Political Scene

A Geological Path to City Hall
Larry Kennedy

Last fall in Denver, during the 2002 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, I visited an old friend of mine. We met as geology students at Wesleyan University in the 1970s and have kept in touch over the years. For a time, we followed similar career trajectories. We both started as exploration geologists, and both were laid off in 1986 during slumps in minerals and oil and gas exploration. We both had an interest in public policy. I decided to extend my exploration career, while he elected to stay in Denver. He opened a brewpub in downtown Denver, and I’d drop by to say hello whenever I happened to be in town.

When we met up in October, I had just started my Congressional Science Fellowship, so our discussion included a fair bit of political discussion and debate. We talked about our motivations to become involved in public policy and political action, of the possibility of having an impact on our communities. I mentioned how, to my disappointment, traveling required by my work in minerals exploration had not left much time for me to get involved in any of my hometowns. He nodded and said that he was going to run for mayor of Denver.

John Hickenlooper is now a political legend, the little-known entrepreneur who climbed from single digits in the polls only six weeks before the May election to win it outright.

Even as a graduate student, John had a passion for the revitalization of blighted urban areas. He and his roommate, Mark Masselli, started the Community Health Center of Middletown, Conn.; it is now one of the ten largest providers of health care to the uninsured in the country. With his boundless energy and enthusiasm, I thought he’d run for office someday — perhaps even for mayor. I just thought he would start with the city council.

John first came into the public eye a few years ago as the “Mayor of LoDo” (as in “Lower Downtown”), when he led the fight to keep “Mile High” in the name of the Bronco’s new stadium. In the mayoral campaign, John relied on a campaign message of fiscal responsibility. His quirky ads resonated with the voters and boosted him in the polls. His professional campaign staff and neighborhood-focused, grass-roots campaign didn’t hurt either.

I was able to spend about five days on John’s campaign, mainly working the phones. It isn’t glamorous work — it might even help you generate some fleeting sympathy for telemarketers — but it proved to be very satisfying. In early May, John won the initial election with 43 percent of the vote in a field of seven candidates. A month later he trounced the incumbent city auditor in a 65-35 landslide to win the runoff. On July 21, John took office as mayor of the nation’s 25th-largest city. He will join Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), who represents my home district in northern Nevada, as one of the few geologists elected to high public office in the United States.


John fell in love with geology late in his undergraduate career. His bachelor’s degree is in English. “I wasn’t much of a writer,” John said when we recently talked over the phone, “but I loved the magnitude of plate tectonics, how the building blocks accumulated to support such a grand theory.” He went on to obtain a master’s in geology.

In 1981, John came to Denver and spent five years working for Buckhorn Petroleum. While there, he participated in local arts and philanthropic organizations. In 1986, long before downtown Denver was cool — before the arrival of Colorado Rockies baseball and Coors Field — John used his severance to help renovate a historic building. That project became the well-known Wynkoop Brewing Company. He subsequently opened a number of eateries and taverns in the Denver area. For his efforts directed at downtown preservation in Denver and other communities, John received a National Preservation Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

How has his training and experience as an exploration geologist helped him in business and in his nascent political career? “First of all, an understanding of the geological time scale is probably required to appreciate how long it can take to accomplish change through political action,” John joked.

More seriously, John credits his business and political success to his training in applied science and understanding of geological processes. “Using the scientific method — the consideration of multiple working hypotheses — is just fundamental to running a business or government. We are continually evaluating different scenarios and weighing them against each other,” he said. Exploration geology, economic development and politics, John noted, are similar in how practitioners assess the risk of an opportunity versus its reward. “Does the reward justify the risk? We measure and balance that in exploration in the same way that we evaluate business opportunities. It’s the same in politics.”

John acknowledges that exploration geologists in Denver were instrumental to his recent success. “Support from the oil exploration community was what allowed me to succeed as a politician,” he said. I think the community is trained to recognize a good opportunity.

Kennedy is the fifth American Geological Institute Congressional Science Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored each year by science and engineering societies. Support for the AGI fellowship is provided by the AGI Foundation. Send e-mail to Kennedy at

The views presented here are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Sen. Reid or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

Back to top

Geotimes Home | AGI Home | Information Services | Geoscience Education | Public Policy | Programs | Publications | Careers

© 2024 American Geological Institute. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the express written consent of the American Geological Institute is expressly prohibited. For all electronic copyright requests, visit: