A version of this article appeared in print on January 9, 2011, on page MM24 of the Sunday Magazine.
Up in the air. You could start there. It was 2005; he was in his first term as mayor of Denver and despite a lifelong fear of heights, he parachuted from a plane — twice, because the first time wasn't sufficiently photogenic — for a television commercial supporting two voter referendums in Colorado to permit government spending that he considered vital, lest the state go into free fall. His landing was safe: one of the referendums passed, a result better than many political analysts had predicted. Onward he rolled to the next set of challenges, the next series of stunts.
He got into the shower. Fully clothed. It was last year; he was in his second term, had become a candidate for governor of Colorado and was making another TV ad, this one a lament about dirty politics and a pledge to conduct a clean campaign. He more or less made good on that promise and coasted to victory last November, an upbeat Democrat pitted against two angry Republicans, one running for a third party, who split the conservative vote. His inauguration is Jan. 11.
But for a proper introduction to his unabashed ways and eccentric means, you should probably go back many years before his formal entry into politics, to 1990, when he hatched a novel idea for promoting the second birthday of a downtown Denver microbrewery and restaurant, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, that he owned at the time.
He borrowed about 10 young, roughly 50-pound porkers from a local farmer, gathered them outside the restaurant and prodded them to scurry down a short alley and around the block, for an event that he described as a "running of the pigs." Over subsequent years he repeated the event and it grew in popularity, drawing more notice and, perhaps inevitably, complaints from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
So he made an adjustment. He refashioned the swine stampede into the "pleasuring of the pigs." The animals were coaxed along gently and coddled all the while. "We used parasols, little sun hats — we made sure there was no sun on the pigs," he says. "People would feed the pigs little treats along the way." Still, PETA representatives complained, telling Hickenlooper he was "objectifying and making a spectacle of pigs," as he recalls. They videotaped one year's pleasuring, he says, and "one pig caught its hoof in a grate and had a little drop of blood on its hoof." To head off the dissemination of that image and put an end to PETA's protests, he shelled out about $400 to buy all 14 pigs that had been used in that pleasuring and sent them to a refuge for rescued livestock, where they could grow fatter and older without fear of becoming bacon. And the next year, he says, with a sigh, "We did a celebration of prairie dogs."
He was a few years shy of a political career at that point, but the politician was clearly in him, and many of the factors behind his emergence as the top Democrat in Colorado, a fractious political battleground and one of the country's most glaringly purple states, were firmly in place. Hickenlooper has long had a knack for promoting himself, but in ways too clownish and just plain good-natured enough to come across as conventionally scheming. He's a virtuoso goofball, and he's much more inclined toward accommodation than confrontation. In the restaurant business, he often says, he adopted a philosophy that he has carried into other aspects of his life: there is no percentage, none at all, in making and motivating enemies.
Hickenlooper's style has not only been fun-loving and freewheeling but also largely nonpartisan, and it has served him well. He decisively won election as mayor of Denver in July 2003, at the age of 51, despite no previous bids for elective office or experience in government. And he has had a remarkably successful administration, streamlining government, persuading voters to go along with a range of tax increases for projects like regional light rail and a new city jail and shepherding many homeless people off the streets and into newly built affordable housing. In 2005 Time magazine named him one of the five best big-city mayors in the country; in 2007 he won re-election with 87 percent of the vote. The pollster working on his 2010 gubernatorial campaign found that in the Denver metropolitan area roughly three of every four voters had a favorable impression of him. What Hickenlooper has enjoyed over the last seven and a half years isn't so much a sustained political honeymoon as a round-the-world Love Boat cruise — with complimentary piña coladas nightly on the Lido Deck.
But can it last? Colorado is much more ideologically diverse than Denver itself, home to both the backpackers of Boulder and the Bible thumpers of Colorado Springs, and it's in deep fiscal trouble. Hickenlooper will cross the lawn between City Hall and the State Capitol — they face each other across a picturesque park downtown — to encounter a budget shortfall of roughly $1 billion for the coming fiscal year and an obligation, written into Colorado law, to balance the books. Like chief executives far and wide, he must cut and cut and then cut some more, and he must do so in concert with a divided Legislature in which Democrats control the Senate and Republicans the House.
"Being governor of Colorado right now — it's like trying to pick your teeth with a rattlesnake," says Charlie Brown, a Denver City Council member and a onetime Democrat who switched his party registration years ago to "unaffiliated," a group that represents about a third of Colorado's voters. But he and others who have worked with or closely observed Hickenlooper say that his deft political touch up to now gives him as good a chance as anybody might have — and makes him especially interesting to watch.