John Hickenlooper
Credit: Photograph by Edward Keating

Hick's brown-gray hair looks like it was cut by a threshing machine. That's not on me; that was according to a newspaper column. And it doesn't bother Jerry Middleton, his perfectly named elderly barber.

"I didn't mind," says Middleton. "I didn't need new customers." He looks like he was cut from the cast of a gangster film, maybe because he was once busted for running numbers. It's the penultimate day of the legislative session, and Hick has ducked out of the Denver state capitol for a quick cut. Hick likes Jerry, and Jerry likes Hick, but there's also intel to be gathered. Most powerful Coloradans in search of a discreet, bad haircut come to see Jerry. He mentions a local billionaire.

"He's mad at you," Jerry tells the governor.

Hick makes a sour face as Jerry combs his hair to the right.

"Hmm, wonder why. Maybe it's the fracking issue. I'll call him."

The fracking issue is this year's tainted Rocky Mountain oyster. Earlier in the day, Hick was in his office surrounded by a gaggle of aides, his Jos. A. Bank jacket draped on his chair. Above him hung a gigantic mural of a classic Colorado vista: a ranch house at the foot of the Rockies. His chow chow, Skye, wandered in, sniffed, and trotted out. Unlike most Democrats, for Hick it's not a question of yes or no on fracking. He knows Colorado is sixth in the nation in natural gas production, and the industry provides more than 80,000 well-paying jobs, often to those who don't have a college degree.

With very few exceptions, Hickenlooper is unequivocally pro-fracking in Colorado. "There's a mile and a half of solid rock between our groundwater and where they're drilling," says Hick. "Other states it's much closer."

Today's sticky wicket is trying to head off a state referendum that would give counties and towns more control over how close fracking could occur to homes and businesses. Jared Polis, a bow-tie-wearing congressman who, in the best spirit of nimbyism, became outraged only when a fracking operation went up a few hundred yards outside his million-dollar home near Boulder, is the patron of the referendum.

Hick looks a bit tired, maybe because last night he cooked salmon for eight at his place. It was an eclectic group of doctors, administrators, and staffers furiously thumbing their phones. His 12-year-old son, Teddy, wandered in and puckishly shook hands with everyone before disappearing to do his homework. The subject matter rambled from the fundraising woes of his GOP opponents to whether Hick personally needed more frequent colonoscopies. Blueberries and ice cream were served.

Now he was trying to save the state from a costly rectal exam that would only pleasure political consultants and ad buyers. Hick's view is that having county-by-county fracking regulations is a recipe for lawsuits and chaos. He enjoys chaos in his own life, not so much in his state. He wants the legislature to work out a compromise. There's another thing: The last time Coloradans had a chance to vote on a referendum, they legalized weed, 55 percent to 45 percent, against his wishes.

The governor listens to his advisers and then chimes in. "Look, we need to put a call in to Stan Dempsey," Hickenlooper says, mentioning the president of the Colorado Petroleum Association. "Get Dempsey to talk with the CEOs at BP, Chevron, Shell, and Exxon. See where they'll move on this."

It is instructive that Hick's initial thought for adjudicating the issue is not to call in Polis for a meeting or one of the three billion Colorado environmental groups, but instead to phone the head of the energy lobby to see how far they're willing to bend to avoid a referendum. In his first year, he enacted a fracking-fluid disclosure rule – making energy companies publicly list what chemicals they're pumping into the ground – with the cooperation of both the CEO of Halliburton and the head of the Environmental Defense Fund. He went so far as to drink a glass of fracking fluid to prove its safety. (He disclosed this at a U.S. Senate hearing, and Minnesota senator Al Franken asked him if it was part of an oil company cult initiation.)

And it also displays something Hick likes to keep hidden: He can play hardball. (Going against type, he's a big fan of Machiavelli's The Prince.) On the last day of the 2011 session, Hick's budget deal­ – he'd eventually take the state from a Great Recession deficit into a sizable surplus­ – brokered with significant GOP support, was in danger of falling through. He let the Democratic state senate president know that his inability to close the deal might become public and wouldn't help him when he ran for Congress. The pol got onboard. At the end of the 2012 legislative session, Hick was having bourbon in his office when the GOP speaker of the House came in and told him that he would not be honoring his agreement to bring before the House a vote legalizing civil unions. Hick was pissed, bolting from his office and wandering the statehouse grounds for an hour with his security detail searching for him. But he moved decisively, calling a special session of the legislature the next afternoon. The House ignored it again, but the session created such a storm that inaction came with a price, and more Democrats were voted into office in 2012, and civil-union legislation was passed in March 2013. Hick got his way.

Back at the barbershop, Jerry brings out a metallic torture contraption, slips it over his withered right hand, and begins to give Hick a violent massage above the neck.

"Everybody ends up thinking they've got this little narrow self-interest: It's no different than trying to sell sandwiches," says Hick. Each word vibrates out of his quaking face like a 25-cent-a-minute massage bed at a 1970s Travelodge. "It's a lot of work, and you're just talking and talking and trying to frame their self-interest as being broader. That's where deals take place in business. Politics isn't, or shouldn't be, any different. There's no percentage in angering half your customers."

Hick slips his jacket back on and hands Jerry $20. "I love the neck and scalp massage," whispers Hick in the elevator, rubbing his jaw. "But the face one kind of kills. I don't have the heart to tell Jerry." Out on the street, Hick runs into a woman in a business suit with a flowing scarf. It's Frances Koncilja, a litigation attorney who has known Hick since he first ran for Denver mayor, in 2003.


With son Teddy, now 12, at a swim meet. (Courtesy John Hickenlooper)

"I remember when he showed up, and I thought maybe I'll give him a hundred dollars because I feel sorry for him," says Koncilja with a smile. "But he was so smart and charming. I ended up backing him."

She then wags a long finger at the governor.

"But John's more of a Calvinist. He thinks the rich should keep their wealth. Me? I think if you're rich, you must have been a pirate."

Hick just smiles. He doesn't like to disappoint people, and folks can't stay mad at him. The trait has been ground into Hick since he was a little boy.

"John comes from a family where his dad died when he was young," says Roxane White, his chief of staff, who also lost her father young. "What do you want to do if you're John? Persevere and make things look easier than they are."

That may explain why Hick doesn't go from the barber back to the capitol, but instead heads to the squash court. He asks me what I'm doing tonight. I tell him I'm going to hit a Rockies game at Coors Field. Hick makes a face.

"By yourself?" This won't do. "We'll have a beer at the Wynkoop, my old place, before the game. Just one, I have a ton of work to do."