(CNN) – Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper officially kicked off his presidential campaign Thursday in Denver’s Civic Center Park, blocks from the neighborhood that he helped revitalize and, in turn, the area that launched his political career. In his speech, Hickenlooper cast himself as a pragmatic leader who can bring people together.
But in a nod to Democrats’ primary desire — to beat President Donald Trump in 2020 — Hickenlooper portrayed himself as the best candidate to beat the President by laying out a progressive set of policy positions that he believes also will appeal to independents and Republicans.
He said that as president he would ensure universal health care coverage, close tax loopholes used by corporations and the wealthy, re-enter the Paris climate accord and make universal broadband a priority.
“Donald Trump is alienating our allies, ripping away our health care, endangering our planet and destroying our democracy,” Hickenlooper said, adding later, “Defeating Trump is absolutely essential. But it’s not sufficient. We need to walk out of this canyon of division to a higher plane of progress. America is ready.”
Hickenlooper had announced Monday that he was running for president with a video that showcased his decades of executive experience as mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado and the Western roots that largely set him apart from the growing field of candidates vying for a chance to take on Trump.
He expanded on those themes Thursday night by touting his record as mayor and governor in a speech that focused on his record of expanding Medicaid, taking on the National Rifle Association after the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012 and working with environmentalists and the oil and gas industry to implement industry standards in the state.
“That’s what you can do when you bring people together,” Hickenlooper said to cheers. “And there was another secret ingredient: sheer persistence.”
Hickenlooper’s rally was billed as a “hometown sendoff” for the Democrat, who moved to Colorado nearly 50 years ago. It featured speeches from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and Lucia Guzman, the former Democratic leader of the Colorado state Senate.
The early outlines of Hickenlooper’s campaign have focused heavily on the former governor’s biography, an acknowledgment that few people outside of the Centennial State know much — if anything — about the 67-year old Democrat. In the video announcing his campaign, Hickenlooper tracks his life from laid-off geologist to owner of a brew pub to mayor of Denver and to governor, using his experience as a way to set him apart from the other Democrats already running for president.
“I’m running for president because we’re facing a crisis that threatens everything we stand for,” Hickenlooper says in the announcement video as images of Trump play. “As a skinny kid with Coke bottle glasses and a funny last name, I’ve stood up to my fair share of bullies.”
The line is a throwback of sorts. Former President Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, introduced himself to America during the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston by heralding “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
Denver has been central to Hickenlooper’s story, and the city that has seen a booming economy and steady growth over the last two decades was a primary character in his kickoff speech, too.
“We succeeded (in Denver) because we worked hard and built alliances with other businesses. We played a part in revitalizing communities,” he said. “And now it’s time to do that for all of America.”
Hickenlooper has opted to base his campaign in the city and the small number of aides who have been hired by the nascent campaign have moved into a low-slung office building in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that once functioned as an office for the Colorado Department of Corrections, according to a Hickenlooper aide.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1952, Hickenlooper came to Colorado in the 1980s after graduating with a master’s degree in geology from Wesleyan University. But a downturn in the mining industry led him to be the victim of layoffs from Buckhorn Petroleum. Unemployment led the would-be governor to Oakland, where he saw a brewpub, thought the concept would work in Denver and went on to open Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988.
The large brewery and restaurant revitalize the LoDo area of Denver, an early sign of the changes that were about to hit the city. The brewery also vaulted Hickenlooper to citywide prominence and led him to run for mayor in 2003, a position he held for eight years before serving two terms as Colorado’s governor from 2011 to 2019.
“From the Wynkoop to the White House,” former Mayor Webb said in his introduction of Hickenlooper.
Brad Komar, Hickenlooper’s campaign manager, said that focus on the former governor’s personal story is intentional because, in his estimation, it sets Hickenlooper apart.
“We are not the only person in our lane,” said Komar, “but our record of delivering progressive results and our story give us a unique space.”
Hickenlooper’s run comes with a series of challenges, especially considering the field of Democrats now comprises 14 candidates, including six senators, and could soon feature former Vice President Joe Biden.
Hickenlooper imbued his speech Thursday night with humor, often at his own expense and in a nod to his dark horse status.
“Now, I understand I’m not the first person in this race or the most well-known person in this race. But let me tell you: At four syllables and 12 letters, Hickenlooper is now the biggest name in the race,” he said to laughs.
Later in the speech, he needled Trump by comparing his own business experience with the President’s record.
“Along the way, I learned something that Donald Trump never figured out: It isn’t how many times you yell, ‘You’re fired,’ but instead how many times you say, ‘You’re hired,’ ” he exclaimed.
The former governor is largely unknown nationally and offers Democrats a more moderate vision for the country, one that reflects his leadership of a state that is nearly evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and independents.
“Some of his biggest supporters have been prominent statewide Republicans,” said Max Potter, Hickenlooper’s former senior media adviser and speechwriter.
In Colorado, that bipartisanship is in vogue. Nationally, however, polls show that while Democrats care about electability more than usual, many believe the way to do that is by pushing policies that are further left than many Hickenlooper has supported.
One key issue for the former governor will be raising enough money to maintain viability in a large field.
The campaign announced Wednesday that it had raised more than $1 million in the 48 hours after Hickenlooper’s announcement.
That met the campaign’s goal, according to an aide, but the former governor’s upcoming schedule makes clear that money will be a focus this month.
Hickenlooper will follow up Thursday’s rally with a trip to Iowa on Friday and Saturday. He will then travel to Texas for fundraisers in the Austin and Houston areas, as well as an appearance at the South by Southwest conference, according to a Hickenlooper aide.
The former governor will then go to New York for a series of top-dollar fundraisers, before traveling back to Colorado next week to begin to solicit donations from top donors in the state, many of whom have long-standing relationships with him, the aide said.
All of these fundraisers build toward the end of the first Federal Election Commission reporting quarter of the year, where candidates will look to burnish their strength through fundraising power.
By Dan Merica, CNN
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