s the whole point of that. And the reason they’re doing that is because Cory Gardner’s record stinks in terms of what Coloradans expected and want. And he cannot defend his record. And so he’s going to try — and trust me it’s gonna get worse between now and the election. I think a big part of what Coloradans are saying in the polls is that they don’t believe it, and they don’t want it in their state. This kind of endless attack ads. It’s not welcome in Colorado.

If you’re elected, how high up on your to-do list is the CORE Act?

Well, oh my gosh, the CORE Act, I mean that’s the part that actually is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s bad enough that he has gone and voted to repeal protections for clean air and clean water. It’s bad that he’s approved a coal lobbyist to run the EPA. But Cory won’t even support the CORE Act. When I look at the CORE Act, it took almost 10 years to create. They talked to and really listened to the community in the nine counties where this land is located. And all the commissioners, in each county where the land is is located for their county, they support the CORE Act. Republican commissioners, Democratic commissioners, every commissioner for their county supports the land that’s in their county to be part of this protected acreage. You look at places like the Thompson Divide that are landscapes that add far more value in terms of outdoor recreation over the years than they could ever offer through this exploitation and these auctions off to the highest bidder. Camp Hale, it’s a little bit remote, but I can imagine Camp Hale, if done properly, becomes a destination. And especially if we ever get the Aspen-Alma loop. It’s a bike trail that kind of circles the central massif of Colorado. It goes from Alma on theeast and Aspen’s over on the western edge, but it’s 320 miles, and about 298 miles, I think, are done now. But Camp Hale would be relatively close to that loop. And I think if we ever get that Aspen-Alma loop done, there’ll be all kinds of second-tier destinations that people in the old days wouldn’t make the effort to get to, but that bicyclists and resolute hikers will do and would go out too. I’m a big supporter of the CORE Act and I don’t understand why Cory Gardner felt that he couldn’t support it.

So do you see anything that over the last four years that the Senate has done together that you think is good? Or are you literally starting from ground zero to rebuild any sort of bipartisanship?

Well, you know, the Great American Outdoors Act. You know, making sure that the Land and Water Conservation Fund is fully funded and that we begin to catch up on the backlog for our national parks. That’s a good bipartisan example. There are a few examples like that, but they are few and far between. And certainly on the really pressing issues like the Affordable Care Act and making sure that we get a health care system that not only gets to universal coverage — I mean, health care is a right. I’ve been saying this since I was a kid. I helped a friend of mine start a community health center in Middletown Connecticut when I was a college in 1973. It’s got 200 locations now. And I remember back then, we were saying health care is a right not a privilege. We’re now at the point where we can make that a reality but it’s going to take some bipartisan lifting. There are going to have to be some Republicans who are willing to cross the line and come and say, yes, we do want to improve our health care system and this is going to be some form of the law of the land. And those are going to have to be the priorities. Obviously, rebuilding the economy is going to be the highest priority. Making sure that we deal with COVID-19 directly. But right beside that is goingto be controlling the costs of health care, getting to universal coverage and and again dealing with climate change.

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