During a Democratic Senate Debate in Colorado last week, former governor John Hickenlooper was asked what the term “Black lives matter” meant to him. 

“Black lives matter means every life matters,” the former Democratic presidential candidate said. 

“And that the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with the richness of their lives and how important their place in their family, in their neighborhood, in their community,” he continued. “And that they — that every life is sacred. And every life deserves the protections of our system of public safety and our system of justice. People should not be fearful of the people that have been entrusted with their protection.” 

Hickenlooper made the comment against the backdrop of a nationwide movement to stop police killings of black people, specifically. It’s the kind of remark that has previously been compared to responding to the attacks of 9/11 by saying that, of course, “all buildings matter.” Hickenlooper’s former presidential primary opponent, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, was vehemently criticized during his campaign for past comments during his 2015 “State of the City” address, saying “all lives matter,” which he later said he stopped using in “in that context.”

Asked about the comment, Hickenlooper told The Intercept he tripped over his words. “When answering a question about Black Lives Matter last weekend, I tripped over my words. So let me be very clear: Black Lives Matter. It’s important that we say that because, for far too long, our criminal justice system hasn’t reflected that belief. So I’ll say it again: Black Lives Matter. And working to combat systemic racism matters. I’m proud to stand with and work alongside everyone who believes that as deeply as I do.” 

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff is challenging Hickenlooper for the nomination. Hickenlooper, a popular former governor with a legacy of defending fracking interests, entered the race in August after dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary, and was backed by the Senate Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee within two days. After Hickenlooper entered the race, a number of competitive challengers quickly dropped out. Several women candidates sent a letter to the DSSC asking them to reconsider their endorsement. Colorado’s Democratic Senate primary takes place June 30. 

As Mayor, Hickenlooper promoted the widely rebuked “broken windows” theory of policing, which argues that cracking down on small petty crimes and nuisances like trash-strewn lawns is an effective way to stop crime overall. As mayor, Hickenlooper hired one of the original architects of the broken windows theory, criminologist George Kelling, as a consultant to advise the Denver Police Department.

Michael Borne, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement’s Denver chapter, said in a statement that “what Hickenlooper did as mayor is unforgivable,” adding that the policies he promoted have “led to many Black community members unwarranted arrests and even deaths.” 

Hickenlooper has a significant fundraising advantage, bringing in a haul of $4.1 million last quarter. Romanoff, who has won endorsements from progressive and environmental groups, brought in under $500,000 in the first quarter. The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against Republican Senator Cory Gardner in November, and the race is one of the key chances Democrats have to flip a number of Senate seats if they want to regain control of the chamber. 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pressured consultants not to work with Romanoff, The Intercept reported in August. The news was one of the first signs that the House campaign arm’s policy to blacklist candidates, which The Intercept reported last year, was being mimicked by their Senate counterparts. 

The former governor has a history of strange-doings to make a point that he supports policies that have started to fall out of favor

The idea that crime can be meaningfully decreased by over-policing neighborhoods with a high prevalence of small or petty crime is linked to the very police behaviors people are currently protesting. Over-policing neighborhoods has historically criminalized poor people, and disproportionately, black and brown people. Activists across the country are calling for a complete refutation of policies that give more power to the police, instead, pushing to defund and demilitarize law enforcement. 

“Hickenlooper hired as a consultant George Kelling, a criminologist who helped bring the broken-windows theory to national prominence in 1982 when he co-wrote an article on the subject in The Atlantic Monthly,” the Denver Post reported in 2006. “His theory holds that police should crack down on minor offenses, such as loud parties, public drinking and trashy yards, to reverse the downward spiral.”

Activists and elected officials are also calling to drastically cut funding for law enforcement, whereas Hickenlooper, and many other sitting Democratic mayors, have historically increased policing budgets by tens of millions of dollars each year, and continue to do so. In the 2006 city report pushing the broken windows theory, Hickenlooper also praised a for-profit policing model, and bragged that he’d given the DPD an additional $30 million a year for the last three years. 

“The former Mayor of Denver and current candidate for US Senate John Hickenlooper promoted violent and discredited policing practices that lead to increased violence against Black people,” said Stevie O’Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, which has endorsed Romanoff. “Hickenlooper touted the effectiveness of the racist “broken windows” policing policy, which led to the criminalization, killing, and over-policing of communities of color.”

As mayor of Denver, Hickenlooper said, police reform was a central priority, including early efforts to reduce lethal force. As a senator, he said, he would work with communities to address distrust of law enforcement. “As senator, I am committed to working with communities of color to address the fear and mistrust of law enforcement, to fiercely advocate for proper police training, and to increase accountability and oversight. People have a right to be safe, unafraid, and secure in their communities. And people have a right to not be victimized in their day-to-day lives or when they peacefully protest injustice. As a country, we have tolerated systemic racism and a broken criminal justice system for far too long. Now more than ever, we must listen to one another and ask ourselves what we can do to be a part of the solution,” he told The Intercept in a statement. “I pledge to do my part.”

As Denver mayor, he said, he made significant strides when it came to police reform, though acknowledged, “What we did wasn’t perfect.”

Ten years before Ferguson, we initiated efforts to reduce lethal force in policing, requiring all officers to go through crisis de-escalation training. For the first time in the history of the Denver Police Department, we hired a minority recruiter and established the Office of Independent Monitor to investigate allegations of police misconduct. We created the Civilian Oversight Commission to give communities direct input on how their own neighborhoods are policed, and we made it easier to discipline officers who use excessive force. What we did wasn’t perfect and there is so much more work to be done, locally and nationally, but we listened to communities of color. We tried to gain a greater understanding of the challenges they face, and we worked together towards a common goal. All of this needs to be done on a much larger scale today as the use of deadly force against Black and Brown Americans by police continues to be an epidemic in our country. There are tangible steps Congress can and must take to stop the violence, including requiring body cameras for all police officers, swiftly disciplining officers who use excessive force, increasing transparency in policing data, and funding programs to heal the trauma of communities living in fear.

Denver’s rates of crime, violent crime, and murder started falling in the early 2000s, before Hickenlooper became mayor in 2003, and spiked again soon after, beginning to fall again around 2005. Other major cities followed similar trends, with a number of outliers with more frequent peaks and troughs, but generally, cities saw a downturn in crime rates throughout the early 2000s and 2010s. Violent crime spiked nationally in 2006 for the first time since the early 1990s, according to an FBI report that year. Cities like Louisville, Los Angeles and Chicago, saw crime rates slowly increasing again around 2015. 

He’s also facing an escalating ethics case. On Friday, Hickenlooper appeared via video before a state ethics panel after refusing to comply with a subpoena the previous day. The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission has been investigating allegations that Hickenlooper violated state law by accepting free private jet rides when he served as governor. He denies any wrongdoing and has characterized the complaint, which was filed by former Republican state House Speaker Frank McNulty’s group Public Trust Institute in 2018, as politically motivated. 

Hickenlooper was elected mayor of Denver in 2003 and Colorado governor in 2010, and started his career as a petroleum geologist for an oil and gas producer. He was laid off, opened Denver’s first craft brewery, and started making his fortune. 

During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, he appeared in an ad in which he showered in his clothes, saying negative campaign ads made him “feel like I need to take a shower.” While he was governor, Hickenlooper fought against initiatives to curb fracking, on the side of oil and gas companies that spent more tens of million dollars to fight them. He once drank fracking fluid to prove it wasn’t that bad for you.