Democratic Colorado Senate Candidate John Hickenlooper Once Described Black Ministers as “Articulate”

In recent weeks, Hickenlooper — the Democratic establishment’s pick for Senate — has had to apologize repeatedly for racial gaffes.

FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2019, file photo, then Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, in Des Moines, Iowa. Colorado's ethics commission on Friday, June 12, 2020 fined Hickenlooper $2,750 for violating state ethics law as governor by accepting a private jet flight to an official event and by receiving benefits he didn't pay for at a meeting of government, business and financial leaders in Italy. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, in Des Moines, Iowa on August 10, 2019. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

At a lunch with the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance in 2019, Colorado Senate candidate John Hickenlooper, referring to a group of black ministers, said, “These guys are so articulate,” drawing on a racist trope about black people. 

The comments, unearthed and posted on Twitter by Colorado Rising PAC, a conservative advocacy group focused on the Senate race to unseat vulnerable Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, are the latest in a series of gaffes for which the former Colorado governor has had to apologize for. 

Asked about the video, Hickenlooper’s campaign said, “John’s built and earned a broad coalition of support that includes endorsements from the Denver Ministerial Alliance (the group in the video you reference), Denver Mayors Michael Hancock and Wellington Webb, Senator Kamala Harris, the CBCPAC, and Stacey Abrams. He’s also released an Equity for All Plan laying out dramatic police reforms he would push for as Senator.”

In recent weeks, Hickenlooper has had to walk back saying “every life matters,” and apologized for comparing working with political staffers to being whipped on an “ancient slave ship.”

“Imagine an ancient slave ship,” Hickenlooper said in a 2014 video circulated by Tay Anderson, a Denver school board member and the youngest black candidate ever elected to public office in the state, drawing laughs from the crowd, “with the guy with the whip, and you’re rowing. We elected officials are the ones that are rowing.”

He apologized for the comments, which made it into national media coverage from the Washington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle and NBC. “Taking a look at this video from six years ago, I recognize that my comments were painful. I did not intend them to be. I offer my deepest apologies,” Hickenlooper said in a statement released by his campaign.

Hickenlooper was asked about his series of recent “racial gaffes” during a debate Tuesday against Andrew Romanoff, the progressive he is facing off against in the June 30 primary. A debate moderator asked him whether he was “out of touch with this moment in America.” 

Hickenlooper apologized again for his comments. “Black lives matter,” he said, going on to talk about the importance of reckoning with the nation’s myriad systemic inequalities. 

Responding during the same debate to a question about what “defunding the police” means to him, Hickenlooper was unable to actually answer the question. Instead, he spoke for close to a minute about the myriad ways he “didn’t go far enough” to improve police accountability while in Colorado office. Indeed, as mayor of Denver, where he served from 2003 to 2011, Hickenlooper hired an architect of the now-debunked “broken windows theory” of policing to consult for the Denver Police Department. 

During an earlier debate this month, Hickenlooper was asked “What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?” His response: “Black Lives Matter means every life matters.” Two days laters, amid mounting public criticism, Hickenlooper tweeted a clarification, saying “Black lives matter,” and issued a statement to the Colorado Sun walking back the comments,, saying he misspoke. 

He’s also facing an escalating ethics controversy, after the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission found he violated state law in 2018 by accepting a free private jet ride and Maserati limousine ride when he served as governor. Last week, the five-member panel voted to fine him $2,750 for the estimated cost of the gifts. 


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Romanoff, the former state House Speaker, has been endorsed by more than 250 elected officials in Colorado, and 400 state and local leaders organizations nationwide, including the Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution, Our Revolution Metro Denver, environmental activist and co-founder Bill McKibben, and progressive activist Ady Barkan. Still, for the most part, his campaign has not picked up major national progressive support, like insurgent candidates in other states have. In Kentucky, for example, some of the state’s most prominent Democrats have endorsed Senate candidate Charles Booker over Amy McGrath, the establishment’s pick, along with leading progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Hickenlooper, meanwhile, has had plenty of help from national Democrats. He was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee two days after entering the race, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $1 million to support him. As The Intercept previously reported, the DSCC warned off consultants who were considering working with Romanoff.

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