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Meet the other restaurateur running for president

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A week into Howard Schultz’s exploration of a presidential run, the two-time head of Starbucks looks as if he’d need Russian collusion to win a seat on his condo board. He’s been called a wimp by President Trump, compared unfavorably to Darth Vader by a member of his own party, slammed as an abusive employer by still more Democrats and painted as an elitist swell who can’t ballpark what a box of breakfast cereal costs.

“The downside of his rollout is that millions almost immediately took a strong dislike to him for different reasons,” Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at University of Virginia, commented on CNBC. He “doesn't appear to have support from anybody.”

But the restaurant industry might still see one of its own in serious contention for the nation’s top or worst job, depending on how you view it. Among the six or seven Democrats who’ve not yet announced their intention to run for president is a former barkeep who sold his small group of restaurants 12 years ago because running brewpubs was too much of a distraction. By that time, John Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver, and would soon make a successful play for governor of Colorado. He stepped down on Jan. 8 after turning John Denver-ville into the nation’s financially strongest state during his eight-year tenure. Now jobless, and a rare centrist in an increasingly polarized field, Hickenlooper was immediately cited as a feasible candidate for the nation’s top job.

Hickenlooper hasn’t said he’s running, nor that he’ll sit out the 2020 election. But he’s sounding like a candidate. “To beat Trump, I think you're going to do better with someone like myself that has a record of accomplishing bringing people together and accomplishing, you know, challenging solutions," he told CNN’s Don Lemon last week.

He went even further during the interview: “I probably would take the bet that I would run for president."

The restaurant industry should be pleased to hear that. Hickenlooper is a Democrat, not the usual ally of restaurateurs, but a pragmatic one. He helped revitalize Denver’s downtown, in part with his Wynkoop Brewing Co., but also with such common sense moves as eliminating parking fees for the benefit of merchants.

As mayor and governor, Hickenlooper demonstrated an ability to pull opponents together for the common good. His trademark saying is, “There’s no profit margin in making enemies.”

That openness to collaboration, he slyly contends, will be the key point of differentiation that earns him serious consideration by the Democrats as the 2020 election approaches. Plus, he stresses, the record leaves no doubt he’s a true centrist. That will serve him well if he intends to snatch the Democratic nomination away from decidedly leftist contenders such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

For the restaurant industry, that means he’s pro-work. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Republicans jumped on President Obama for offering to let Syrian political refugees into the country. Hickenlooper stepped forward and said Colorado would warmly welcome those additions to the workforce and populace. He also supported a controversial measure to convert a prison into a rehabilitation facility for the homeless. In a state where the supply of labor is particularly tight, he’s attuned to the industry’s most pressing issue.

He’s no tax-and-spend zealot, either. The Great Recession left Colorado with a gaping deficit that persisted for years. Hickenlooper, a strong advocate of strengthening his state’s educational system, took the dramatic and unpopular move of cutting $300 million in school aid as a necessity.

He also saw the benefits of legalizing cannabis for recreational use and worked to make Colorado the first state in the union to do so. The move was a game-changer economically.

What’s not clear is if a Hickenlooper presidency would in any way elevate the restaurant industry as a career choice or a place where leaders are molded. But Schultz hasn’t exactly delivered on that opportunity. Nor did the other prominent restaurateur who ran for the presidency, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain (who’s now being mentioned as a possible appointee to the Federal Reserve). He bowed out of his campaign after allegations arose of sexual harassment.

All in all, Hickenlooper is looking like the industry’s best hope to land a restaurateur in the White House.

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