DENVER — Under pressure to keep energy companies and environmentalists happy, Colorado's geologist-turned-governor stood smiling last month when the Colorado Oil & Gas Association and environmentalists both agreed to sweeping new oversight for a divisive drilling procedure.
It was a telling achievement for Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who blends pro-business discourse, promises to seek common ground, and a happy-go-lucky demeanor. Approaching his first anniversary in office, Hickenlooper's administration is known more for orchestrating compromise than driving policy.
It's no small feat in Colorado. Hickenlooper presides over a divided Legislature, the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate by his fellow Democrats.
On the governor's first big challenge — cutting nearly half a billion from the state budget — the parties largely agreed to the governor's proposals last year. Hickenlooper also boasts that Colorado was the first state to pass a federally required health insurance exchange, a marketplace for shopping for insurance, with bipartisan support.
In an interview looking back at his first year in office, Hickenlooper said forging compromise is among his greatest achievements.
"This is a classic thing of, you know, how do you find those compromises?" Hickenlooper said about the drilling compromise. "People say, 'Well, you can't. It's like oil and water. It's like cats and mice, you can't do it, they can't work together.' And yet we did it."
The agreement means that energy companies will have to disclose concentrations of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing beginning in April, but with protections for industry trade secrets.
Hickenlooper said his other accomplishments have been less visible to the public. Streamlining state agencies to save money. Hiring business-friendly aides. Asking businesses their ideas about economic development goals and which state regulations should be revised. In a few weeks, he said he'll unveil a report that highlights "the pits and peeves" of businesses around the state about burdensome regulation.
Despite a politically charged Legislature, Hickenlooper has so far garnered more praise than criticism, even from Republicans who frequently clashed with his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
"There was a lot of appreciation among legislative leaders toward Gov. Hickenlooper for working so hard to make sure there was a dialogue," between lawmaker's and his office, said Mike Kopp, who was the Senate Republican leader last year. The day after the session ended, Kopp called Hickenlooper "a jovial, shrewd man," remarking on what has become a hallmark of Hickenlooper's public persona. At press events he sometimes makes jokes, frequently at his own expense.
"He's a genuinely likable man and it obviously serves him well," Kopp said.
Business groups have embraced Hickenlooper's style, especially his outreach to business executives.
"He's certainly sending the right signals," Chuck Berry, head of the Colorado Association Of Commerce and Industry. "Certainly we've been invited to participate."
Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms of Hickenlooper is a perception that he hasn't been assertive in pushing a legislative agenda. But Senate Democratic President Brandon Shaffer said that suits him fine.
"I think what he's done is try to stay out of the Legislature's way as much as possible," he said. Shaffer said Hickenlooper deserves praise for focusing on economic development, citing increases in the state's revenue forecasts and the relocation of large companies to the state, such as Arrow Electronics, as victories for Hickenlooper.
"He came into office saying that his number one focus would be jobs and economic development, and he has stayed on that theme," Shaffer said.
Hickenlooper's hands-off management style sometimes irks lawmakers, though.
"It's very frustrating to want to work with the governor when you don't know where he stands," said Rep. Mark Waller, the third-ranking Republican in the House.
Waller pointed to a vote last session to require parents to contribute more to a health insurance plan for low-income children. Democrats and Republicans agreed to the idea, but the bill became Hickenlooper's first veto.
Waller said lawmakers from both parties avoided criticizing the new governor for being in the background because he was newly in office.
"I think we gave the governor a lot of top cover last year. I don't think you'll see as much of that going forward," Waller predicted.
While Kopp praised Hickenlooper, he said he thought the governor was not proactive enough on easing onerous regulations on business and that for that, he "also deserves a little ribbing."Comment on this story
Next session, during an election year, promises to bring bigger political challenges for Hickenlooper as Republicans try to force him to address rising Medicaid spending — an expense Hickenlooper says is federally required but that Republicans argue can be scaled back. Hickenlooper also said he'll lobby for an overhaul of the state's personnel system, which is engraved in the Colorado Constitution, to change how state employees are hired and disciplined. The Legislature would have to refer requested changes to voters.
For now, Hickenlooper counts more wins than losses.
He declines to cite any setbacks when asked, joking, "You guys have to do that, find those out. I can give you a list as long as my arm. Some of them you haven't reported on so I'm not gonna ... it'd be kind of self-destructive of me, I think."