As we begin to look toward 2013, with the election fast slipping into memory, one person stands out as Colorado's most fascinating — and unpredictable — public figure to watch.
No, not Peyton Manning. He'll be on center stage with the Denver Broncos for the next month or two, but we're talking politics here. Lest we forget, John Elway endorsed Mitt Romney for president (oops), and Manning just bought into Papa John's pizza, whose founder, John Schnatter, detests President Barack Obama (hmmm).
So let's leave football alone and talk instead about, you probably guessed it, Gov. John Hickenlooper.
From every indication, Hickenlooper will head into his third year as governor with an obvious opportunity to enhance his stature. He's already popular across established boundaries, including those that separate our major political parties. Because he's viewed as business-friendly, and openly supportive of more drilling for gas and oil (he is, after all, also a geologist), the 60-year-old is on good terms with many conservatives.
Back in 2010, when running for governor, Hickenlooper visited Colorado Springs and spoke to about 200 people in the restaurant that now is Springs Orleans. As he rattled through his priorities, one prominent Democrat in the audience grumbled, "He sounds just like a Republican." And that was probably intentional.
But in recent months Hickenlooper campaigned hard for Obama, and for Democrats in their successful quest to regain control of the Colorado Legislature. On Nov. 1, the governor proposed his 2013-14 budget of $21.9 billion, a 5.4 percent increase. He's pushing for millions more to K-through-12 as well as higher education, more for economic development, more for tourism, more for Medicaid and people with developmental disabilities, and even the first pay raise for state employees in a half-decade.
Barring a major economic setback (can you spell sequestration yet?), that budget should signal a smoother road ahead for Colorado.
Still, don't expect a cascade of legislation that otherwise hit the wall (or would have hit the wall, had it been proposed) when Republicans ruled the House the past two years. We've seen and heard reports that Hickenlooper has cautioned lawmakers not to flood him with controversial bills. On that note, the most prominent example to follow would be a civil-union measure, which came so close to passage last year.
It's also clear that Hickenlooper and many Dems aren't thrilled with implementing Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana. The governor already has been asking for federal advice before moving ahead with actions regulating the commercial growth and sale of weed.
Don't be surprised, then, if Hickenlooper assumes the "bad cop" role in holding back Democrats from wielding their state power too much, perhaps positioning himself for an easier path into a second term.
That is, unless something else comes into play.
Though the rumor mills have remained quiet, Hickenlooper has to be an option to join President Obama's revamped Cabinet for the next four years. Many of those jobs will turn over as Obama sets the course for his second term, and at some point we'll be hearing more about departures and potential replacements.
Among the likely changes will be the secretaries of Energy and Interior, with Steven Chu and Ken Salazar expected to leave soon. Hickenlooper could fit into either spot, though he could be a surprise pick as Commerce secretary (despite not being on any list for that position at the moment).
Another factor: Hickenlooper and his wife amicably separated this year, which might make him more open to relocating.
That would mean turning over the state to Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the former president of Pikes Peak Community College and Colorado State University-Pueblo, who's been doing double duty as head of higher education. Garcia, at 55, thus would be up for election in 2014, which could be perfect.
First, though, we have to see what happens with Hickenlooper.
Will he go to Washington soon? Or will he stay, content to continue as governor, perhaps until 2018?
We should know some answers fairly soon.