The Colorado State Veterans Home at Fitzsimons: A Ten Year, Mismanaged Administrative Disaster. Part One: The `Guv’.
Part One of a Series: Between Tragedy and Farce: Governor John Hickenlooper’s Sorry Record with Colorado State Public Employees… .
At his annual Christmas Party at the Governor’s Mansion, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was holding court – as is the tradition -when two employees from the Colorado State Veterans Home at Fitzsimons, both members of the statewide public employee’s union ColoradoWINS, approached him. Giving them his undivided attention for a full 60 seconds, the governor listened as the two did their best to inform him of the hostile work environment at the facility. They warned the governor that, if anything, the situation continues to deteriorate.
Hickenlooper was indeed concerned, not so much with the crisis itself but how such a crisis might effect his election chances. Hickenlooper, caught in the middle! – always trying to put the brakes on those left of him (labor, minorities – ie the main constituency of the Colorado Democratic Party) while fearing those on his right whose financial support he doesn’t want to alienate. Hickenlooper would like to get through the upcoming 2014 election season with his thin Democratic majority in the State legislature intact. He fears “controversy” – and will put off making commitments to constituents as long as possible. This does not bode will for Colorado’s labor movement that would like to see state laws strengthening union and employee rights in both the public and private sectors.
John Hickenlooper and I met once, a memorable experience for neither of us.
It was at an annual dinner of the Front Range Economic Strategy Center (FRESC) – a Denver, labor-community support organization and policy group with some genuine achievements under its belt. FRESC’s annual dinners bring together hundreds of local trade unionists as well as local and state officials hustling for votes. Hickenlooper, then Denver’s mayor, was present, shaking hands with one and all, doing his darndest to appear `a man of the people’. To his credit, he has gotten the fine art of shaking hands down to a tee, with a genuine talent for zeroing in especially on those, like me, who would prefer to avoid such meaningless formalities.
But `Hick’ honed in on me, shook my hand, babbled out a few vapidities about how important it was to support labor and education (I had told him I teach). As often happens in such situations, we both played `pretend’. He pretended to care about labor and I pretended to believe him. We both knew better. Then he quickly moved on to his next victim. He had miles of handshakes to go before he slept. The fact of the matter was that a few days prior I had met with a group of dissatisfied city employees and a few others who were looking for a candidate to challenge Hick in the next mayoral election. It looked promising, but shortly thereafter he flew the coop and began his run for governor.
Many Coloradans do not share my cynicism.
I might have had my doubts about Hick as mayor – based upon his tendency to swap more valuable city property for real urban duds with developer friends,and his tight-fisted treatment of the city employees – but John Hickenlooper was a popular mayor and remains a popular governor. Until his numbers went down with Obama’s in the Obamacare fiasco, Hickenlooper had high marks on the popularity scales with Colorado voters. In recent years he has been among the top five most popular governors in the country. Admittedly, he has charm, a way with words, oozes concern and sincerity…but unfortunately, there’s not much else there.
Coloradans seem to prefer their governors handsome and shallow. I have always thought his bid for mayor was contrived, a way for those in power to avoid having to deal with a more consistently politically liberal Don Mares-led administration. I might wonder about a bar and restaurant owner, who at the time had precious little political experience, positioned on the liberal-left of the Denver Democratic Party, who suddenly emerged as a major Denver mayoral hopeful with promises of support from the state’s political power brokers. Once elected, he moved quickly from the left to the center, and then some. Old wine, new bottle.
True enough, Hickenlooper has become a national figure. A May 13, 2013 in-depth article in The New Yorker thrust him on the national political meat market as potential, national political timber. He has carefully crafted an image as “a sensible centrist” – a rather amorphous term which essentially translate as `pro-business, pro-finance, pro-oil and gas, anti-labor’ but thrown in with a dash of of civil rights. In any case, Colorado’s man in the state mansion is currently busy running around the country giving speeches about how he’s not running for vice president. In private he is weighing his chances and lobbying for a possible offer on a Hillary Clinton – John Hickenlooper 2016 Democratic Party ticket. Could happen, we’ve witnessed stranger things.
Trim, still relatively young, and articulate, John Hickenlooper is especially popular among moderate Democrats, mainstream Republicans and developers; the oil and gas industry loves him, as do the state’s overall business community for whom `Hick’ is nothing short of the state’s number one business booster. But he’s far less popular in environmental circles as a result of his defense of natural gas and oil fracking and general poor quality mining and energy regulating. Same goes for public employees. Denver’s city workers had a low – very low – estimate of him; city union reps referred to him as `really a Republican.’ Now state employees are getting a sense of what he’s about as well.
John Hickenlooper remains a busy man, very busy indeed.
As his popularity in the polls starts to sink, he’s looking around for greener pastures. While denying he is interested in national office, a flurry of news stories speculate otherwise. As Shakespeare aptly put it, “[he] doth protest too much me thinks”. He is considered by some locals – nobody knows him better - to be something akin to the Dan Quail of today’s Democratic Party. Hick has accumulated powerful friends, a reputation – well deserved I might add – to be so “business friendly” that some grass roots Colorado Dems quip that he might be a Republican Party plant in their midst.
Although he assiduously avoids terms like “global warming”, Hickenlooper does have a talent for media appearances – Johnny-on-the-spot – during Colorado tragedies: floods, forest fires and the horrific Aurora shooting of July, 2012. Mostly he’s stuck to hot button cultural issues (gun control, legalizing marijuana, a weak but still mildly useful preventive healthcare initiative), just enough to push him a degree left of center.
It is on economic policy that Hickenlooper has shown a brilliant propensity for doing something approaching nothing. Even though Colorado is a very wealthy state, Hickenlooper shows his true colors by supporting a tight budget including wage repression for state employees, keeping unions weak and trimming social welfare programs. One has to wonder if there is such a thing as a Hickenlooper economic policy that is in any way fundamentally different from that of former Republican Governor Bill Owen, a former energy industry lobbyist turned politician.
True, it was Owen who pushed through legislation ensuring that the share that Colorado tax payers would receive from energy royalties would be among the nation’s lowest, that the industry would be highly deregulated, etc. But Hickenlooper has done nothing to change that and in fact, in the face of growing state-wide opposition, has proven to be nothing short of a hard-assed defender of fracking. If he’s sucked up to corporate and business interests in the Owen tradition - in particular energy, mining, and real estate development – on the other hand, John Hickenlooper has done very little for Colorado labor, its public employees and the state’s impoverished population.
As he has his entire political career, John Hickenlooper gets by with a little help from his friends. These include Denver-based power brokers Norm Brownstein and Steve Farber, whose reach has long been national in scope. More than likely, without their help, Hickenlooper might as well go back to brewing beer. They are key figures in shaping his terms as mayor and governor as well as his well-studied image. Brownstein and Farber have “helped” several other Colorado political figures reach national recognition, among them former U.S. Senator from Colorado Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
When it comes to actually running the affairs of state, John Hickenlooper is very much of a “hands off” governor. He’s much too busy these days rubbing shoulders nationally to be too concerned with state affairs. As such, he shunts off major projects and controversies to his carefully chosen department heads. More often than not, especially if controversy is involved, he really doesn’t want to hear what they are up to. His main concern about state affairs: damage control on the home front. His staff, more often than not, is in a paranoid mode, doing what they can to protect his image and re-election possibilities.
Learning from `the gov’ to pass the buck down the line, in classic fashion, the department heads, in turn, put pressure on their assistants to the degree that they can (which is considerable). By way of example, I recently heard tell of a state department head – to be named and discussed more fully in future segments of this series. When told of a major flair-up in one of the facilities he is supposedly managing, he claimed complete ignorance of the crisis unfolding there. I actually believe this servant of the public! He is simply following in the example of Governor Hickenlooper’s tried and true policy of “I won’t ask you – and please, you don’t tell me”…
(Series Note: This series will zero in on a state-run veterans’ nursing home, most particularly, on the toxic work environment that currently exists at the Colorado State Veterans Home on the Anschutz Campus in Aurora, Colorado. Although the institution is currently in full crisis, this environment has existed for some time, going back as far as ten years. Currently there is an effort to `restructure’ the institution. Unfortunately, the way the state administration is going about the `transition’ has only made matters worse. To my knowledge the crisis unfolding there has not been covered by the media, in fact, most Coloradans have neither an idea that such a crisis exists.
This initial piece doesn’t deal with that particular situation, but instead, lays the responsibility for current state of affairs where it belongs – at the feet of the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper who is too busy sowing seeds for a national political career to bother with the situation on the ground. Frankly, he doesn’t want to hear about it, and pushes the responsibilities off on state agencies. More on this, in the episodes that follow. For now, let’s begin at the top and work our way down through the system.
Colorado Independent: “Public Pressure Mounting On Opposition to Hickelooper’s Utility Commission Appointment. John Tomasic. January 8, 2014