PARKER, CO — From the street, an “Impeach Trump” sign framed in twinkling white Christmas lights makes the suburban Douglas County home of Carolyn Williamson exactly what you’d expect for the latest house party featuring Jared Polis, the Democratic congressman from Boulder who is running for governor.
Inside, however, is another story.
Williamson, 63, with blond hair and a bright smile and dressed in a white cabled sweater for the holidays, was a Republican up until …
“Guess,” she says with a look on her face that means the answer should be obvious. She was horrified on Election Day this November, she says. The results? An attack on democracy, she says. “You know how reformed smokers are always the worst?” she asks. “I feel like I have to make up for so much time for being a party-line Republican.”
So, Sunday evening, the week before Christmas, the self-employed realtor who isn’t a Democrat but is registered as unaffiliated, opened her home to about 50 friends and neighbors to meet the Democratic hopeful whom Republicans, and some Democrats, frame as too far left for Colorado.
What Williamson says she likes about Polis, though, is his ability to work with the GOP and his entrepreneurial success in business. “That’s [where] I feel he can relate to the Republicans,” she says. “He already knows how government works. And I love the fact, honestly, that he’s openly gay.”
Next year will see the first statewide primary election for governor in Colorado in which unaffiliated voters, like Williamson, will be able to participate. The race is also the most wide-open gubernatorial election in at least a generation, making for a robust primary. Also running on the Democratic side is former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, ex-state Sen. Mike Johnston, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, businessman Noel Ginsburg, entrepreneur Erik Underwood and two other lesser-known candidates.
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 reporter traveling with him 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, who is 42, 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.
Now, as Polis runs for governor here, his biggest weaknesses might also be his biggest strengths.
Fitting into an anti-establishment mold in a year when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the two dominant politicians of their parties could be a plus. But it also fits into a traditional Republican caricature of politicians who come from the lefty college town of Boulder. For instance, Caldara of the Independence Institute recently nominated Polis for his group’s “Californian of the Year” award, saying Polis dresses like “Mork from Ork,” and that trying to achieve his energy goals without mandates “makes him a unicorn-chasing Californian we all can be proud of.” (Polis and Caldara both live in Boulder, by the way, and, incidentally, Mork, the fictitious alien played by Robin Williams in the 1970s TV show Caldara references, landed in Boulder when he came from outer space.)
On Sunday, dressed in sneakers, slacks, and a buttoned-up polo near a fireplace mantel hung with Christmas stockings, Polis told the suburban living-room crowd about his background of starting and selling Internet companies and the hundreds of jobs he created in the process. When a woman asked his stance on LGBT issues, Polis said he would be a governor who would stand up against any president who tried to divide Coloradans and he took the opportunity to take a swipe at Tom Tancredo, the immigration hardliner ex-GOP Congressman who is running for governor on a platform of banning so-called sanctuary cities.
In his stump speech, Polis talked about his history of giving back to the community by creating schools for immigrant and homeless youth in Denver, and how he won a seat on the state board of education at the age of 25 where he served six years and became its chairman. In 2008, Polis ran for Congress when then-U.S. Rep. Mark Udall jumped up to the U.S. Senate.
In the car on the way to Parker on Sunday, Polis said he never planned to stay in D.C. very long but didn’t expect he would run for governor. And he probably wouldn’t have, he said, if former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar had run. Over the summer, Arvada Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter announced his own bid for governor— perhaps becoming an instant front-runner— but then dropped out shortly after Polis jumped in. Perlmutter said he and Polis agree on almost everything and Polis getting in the race was a factor in his decision to get out. Salazar and Perlmutter had made a deal that if one ran the other wouldn’t, but Polis says he wasn’t part of that conversation. Following Polis’s entry into the race and Perlmutter’s exit, Democratic consultant Steve Welchert, who worked for Perlmutter, said on a TV program, “Don’t be surprised if you hear drumbeats for Ken Salazar to come save the party … if Polis is the nominee we risk losing the governor’s office, that’s too big a deal.”
So far that hasn’t happened. But since Polis announced, Lt. Gov. Lynne got in the race, saying Perlmutter’s exit was a defining moment in her decision. For his part, Polis says his voting record in Congress is almost identical to Perlmutter’s.
With Donald Trump in the White House, Polis says, national policies on education and the environment are going the wrong way. He wants to offer universal statewide kindergarten, which doesn’t exist in Colorado, and get the state on 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2040. State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican who is also running for governor, has said a major reason he is running is that he thinks Polis wants to “end” the energy industry in Colorado. Polis says that has never been his position.
Another Polis proposal is to make the state ground zero for employee-owned companies by wooing those that offer profit-sharing to their workers. He would offer state contracts to companies that do so, and create a state entity to assist companies that want to offer a stake in their business to employees. He wants to widen roads, but also run a passenger train from Pueblo to Fort Collins and create more bike lanes to ease congestion. He supports single-payer healthcare and said as governor he would try to work with other states that also want single-payer to create an interstate consortium.
“I just didn’t hear any other candidates that were talking about these big, bold ideas that I thought our state needed,” Polis said in an interview. “I saw a void there.”
As he travels the state campaigning for governor and talking about these ideas, though, the question about how a Governor Polis would fund these proposals inevitably comes up, as it did on Sunday in the living room in Parker.
“How do we pay for it?” asks Dave Perrett, who says he is undecided in the race.
Polis starts out by telling those in the room that as they try to get votes for him from their moderate and conservative friends and neighbors they should know he’s a “fiscally responsible person” who sponsors a balanced budget amendment in Washington. He tells Perrett that when it comes to state infrastructure he would do polling and political research to find out how Coloradans are willing to pay, but he wouldn’t agree to a scenario in which lower-income residents pay more than those who are well off. As for education and statewide kindergarten, Polis has said that would take a ballot measure, but his energy plan would not.
“I don’t pretend to know the answers,” Polis tells Perrett about funding. “It’s not how Jared Polis wants to pay for it— it’s not even how you want to pay for it— it’s how your more conservative friends and neighbors want to pay for it. Do they want a gas tax? I don’t know. Do they want a [hike in] vehicle registration? I don’t know what people want— you find that through political research.”
Polis said he has experience with that kind of research, including helping craft past successful statewide ballot measures and mill levies and bonds to fund education. Voters in Colorado are willing to “step up and invest” when they know exactly what they’ll get, he said, referencing a five-year time out on the revenue-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment and tax initiatives for tobacco and marijuana.
“Voters are never going to give a blank check to their government or Denver politicians,” he said, adding that building a coalition to craft a ballot measure would be key. “It will be targeted and spent in a way that you, the moderate voters in this state, know that there’s accountability that’s built into it.”
When a man asked Polis where he stood on regulating guns, Polis said he would want to ban bump stocks, gun parts that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like they’re illegal automatic weapons. He said bringing sportsmen into the gun safety discussion is important. “You’ll find the vast majority of them, unlike their national mouthbox, the NRA, are actually very reasonable,” he said. “They don’t use bump-stocks for sport.”
Following his pitch, Polis walked toward Perrett, who had asked him about funding his plans. “Did I answer your question?” he asked. “Honestly, no,” Perret told him. Polis said he isn’t trying to be evasive even though it might seem that way.
“I can’t give you a straight answer,” Polis said. “But it’s not because I don’t want to— I wish I had it. It’s because it’s not so much my idea but what will fly with people.”
Back at the front door of her home, Williamson, the Republican-turned-independent Polis supporter, was saying goodbye to guests and talking up her Democratic choice for governor in a primary in which his statewide electability is an open question.
“Candidates have to be a package,” she said. “They have to be electable, and I feel Jared is electable.”