Transcript: Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper

July 18, 2012: 12:32 PM ET

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper took the stage at Fortune Brainstorm Tech to discuss politics, governing during tough economic times, and fracking. Fortune's Andy Serwer interviewed him.

MR. SERWER:  Welcome, Governor Hickenlooper, to Fortune Brainstorm Tech.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Glad to be here.

MR. SERWER:  We should say a big thank you to you, because I've been calling Walter Isaacson, the head of the Aspen Institute our host, and he's not really our host.  Governor Hickenlooper's really our host.  So thank you very much for having us here in your state.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  I am your kind of uber-host, but not you real host.

MR. SERWER:  Meta-host.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Meta-host, that's the word.

MR. SERWER:  So if you don't know much about the governor, you probably should.  He's got just a terrific story.  He was not a politician.  Everybody loves that, just to start off.  He was a geologist, he was a restaurateur.  Someone kind of -- it seems like a bunch of friends of his convinced him to run for Mayor of Denver, which he did, and won that.  Then they said well, why don't you keep on going, and he ran for governor of Colorado and won that too.  That's very abbreviated, but that's pretty much what happened.

So he's a businessman.  He's a Democrat in a state that is very purple, which is to say both red and blue.  We can talk about that, and there are already people talking about future things in store for Governor Hickenlooper over, down the horizon a little bit.

So it's good for us to all to get to know him, and hear what he has to say.  So thank you very much for being here today.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Glad to be here.  Thank you.

MR. SERWER:  You know, the big thing on everyone's mind when it comes to government is, you know, government doesn't work, and especially people say government doesn't work in Washington.  But of course there are states that are huge failures.  For instance, there's one, I think it's on the west coast, all the way out west where there are some issues.

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You've had some issues here as well, in terms of your budget, which you've hacked away at, and we can talk about that a little bit.  But you have some thoughts about how government can work better, and you've been checking out a book, I think, that sort of speaks to that a little bit.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Sure.  Well one thing is that (a), I think every elected official should spend a few, a year or two, running a big service business like a restaurant, where you learn immediately there's no margin in having enemies.  No matter how unreasonable that customer is, you'll do whatever it is to build and maintain a relationship.

Unlike politics, where you again and again see people, when they put someone else down, they think they're raising themselves up.  They do these attack ads relentlessly.  I mean turn on the TV tonight, and yet you never would see Ford doing an attack ad against GE.

You never see Coke doing attack ads against Pepsi, because they know that it destroys the market.  The short-term benefits of these attack ads really are decaying the, or certainly diluting the resiliency of democracy.

The other part we were talking about out there, when I got elected governor in November of 2010, we had about three months' transition.  A guy named Jeff Smart, who had written a book called Who, and he consults for a number of Fortune 500 companies.

But it's all about how to hire the right people, and he donated his services to help us do a much better job of really intensely looking at the job descriptions of each cabinet official, and then working through the interviews and the process by which we hired them.

Which had a huge amount to do with how we hired a woman named Kristin Russell, who was the Senior Vice President of Global IT Services for Oracle.  She wanted to make a change.  She was willing to take a couple of years off.  I think she was 41 at the time.

You know, she's our chief information officer, Secretary of Technology.  We wouldn't have been able to attract that level of talent without this kind of help, and Jeff Smart was amazed that there were so few people for these senior positions, that we just couldn't attract high level talent.

So he started bugging us about that, as the months went on, and he's written a book called Leadocracy that just came out.  I'll give him a plug.

MR. SERWER:  What is it called again?

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Leadocracy.

MR. SERWER:  Leadocracy.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Leadocracy.  The idea is how do we get more talent in the government, and he started a leadership initiative in Denver, where we have a number of CEOs.  The commitment they make is before they turn 70, they will commit to spending two years in public service.

It could be for a non-profit, but full-time focused work, either in government, state, local, federal, or in non-profit.  We've got a bunch of the, you know, I mean people that get paid $10 million a year, very high level CEOs, that are committing their time and learning about this approach to service.

MR. SERWER:  So I mentioned that Colorado is a purple state, and you've got the backpackers of Boulder and the bible thumpers of Colorado Springs all in one happy place, and you've got to lead.  How do you do that, and what progress have you made in terms of reducing the budget deficit?

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Well, we came in, and when I was Mayor of Denver, I was mayor there almost eight years, and we cut the size of, the number of employees by about seven percent.  But in each budget cycle, there are so many baby boomers retiring you don't have to go through layoffs.

You can use technology and improvements in productivity to really shrink the size of government, and yet by paying a little more attention to metrics, genuinely expand your services, what you're doing.

We focus on that.  We try to avoid a lot of the social issues.  Obviously, some things we -- I mean I think issues of civil rights, civil unions.  We got into a pretty big kerfuffle this last spring, because some things like that you can't back off on.

But generally, we are focusing on a smaller and more effective government, that takes on things like homelessness that have been -- I mean we spend, for the chronically homeless, we spend almost $40,000 per person per year in Colorado for nothing, to perpetuate lives of misery.

By really rethinking the whole process and putting 15 or 20 thousand dollars up front, get them in job training, get them counseling for their addictions, whatever, even the job -- even if the job only pays eight or ten bucks an hour, we're saving the overall community, you know, at least 10 or 20 thousand dollars a year.

So that's what we've been -- we've been trying to focus on, and it's amazing.  You know, I went by one of parades, and there were some representatives of the Tea Party out there, thumbs down as I went by.  I finished a little early, so I came, circled back and I said now what's the problem.  Well, we hate you politicians.

I said don't you want someone to come from the private sector?  You know, I built restaurants for 15 years, and don't you want government to be a little smaller, you know.  The City of Denver has seven percent fewer employees.  Don't you -- you know, three or four of these questions.

Then he goes well, okay.  I guess I'll vote for you, you know.  So I think there's hope, and part of it is communication, right.  It's just sitting and listening.  If you want to persuade about anything, the first thing you've got to do is listen.

MR. SERWER:  Well, you've done some funny things too, like the running of the piglets in Denver.  I won't even get into that story.  You can look it up, it's very interesting, and taking a shower with your clothes on.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  You don't have to look it up, yeah.

MR. SERWER:  But so, you know, communicating and getting people's attention, I think, is a good idea.  Enrique from Google and I were out talking, and we were wondering what businesses are most important to the state of Colorado, and how are you trying to help those businesses grow?

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Well, agriculture.  I mean we're definitely being led out of the recession by agriculture.  But a lot of it's not just commodities; a lot of it is processed foods and tools that are used in manufacturing.

This is a little-known fact, that the President is so often criticized as being anti-business, but his administration committed almost three years ago to double imports in five years, and they're on pace to do that.  I mean it's a pretty remarkable achievement.

A lot of that has been through not just corn and wheat, but the technology that has helped us improve those yields.  Obviously, technology is huge.  Colorado per capita is the number one aerospace employer in the state, in the country.

We have a genuine focus on, you know, entrepreneurs and technology.  Tech Stars is based out of Boulder.  So we have a fairly good ecosystem that's growing around technology.  Still small compared to Boston or Silicon Valley or New York or Seattle, but growing.

We also have a pretty strong cultural community.  We have -- this was two years ago; I don't know what last year was, but of the 20 top-selling recording artists, we had four that called Denver their home, which is kind of unusual.  A lot of small entrepreneurs all over the state.  OtterBox is Curt Richardson's business up in Fort Collins.  A lot of these grow and they stay.

MR. SERWER:  It's funny you didn't mention oil and gas, though.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Well, I should have mentioned oil and gas.  Now you're right, because now I'm going to be in trouble.

MR. SERWER:  Oil and gas, yeah.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Oil and gas has been a big industry for a long time.  Certainly horizontal drilling and all the fracking has been a major employer over the last, you know, ten years.  But we're also, I mean we are one of the top three states for solar, top three states for wind.  We're in the top three states for natural gas.

Actually, I was in Detroit yesterday talking about Ford.  We met with Mark Fields and some of the senior executives there, and then General Motors and Chrysler are just saying what will it take to get off the assembly line compressed natural gas vehicles?

Because I think like any industrial process, fracking has some risk.  But really, if done properly, certainly out in the west, there's literally no risk, and certainly much less than many industrial processes.  Depending on what you pay to get the compressed natural gas to your spot, in Oklahoma it's about $2 per gallon equivalent cheaper than gasoline.  So less than half the price.

MR. SERWER:  Uh-huh.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  And it's cleaner, so in terms of climate change gases, in terms of normal, old-fashioned pollutants, what have you, it's way cleaner.  It creates jobs in the United States, and it doesn't send billions of dollars to foreign dictatorships.

I mean why aren't we have more vehicles on, using compressed natural gas.  So that's -- we were in Detroit.  I went with the governor, the Republican governor of Oklahoma.  The folks at the car companies couldn't believe this.  So you're a Republican and a Democrat, and you're working on this together?

We've got 13 states now that are all going to do our fleet purchasing for a five year schedule together, and then trying to get our counties and our municipalities as well, so that they can, you know, it's obviously got to work for the automobile manufacturers.  But anyway, oil and gas is a big part of Colorado.

MR. SERWER:  Sure.  So you're a pro-fracking Democrat?

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Well, you know, I came out here as a geologist.  I have a Master's in Geology.  But you become a geologist because you're an environmentalist, right?  You want to -- I spent two years doing my field research in the Absaroka Mountains north of Yellowstone Park.

So I mean I love open space and wilderness, but we all drive cars, right, and we all need energy.  We recognize alongside education, energy is the other necessary component to lift people out of poverty.

MR. SERWER:  Right.  How is -- I'm sorry, an ignorant question.  How is President Obama polling in Colorado right now versus Mitt Romney, and who do you think is going to win the state of Colorado?

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Well, it depends on whose poll you look at.  I think that most polls show him about, the President up about four points, I think.  But that's pretty close to within the margin of error.  I think a lot of it's going to -- I think the attack ads aren't going to have as big a difference as they have, and I think it's personally there are --

We're one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third Independent, and those Independents are going to play the key role.  They're going to respond, I think, to leadership, and whether, you know, which of those two candidates show not just leadership but a personality.

You know, the President was down in Colorado Springs two weeks ago after we had that wall of fire came down onto Colorado Springs.

MR. SERWER:  Right.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  We had 350 homes burn in two hours.  The President called the next day and said would I be useful if I came out, which I felt was gracious, and we called the Republican mayor in Colorado Springs, all the Republican leadership.  Would he be useful or would he be a distraction, and to a person, everyone said, you know, "We talked to the U.S. Forest Service incident manager.  We want him to come.  If he would come, that would be incredible."

So he came, and he went to a group of about 75 firefighters who were just coming off a 12 hour shift.  He shook every hand and spent some time with them, and they spoke for like four or five minutes.  But at the end he said, and he said it much better than I can say it, but something like, you know, "I guarantee you, we guarantee you that you'll have the resources you need, the training you need.

"You'll have everything you need to fight these fires.  But we can't train you in courage.  The courage that you've all shown over these last several weeks are an inspiration not just to me but to the country, and thank you so much."

There were, you know, 6 foot 4 firefighters with their gear on their backs, with tears coming down their cheeks, and I think Mitt Romney's going to have to find those places where he can demonstrate that same kind of leadership.

MR. SERWER:  I read some story, it was in the New York Times.  There is a suggestion that the fires burned more because there were cutbacks in the spend on firefighting.  Is that the case?

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  No, no.

MR. SERWER:  I wanted that fact record.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  It was so dry.

MR. SERWER:  It was just sort of a suggestion to --

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  No, no, no, no.  I got asked that in a press conference.  I said, you know, there are a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservative Republicans that are asking whether those cutbacks have caused these fires.  They were criticizing the President for these cutbacks, yeah.

MR. SERWER:  That's a nice little backup.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  I asked whether it was the same conservatives that have been attacking the President for spending too much money.  But that's neither here nor there.  The bottom line is this was one of the worst droughts we've had in a century.

It was like a tinderbox out there, and these fires, if you don't get to them within the first couple of hours, and I mean that, once they get going, you can have all the helicopter and tanker planes and firefighters you want.  You're not going to stop it.  You're not going to succeed until the weather turns.

MR. SERWER:  Was the mayor of Colorado Springs, was he there with the President?

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Yeah.  Actually, the President, again, unbelievably gracious.  When he arrived on Air Force One, we picked him up, and there was a whole line of people there, you know, U.S. Senators and others.

The President grabbed Mayor Bach and said "Mr. Mayor, you know this, the community.  You come with me," and he grabbed me.  So the President, myself and Mayor Bach spent the three hours driving around looking at the devastation, meeting with the firefighters, talking to the Red Cross, going to the shelters.

He spent, I'll bet, two-thirds of the time with Mayor Bach, just asking questions, listening, trying to, you know, understand what his world was.

MR. SERWER:  Well, I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican.  I mean just hearing that, you know, the mayor of Colorado Springs, which as indicated is a fairly conservative --

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  He's a conservative Republican.  He's a good man.  He's done a great job.

MR. SERWER:  But it's just nice to hear that, you know, those two people and yourself included, the three of you are able to get together and, you know, work on something like that.

It's actually very nice to hear, because you know, the instances of politicians from both sides of the aisle getting together, as you were doing in Detroit, are very, very narrow and limited these days it seems.

GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER:  Sad, but true.

MR. SERWER:  Yeah.  All right.  Well our time is up, and I think that all of us really enjoyed this brief introduction to Governor John Hickenlooper. We look forward to many more interactions with you in the future.  So thank you very much.

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