U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, left, speaks with an unidentified resident during a town hall in Grand Junction on Aug. 21, 2023. (Sharon Sullivan for Colorado Newsline)
During his opening remarks during an Aug. 21 town hall in Grand Junction, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado set the record straight regarding his thoughts on being a senator — it’s a departure from how he viewed the job in 2019, when he was reported as saying he wasn’t “cut out” to be a senator.
“Much to my surprise, I love being in the Senate, where I used to say good ideas go to die,” Hickenlooper told the crowd of 100-plus people who came to listen and ask questions during the event at Colorado Mesa University. “I think it’s coming around. I think it’s savable. There are a lot of good people — Republican and Democrats, that once the election is over are willing to reach across the aisle and find solutions to some of our most vexing problems. I really enjoy it. It’s a completely different job than being governor, or a mayor.”
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was previously the mayor of Denver and then the governor of Colorado.
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Instead, in the Senate deep relationships are formed, which builds trust amongst individuals, thus members of both parties are willing to talk about big issues, such as immigration, said Hickenlooper, who was elected to the Senate in 2020.
“The last two-and-a-half years we’ve gotten more bipartisan bills of substance done than any two-year period in the last 50 years,” he said, citing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes $65 billion for high-speed internet throughout the nation, and the CHIPS (and Science) Act, which the senator said stimulates manufacturing in America and reestablishes technology dominance.
Hickenlooper also mentioned the PACT Act, calling it “the largest commitment of resources to our veterans in the U.S.” The law expands health care benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances without requiring proof their illnesses occurred due to their military service.
Additionally, Hickenlooper touted the Inflation Reduction Act, which he said is the “largest single effort to address climate change in the world.”
Q&A with the senator
Mesa County Commissioner Bobbie Daniel, a Republican, moderated the meeting by soliciting questions from the audience.
“Quite a bit of Wall Street is buying water rights,” said an unidentified man, with the first question. “Do you see that kind of activity threatening our public lands?” he asked.
Hickenlooper replied: “I worry anywhere when we have people speculating that price will go up dramatically. I see drought continuing. It does put pressure on our public lands, but more on our farmers.”
Fruita rancher Kathryn Bedell, a board member with the American Grassfed Association, mentioned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has invested significantly to increase processing capacity but that more changes are needed to provide fair market access, safety nets, and other policies to save small farms and ranchers from going under.
“How are you going to support these investments in climate resilient agriculture in the upcoming farm bill that also prioritizes small and moderate family owned and operated farms and ranches?” she asked.
Hickenlooper said Congress hasn’t done enough to heal the divide between rural and urban communities and that it’s important for urban America to be committed to small farms. He said his colleague, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, is a national leader in agriculture issues and can lead the industry to a place where young people will want to farm or ranch, and be able to make a living and raise a family.
A woman representing Western Colorado Alliance, a grassroots community organizing group based in Grand Junction, asked Hickenlooper how he plans to support a transition to renewable energy.
Hickenlooper mentioned his five years working in the oil and gas industry during the 1980s. He said he and his fellow geologists all considered themselves environmentalists and recognized back then that someday people would have to use less gas. He talked about the necessity of securing essential minerals for renewable energy development and the importance of creating a “soft landing” for displaced energy workers in the fossil fuel field.
A professional counselor in the audience asked how the state and federal government could incentivize in-person care for mental health patients. He said it’s getting harder to keep brick-and-mortar offices open due to expenses.
“A certain type of population will never be served by telehealth,” the mental health professional said. “I think in 10 years there will be no in-person therapy at all,” unless the profession is subsidized in some way.
Hickenlooper said he wakes up at night worrying about how to address the mental health crisis in Colorado.
“I hear you saying you need more money — I couldn’t agree more,” he said. “(Therapists) need to be able to make a living. We will get more money for mental health. How that works out, there are no details yet. The need for what you’re doing is enormous.”
We should look at it objectively as best we can to clean up our atmosphere as quickly as humanly possible.
– Sen. John Hickenlooper on nuclear power
Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer Aaron Hoffman asked, “With your history of bipartisanship how will you bring members of both parties together to advance more climate solutions?”
Hickenlooper responded: “I’ve never persuaded anyone to change their mind about something important by telling them why they’re wrong, and why I’m right. One thing that works in my life is to keep asking questions and really hear from multiple perspectives.”
Hickenlooper mentioned that “carbon capture” — where carbon dioxide from power generation or industry facilities is captured and stored — should be considered in the future to address climate change. Many progressives oppose that idea, he said, saying there’s already too much carbon and methane in the atmosphere and that carbon capture would encourage more burning of fossil fuels.
“I think the opposite,” said Hickenlooper. “We need to do everything we can, in any way possible to clean up our air” — including investing in carbon capture, “if we can figure out how to do that.” Hickenlooper also supports border tariffs based on carbon emissions.
At the same time, he said, “We should be looking at different types of nuclear energy.”
Acknowledging that some people in the audience would disagree with promoting nuclear power, Hickenlooper recalled collecting signatures when he was young and “idealistic” to “get rid of nuclear power completely.” His opinion has evolved since then.
“It’s pretty clean if we can figure out how to use the spent fuel,” he said. “We should look at it objectively as best we can to clean up our atmosphere as quickly as humanly possible.”
“I do worry big oil companies seem to still be dodging this,” he said, referring to human-caused climate change. “The industry’s support of some elected officials contradicts what companies are saying publicly.”
A man from Montrose said the Endangered Species Act is under attack and that climate change is exacerbating an extinction crisis.
“Are you committed to preserving the integrity of the Endangered Species Act?” he asked.
Hickenlooper responded that he would fight against legislative riders “trying to neuter the ESA” every time.
A man who identified himself as a Colorado Mesa University student drew a smattering of applause when he asked how constituents could be assured that financial investments aren’t affecting lawmakers’ decision-making.
Hickenlooper responded that “mine are in a blind trust. I only hear about them when I report to the public.”
He also mentioned that he has always given at least 10% of his income to charity.
Grand Junction resident Kirk Rider asked Hickenlooper “how many members of the Senate believe climate change is human-caused?” Hickenlooper replied 80-85 senators — there are a total of 100 — believe climate change is human-caused, although not all of them will say so publicly.
After the meeting, a reporter asked Hickenlooper if he would support barring former President Donald Trump from the Colorado presidential ballot based on the disqualification clause in the 14th Amendment. Hickenlooper said he’s aware of conservative law professors who say Trump should be barred.
“I want a chance to review and see if it’s true if that’s an appropriate interpretation of the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
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