Hick talks pot, fracking, ed reform at Denver Young Dems holiday party

The Colorado Statesman

A boisterous crowd of Democrats had plenty to celebrate at the Denver Young Democrats’ annual holiday party on Dec. 11 at the Boettcher Mansion — better known as the Governor’s Residence — amid festive decorations from local artists marking Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa.

“Here’s to Obama. That stuff doesn’t happen by accident, and I realize how hard you all worked,” said Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, raising a toast to the record number in attendance, estimated at roughly 120 by party organizers.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia charged the mostly younger party-goers — the organization membership includes Democrats younger than 36, though plenty of older elected officials were in attendance too — with following through on victories at the ballot box by pursuing victories at the statehouse.

Gov. John Hickenlooper poses for a snapshot with officers of the Denver Young Democrats, from left, fundraiser Chris Laughlin, president Brandy Reitter, event coordinator Cory Kalanick and Jacob LaBure, who serves as the liaison to the Denver Democrats, at the organization’s holiday party Dec. 11 at the Boettcher Mansion in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“With the majority we have now in the House and the Senate, we’re going to get some really important work done,” he said. “You can’t stop now. You have to keep pushing as we get through the legislative session, make sure that the things that are important to you get raised and get passed.”

State Reps. Dave Young, D-Greeley, and Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, visit with Fernando Sergio and Jacob LaBure at the Denver Young Democrats’ holiday party.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The group’s vice president, Al Sahlstrom, exhorted his fellow Young Dems to maintain the work that swung Colorado to vote for President Barack Obama and took control of the state House from Republicans, who have held the majority since the last election.

State Rep. Dan Pabon and Speaker-elect Mark Ferrandino, both Denver Democrats, enjoy the Denver Young Democrats’ holiday party.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We have not just shown this country that Colorado is, in fact, a blue state, but we have become a symbol of the progress that is happening in this country, we’ve become a role model for the rest of the country,” Sahlstrom said. “The key message we saw this November is that we all do better when we all are involved and we all have a voice.” He added, “As young people, we are not a target demographic or an interest group, we are not even the future. We are the present, and our country needs us right now.”

State Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, center, celebrates with Democratic activists Jelena Woehr, who is wearing his name tag, and Gena Ozols at the Denver Young Democrats’ holiday party.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

But it was the governor — fresh from officiating at the lighting of the Allied Jewish Federation’s annual Community Menorah in southeast Denver — who waded into controversial topics in his candid remarks to the crowd, discussing the state’s vote to legalize marijuana, his own contentious positions on hydraulic fracking, and divisive education reform initiatives.

Owen Perkins, Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson and Madeline Fenton delight in the holiday cheer at the Denver Young Democrats’ holiday party at the Governor’s Residence in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Thank you guys for turning out the vote on Amendment 64,” he said with a hint of sarcasm, referring to the ballot measure that made it legal to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in the state. Then, mocking comments he made on election night, he joked, “Now it’s time to go out and get the damn Cheetos.”

Turning serious, Hickenlooper observed that the country is becoming “more permissive,” and suggested that today’s highly potent strains of marijuana demand a more cautious approach than some would like.

“When I was a kid, you know, I inhaled, there’s no question,” he smiled. “Some of you are too young to know the significance of that statement.”

But the mild pot of his youth is a far cry from what’s available these days, he contended, creating challenges that shouldn’t be ignored.

“The thing that people haven’t really talked about is the level of THC in pot these days is a whole different universe than we experienced when we were younger,” he said, adding that recent studies suggest that frequent use of high-THC marijuana can cause permanent, short-term memory loss. “We’re going to have to go a little bit more slowly on this,” he said. He added, “As this evolves, keep those lines of communication, because I think it has the potential to be very divisive.”

It’s a hallmark of the state’s politics — and a driving force behind Hickenlooper’s own approach to government — that opponents tend to seek common ground after the voters have spoken, he said.

“We are more collaborative than any other state,” he said. “We will have Republican voices in all our legislative efforts. The vast majority of bills that go through our Legislature are going to have Republican sponsorship, because that’s the way we do things.”

Hickenlooper called that spirit a “huge advantage” attracting entrepreneurs and established businesses to the state and added that he thought Democrats got “a raw deal” when the party was portrayed as anti-business in the recent election. “I trust every one of you feel nothing could be further from the truth. We have high standards about how we should protect our environment,” he said. He then launched into a discussion about controversial drilling practices, echoing remarks delivered that morning in Aurora at a meeting of the Colorado Climate Network, a consortium of local governments looking to deal with climate change.

“Every time someone gets furious at me over fracking, I point out that we’re half to compliance with Kyoto” — an international treaty to limit carbon emissions — “only because we have inexpensive natural gas, right? Wind energy’s about 9 percent of it, solar is about 1 percent of it, the economy is about 4 or 5 percent of it — the rest of it is turning coal plants into natural gas plants. It’s a transition — we’re going to wind, we’re going to go to solar, we’re going to do it as fast as we can.” But, he said, “If you’re morally responsible, you’ve got to think about climate change” and accept that cheap natural gas could be a necessary transition fuel. He added that the conclusion doesn’t erase questions about safety how to “make sure people’s communities aren’t devastated.”

Pointing out that “the Supreme Court spoke, the voters have spoken,” Hickenlooper said that health care reform was moving forward and that the states are tasked with making it a reality, particularly by working to control costs. Another area where Democrats “hold the inside track,” he said, is leading on education reform by keeping teachers at the center of new policies.

“Teachers have to be right beside us the whole time,” Hickenlooper said, broaching a topic that has pitted traditional teachers unions against reform-minded politicians, including some Democrats.

“We have to trust and work with teachers — they are the ones who should be making those decisions, figuring out who are the good teachers, who are the ones we can lift up and make great, or if they’re not so good, we can make them pretty darn good. That shouldn’t be people like me or our legislators doing that, that should be teachers, right? That should be a partnership.”

Then Hickenlooper recounted a recent conversation with his 10-year-old son Teddy, who argued that his difficulties as a fifth-grader far exceeded his father’s job, which mostly amounted to making tough decisions. “‘Get the facts, make a decision — check! Next!’” the governor said his son told him. Simple as that. But after some reflection, he said, he returned to the conversation with an explanation for why his job is sometimes hard.
“The real challenge — and this is the essence of politics — is figuring out what are the facts,” he said. “What are the real facts we can all share? Once we get a set of facts and we respect each other and we listen — and we listen hard enough — then we can make a decision. Then it’s ‘Check,’ and ‘Next!’”

That’s what defines the challenges until the next election, Hickenlooper concluded.

“This opportunity we have in the next two years — in the next couple years, we’re going to define how a state can make a health-care system that covers everyone in a very cost-effective way. And we’re going to have an education system that makes us the No. 1 state in America in terms of how our kids perform, regardless of what neighborhood they came from, that their ZIP Code’s not going to be any indication of their future choices. We’re going to be a state that, in every way, tries to make sure we get the right facts and we all work together and we create incredible outcomes, and you’re all deputized,” he told the crowd before wishing everyone happy holidays and pointing to the bar in a side room.

Party-goers arrived with toys, which were donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com

Please see further photo coverage in Dec. 21 print edition.