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In June, Boulder Congressman Jared Polis launched his campaign for governor, setting to boil a primary that had been simmering for five months. The move was another indication Colorado’s governor’s race will be one of the most closely watched in the nation, especially as the Democratic Party looks for a winning model in the era of Donald Trump.
For his campaign kickoff, the openly gay, bow-tie-wearing tech-millionaire congressman headed to Pueblo at Solar Roast, the only solar-run coffee roaster in the country. The location was a nod to a key Polis plan of increasing the state’s reliance on renewable energy. A blue-collar union town with a large Latino population, Pueblo went red for the first time since going for Richard Nixon in 1972. Standing outside the coffeehouse, Polis acknowledged Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings in the area, saying, “We lost some votes to Trump here from good Democrats,” which he said is why Colorado Democrats need a united party after a sometimes bitter 2016 presidential primary.
As well as serving five years in Congress— where he is listed as one of the wealthiest members— Polis founded several schools that serve at-risk students and immigrants. He made his millions founding e-commerce greeting card and flower companies, and is one of the “Gang of Four” liberal donors who financed and helped execute the successful strategy to flip Colorado’s legislature blue in 2004.
Polis also used his personal wealth in 2014 when he bankrolled two statewide ballot measures aimed at restricting fracking in Colorado— only to pull them from consideration by voters as part of a compromise. Democrats that year feared a backlash might doom the re-election chances of Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
Prior to that, when Polis was 25, he spent a million dollars in a race for a seat on the state board of education, which he won by fewer than 100 votes. In 2008, he spent more than $5 million of his own money running for the seat he currently has in Congress. He says he won’t step down to run for governor.
He is up for re-election in Congress next year. Asked about his proudest legislative efforts as a congressman, the Polis campaign pointed to his work on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which rewrote No Child Left Behind, an affordable workforce housing bill that became law and requires the Secretary of Agriculture to sell 40 acres of Forest Service land in Summit County for it, and his introduction— along with Bernie Sanders— of the WORK Act, which would provide funding to create and grow employee ownership centers that offer training and technical support for programs promoting employee ownership. The top five industries that donated to his campaigns have been securities and investment entities, retirees, lawyers and law firms, real estate, and business services, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The entrance of this well-known wealthy self-funder follows that of Denver businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Three other Democrats, Adam Garrity, Moses Humes, and Michael Schroeder, have also filed paperwork to run for governor. The race is shaping up to be an energetic Democratic primary — something Colorado has not seen in many years. Polis’s decision to get in the race also factored into the decision of Arvada Congressman Ed Perlmutter to exit the race.
In a news conference Perlmutter held to announce he was dropping out, he called Polis a friend, one of the smartest people he knows, and “a very good Democrat.” The two agree on pretty much everything, Perlmutter said.
Asked what Polis found lacking in an already crowded primary field, he didn’t answer directly. Instead, he told The Colorado Independent he is excited to offer a “bold plan” for the state. He says he chose to run for governor because he wants to focus on where he believes he can make the biggest difference.
What are some of Polis’s campaign themes?
You can call them The Big Three.
On the opening day of his campaign, Polis made a trifecta of campaign stops along the Front Range, starting in Pueblo, where he outlined each of them. The three-pronged plan is getting the state of Colorado to use 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2040, providing universal free preschool and kindergarten, and encouraging employers to offer stock options to their employees.
While some Colorado cities have more ambitious renewable goals— Aspen already runs on 100 percent renewable energy sources, and Pueblo has a goal of reaching it by 2035— Polis says the entire state could follow suit by the next quarter century. Details of the plan include appointing utility commissioners who share the goal, creating special renewable energy districts, offering regulatory incentives, and using bond markets.
If he becomes governor, Polis says Colorado would have universal full-day kindergarten within two years by building coalitions and making state kindergarten funding full time for public schools. As for how the state would pay for the program, Polis hasn’t been specific. He has said he would direct state funding to the Colorado Department of Education to pay for any 3-and-4-year-old whose parent wants their child in preschool. But asked where the money would come from, he didn’t say. “Some of the solutions in the past have included public-private partnerships like social-impact bonding to meet those funding needs,” he offered during a conference call in mid-November. “I’m going to be creative in making sure that the taxpayers of this state get the best possible value for our investment in kids and in education. And by doing that and investing in early childhood education, I believe it will actually reduce taxes over the next several decades.”
Meanwhile, through incentives, Polis wants Colorado to become “first in the nation” for companies that share their profits with their employees. Providing stock options for employees at craft breweries in Colorado has become the norm, he says, and other businesses should follow suit.
During a June stop at a Save-A-Lot in Colorado Springs, Polis said he chose the employee-owned grocery store because it was an example of the kind of company he wants others to emulate.
“We’re going to remove some of the hurdles and bureaucratic red tape that make it costly for companies to go this model,” he said, adding he would roll out a branding campaign as governor and use contracting mechanisms to make it easier for companies to participate.
His transportation plan includes a passenger train from Pueblo to Fort Collins. During a February campaign stop in Colorado Springs, Polis said sections of the train could be completed during his first term if he’s elected. He says he wants to raise the minimum wage and strengthen organized labor.
Where does Polis fit along the Democratic Party spectrum in Colorado?
So far there is no clear frontrunner in the race, and candidates aren’t exactly jockeying themselves in ideological positions relative to each other. No one wants to get pigeonholed.
One candidate, however, Noel Ginsburg, the CEO of Intertech Plastics, does call himself a moderate, and is concerned about nominating someone too far left for Colorado’s general election voters, which he fears will mean a Republican will win.
Asked if he considers himself the furthest left candidate so far, Polis said he would define himself as “the future-oriented candidate.” Ticking off his three key campaign planks, he said he doesn’t see them as throwing down an ideological gauntlet.
“It’s really about the bold progressive agenda for our state,” he said. “It will be up to others to define it.”
One place where Polis certainly stands alone is in the money category. As in big money. His net worth has been estimated at around $90 million. He wouldn’t say how much exactly he plans to spend, but he has a history of dropping plenty on his previous bids. He is also voluntarily capping individual donations to his campaign at $100.
And, like former Colorado senator Mike Johnston who is also running, Polis says he won’t accept money from political action committees. (On the day before Polis announced, Johnston released his own plan to get Colorado on renewable energy by 2040.)
“I think it’s important to note that not everybody with money is Republican,” Polis told The Independent.
Polis sets himself apart in the race as an out-of-the-box-type politician, which could be attractive in an era of anti-establishment sentiment but it could also be a liability. For instance, Polis might be the only Democrat running for governor in Colorado— maybe anywhere— who would tell a Colorado Independent reporter traveling with him in December that he would love to have the support of Jesse Ventura, the pro wrestler conspiracy theorist and ex-governor of Minnesota. Why? Ventura excited independent voters, Polis says, and the two share an affinity for the kind of technology popularized by Bitcoin, the world’s first decentralized digital currency.
Polis launched and leads the congressional Blockchain Caucus in Washington, which adds to his persona as a hip and tech-forward Democrat with something of a libertarian streak. He’s not afraid to be outspoken on controversial issues such as marijuana legalization (all for it) or immigration reform (create a pathway to citizenship, but also increase border patrol). He once authored a paper for Jon Caldara’s Independence Institute that argued for privatizing the Postal Service.
As one of the wealthiest members of Congress, Polis can spend his own money on his campaign— he spent nearly $1.4 million on it by January 15— and doesn’t have to block off time dialing for dollars. His millions make him part of the 1 percent, but he’s known for taking on insurance companies and Big Pharma. He was a superdelegate who supported Hillary Clinton in a state that went big for Bernie, but he’s not taking PAC money and rejects campaign contributions of more than $100— a fraction of the $1,150 allowed. He has served a decade in Congress with a reliable Democratic voting record, but his flashes of independence might make some Democrats wince. He bankrolled a lobbyist gift ban initiative for the state legislature and ballot measures to limit fracking, for instance, and he says he’s the only Democrat in the House Liberty Caucus, a group made up of libertarian-leaning Republican members of Congress. In 2014, The Washington Post published a story about Polis’s “evolution” to become more of an established force within the Democratic Party.
In 2013, Polis dismissed a proposed federal law that would have banned more than 100 different assault-style weapons, saying doing so would “make it harder for Colorado families to defend themselves and also interfere with the recreational use of guns by law-abiding Coloradans.”
Five years and more mass shootings later, during his run for governor, Polis in February became an original sponsor of a bill in Congress to ban assault-style weapons that include AR-15s, AK-47s, and shotguns with pistol grips or revolving cylinders, among many others. “As our communities have experienced more and more mass shootings, we cannot ignore the fact that assault weapons are a common theme in almost all of them,” Polis said in a statement to The Colorado Independent.
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Polis candidacy?
No one knows yet, but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the far left wing of the party more than one who does.
Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Democratic Party nominates for governor. Democrats will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote, unless a lawsuit derails the law. If the law stands, it would mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates. Voters can choose one party or the other to participate in.
One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to reduce the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
Asked in February by a voter in Colorado Springs about his strategy to appeal to “that great middle section of Colorado,” Polis said he appreciated the new law. “There are a lot of progressives and people of all stripes that are just fed up with the parties,” he said. “They are just fed up with what they perceive as corruption and special interest influence in both parties, so I don’t think they should be penalized for that. So we are certainly taking our election message to unaffiliateds.”
Any potential buzz saws for him?
Sure. And one of them revved up quickly in Pueblo on the day he announced.
As Polis was taking questions from a small gathering outside Solar Roast coffee, a man in the crowd asked him to explain his vote as a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention— even though Bernie Sanders won the Colorado caucuses.
Polis, said he liked both candidates but he was a Clinton supporter and campaigned hard for her in the general election. He said he would have done the same had Bernie won.
“I said I would vote for the winner of the primary,” Polis said. “I don’t think it would have been the right thing for the superdelegates to overturn the will of the people and install a different nominee than Hillary Clinton who got three million more votes than Bernie Sanders. My choice was Hillary Clinton, let me be clear. I know Hillary Clinton, I like Hillary Clinton, I’ve been incredibly impressed with Hillary Clinton. I also like Bernie Sanders a lot.”
Polis said he worked with Sanders on his employee stock ownership program and on marijuana legalization issues.
“I want to heal the party,” Polis said. “As the nominee I want to bring the party together whether you like Bernie or whether you liked Hillary … we need to have a united party that excites everybody— excites Bernie voters, excites Hillary voters, excites Trump voters. That’s how we need to win here in Pueblo.”
The saw teeth might also bite into his vote to fast-track legislation that helped grease the skids for then-President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership global trade agreement, a deal loathed by a constituency of progressive Democrats.
Photo by Corey Hutchins