Colorado governor: Questions about Romney taxes 'almost visceral'

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country.

Story highlights

  • John Hickenlooper says there is a repulsion for those who don't pay their fair share
  • Colorado governor says some questions about Romney's record turn businesspeople off
  • Recovery depends on more than just business, Hickenlooper says
  • Governor says Obama needs to take opportunities to show voters who he is

John Hickenlooper grabbed the attention of national Democrats in 2010 when he withstood a national Republican wave to win the governorship in Colorado, an emerging battleground state.

He caught some lucky breaks on the way: Colorado Republicans failed to nominate a serious candidate in a three-way race, and Hickenlooper ran a quirky and widely praised television ad that depicted him showering with his clothes on, symbolically rinsing off the stink of negative campaigning.

Hickenlooper has also attracted notice by breaking with some of his fellow Democrats in an effort to create a more business-friendly climate in the state. As a co-founder of Denver's Wynkoop Brewing Company, Hickenlooper still talks proudly about his experience as a small-business owner. He's also a huge fan of craft beer and indie rock bands such as The Shins and the Avett Brothers.

Time magazine named Hickenlooper, who served two terms as Denver's mayor, one of the country's best mayors in 2005.

With one of the highest approval ratings of any governor, Hickenlooper might be Barack Obama's best asset in Colorado as the president tries to carry the state's nine electoral votes for the second time.

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He sat down with CNN at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Williamsburg, Virginia, last weekend. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:

CNN: The suburbanites around Denver are exactly the kind of independent-minded voters President Barack Obama needs in his fold to win in November. Do you see the campaign's questions about Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital and offshore bank accounts resonating with those voters or do they fall flat?

Gov. John Hickenlooper: To a certain extent, the suburban soccer moms are somewhat accepting of the fact that business is rough and tumble, and that some jobs get cut when you are taking over a business that's failing. Some job cuts are necessary.

But I think they have a different sensitivity if people are avoiding paying taxes in the United States and making profits on business done in the United States but finding ways to avoid taxation. I think as more facts come out, that's something that of all the Bain-related stories might have some serious ramifications in terms of how normal people deal with it.

What's interesting, especially with the independent voters, is there is a level of patriotism. We pay our taxes, and we don't want to pay any more taxes, we hate government waste. But everyone should pay their share. It's almost visceral.

When I was in the restaurant business, I used to see people get into these debates. It's liberal Democrats, it's conservative Republicans, it's almost all independents. There is a tremendous repulsion for people that get out of paying their share.

CNN: As a business guy, do you think some of the harder-edged questions about Romney's private sector record turn off some people in the business community?

Hickenlooper: It does. There are certain people that think that. I think what people are concerned about is you're branding all business as bad, which is certainly not the case. No step forward this country has ever taken has been without the business community helping move us forward. Whether you care about homelessness, whether you care about education reform or whatever, the resources for that come from economic vitality -- a whole lot of businesses being successful and creating wealth, and then that wealth being used to help homeless kids.

CNN: Do you view his experience at Bain as part of wealth creation at large, the kind that lifts up homeless kids, for instance, or is it a different thing entirely?

Hickenlooper: It's a component of the business system.

I think what really creates wealth in this country, the major part of our wealth creation, comes from entrepreneurs, people starting businesses. That's my preference because I lived part of that life. If you really squint your eyes and look at job creation, entrepreneurs create businesses, create jobs. They are always creating something.

Generally it's small businesses, but when they get acquired by a large business as part of that acquisition, there are overlapping marketing departments, overlapping accounting departments, so they shed jobs. There is a downsizing. So once that happens, once you get these companies consolidating, they are always looking at efficiency. And that is really not job creation.

There are exceptions. As you get larger companies together, they shed jobs and they become more efficient and more profitable, so the stock price goes up, but that's not pushing the country forward at the same level that entrepreneurs are. They are the ones that are creating the jobs that have customers. That is one of the defining points. They are creating jobs that have customers rather than just trying to control costs.

CNN: When your friends in the business community complain about the president or say that Romney will lower their taxes or costs, what do you say to convince them that Obama is going to help their bottom line?

Hickenlooper: We have many discussions. What I tell everyone is what we need to create in this country is rising tide. We have to get the whole country moving forward. That's not just one thing or one component of our economy. That's the whole economy, right?

So you can't keep cutting funding for higher education. That's a big part of how these entrepreneurs get started -- research grants or great ideas that come out of some laboratory at Colorado State University. Those entrepreneurs need to be able to take that and grow it. The whole ecosystem has got to go up.

The president is committed to investment and the key parts of what a business ecosystem to succeed. It needs an education system, and it needs a health care system.

I keep going to my friends in business and I say, 'Alright so, whether you want to talk about Obamacare or Romneycare, let's pick one.' "

CNN: Does Obamacare help the president in Colorado?

Hickenlooper: I think it helps him everywhere, ultimately.

When I sit down with business guys, I tell them, 'Let's say we don't want to do Obamacare. Secretary Sebelius has said we will give waivers if you find a way to expand coverage, control costs and prove outcomes. We will give you all the waivers you want.' That's an opportunity to pick our own system.

But everybody wants to expand coverage. Everybody recognizes that small businesses can't get coverage.

We already passed our health care exchange, and we did it with Republicans and Democrats. Let's not get caught up in these false arguments. You can sit there and look at the whole system of what Obama's proposing and the whole system of what Romney's proposing, and I think the president's has a higher probability of rising the whole tide and moving the economy more rapidly.

CNN: What do you think Obama could do better in the campaign? What would help him win Colorado?

Hickenlooper: You know what he loves. He loves basketball. He loves movies. He loves his family. I think that's a huge advantage. I don't think he shows it enough. Those little things -- you have never heard that story.

When he talked to the firefighters (who were recently battling the Colorado wildfires), he talked to 80 firefighters, and within five minutes moved them emotionally and inspired them. That's something that he does, and it's just who he is.

He has always been able to do that. He wasn't scripted, and there was no teleprompter. It was just him connecting.

I think he has to find more opportunities to demonstrate to the American people who he is. Because he is real.

CNN: Last question: How are the NFL Denver Broncos going to do this year?

Hickenlooper: I love (former Broncos quarterback Tim) Tebow. I thought he was a remarkable guy. I was a big Tebow fan. I am a huge Tebow fan. I think he's going to be a great quarterback somewhere, just watch.

I think Peyton Manning, he had all these teams to pick from, but he picked the Broncos because they have been building like crazy. And he thinks they can go to the Super Bowl in the next two years.

When Peyton Manning, who knows a lot about football, when he says they can go to the Super Bowl, that means we're all going to be tuned in.