MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Colorado is also dealing with a budget shortfall approaching $1.5 billion. That's about 20 percent of the state's general fund budget. The responsibility for fixing it falls to another of the nation's 29 newly elected governors, John Hickenlooper, the former mayor of Denver.

NPR's Jeff Brady has that story.

JEFF BRADY: John Hickenlooper came into politics after a successful run in the restaurant business. Today, his public image is just about as amusing as his name. His political ads get much of the credit for that. Here he is in mid-air, skydiving in 2005 for a tax reform measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

G: It means that money for important things like education, transportation and health care keep falling and falling...

BRADY: And this past election, when the airwaves were packed with attack ads, Hickenlooper was shown jumping in and out of a shower fully clothed.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

G: I guess I'm not a very good politician, 'cause I can't stand negative ads. Every time I see one, I feel like I need to take a shower.

BRADY: Hickenlooper could afford to take a risk with his ads because his two conservative opponents split the vote on the other side, giving him an easy win. But Hickenlooper's image and his style of governing could become important as state leaders tackle Colorado's looming budget gap.

P: He has a bit of a, gosh, gee whiz persona.

BRADY: John Straayer is a political science professor at Colorado State University.

P: I think he has a little bit of the Teflon that Ronald Reagan enjoyed, things sort of slide off of him. And I think that's largely because he's very affable, very pleasant person, slow to anger. And I think that makes him particularly effective.

BRADY: Hickenlooper's effectiveness will be tested, though. The state already had to use cuts and creative juggling to balance its budget. Federal stimulus money is running out and Colorado's expenses will rise faster than revenue in coming years.

As a Democrat, he also faces a reinvigorated Republican opposition. The GOP took control in November of the lower House in the state general assembly. The new speaker is Frank McNulty, a conservative who talks about making government live within its means.

NORRIS: The savings account is gone. The rich uncle that has been giving us money is not there anymore. And so, those other things that have helped us kind of coast along aren't there anymore. And so, the circumstances dictate a much higher level of belt tightening than they have even in the past.

BRADY: No one is talking about tax increases in Colorado. There are a variety of constraints voters have put on political leaders over the years to make it difficult for them to do much aside from making cuts. And that's going to hurt.

Already, a third of the school districts are on four-day weeks to save money. Higher education funding in Colorado ranks near the bottom of some lists. And there's a backlog of infrastructure projects.

When asked his strategy for dealing with the difficult negotiations ahead, Hickenlooper essentially says to be a nice guy, then he relates a story from his childhood.

G: My dad died when I was a kid. And I had a year in elementary school where everybody hated me. And I just kind of shut off my mouth. And I was just trying to make people like me, but I did all the wrong things.

BRADY: Hickenlooper says his mother created a chart. And every day, when he got home from school, she asked him things like whether he'd said anything mean behind someone's back or been disrespectful.

G: You know, all these things I'd get either a gold star, a silver star or a red star. And it made me think about how you relate with people and what it is that aggravates them.

BRADY: So Hickenlooper says he'll spend a lot of time listening to people, trying to figure out what they really want.

G: And try to find where is that sweet spot where, perhaps, no one's perfectly happy but everyone gets - they feel that they've gotten most of what they really need.

BRADY: Given the state's fiscal crisis, while Hickenlooper may hope for a gold star, he may be lucky to get a silver.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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