Jared Polis wants you to know he doesn’t answer to anyone but the people of Colorado. No “special interests” or corporations. No big individual donors. He says he’s unshackled and that’s why his campaign for governor has prioritized small meet-and-greet events with voters across the state instead of big-donor fundraisers. He could be spending time at Denver steakhouses courting support from millionaires, he says, but he insists that’s not the kind of person or politician he is.
As Polis tells it, he’s about bold ideas like Medicare for all, a statewide transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, and free universal pre-K and kindergarten.
He was the first openly gay parent in Congress and supported legalized cannabis and marriage equality before both causes were fashionable. He says he went maverick five years ago by rallying against the oil and gas industry with concerns about the environmental and public health threats of fracking.
His is a “refreshing” campaign, Polis said by phone near Vail Pass en route to a campaign stop earlier this month. He describes his opponents in the Democratic gubernatorial primary – former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne – as “status quo” candidates, boasting that he’s the only one among them who isn’t from Denver.
If he’s elected, he promises, he’ll fight back against President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and “anyone else who seeks to intervene in state law.” On that front, he says, he’s got a head start on his primary rivals, given that he’s spent the last year and a half opposing the administration from his seat in Congress.
Voters are taking note, he explains, of all of these ways he surpasses the competition, and they’re driving his bid for the governor’s mansion.
“It’s a people-powered campaign,” Polis says. “Other candidates have billionaire friends funding them, corporate friends funding them. In my case, if I have the opportunity to serve as governor, I won’t owe it to anyone except the voters.”
His own backer
If you’re going to bank on people power, as Polis says he does, it helps to also have financial power. The congressman –whose net worth the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimated in 2014 to be about $200 million, and possibly much more – bankrolls his campaigns at levels so high that, at 43, he has built a political career that’s already peppered with record-breaking achievements of campaign finance.
In his mid-20s, the Boulder native and Princeton grad benefitted from one of the dot-com era’s most extraordinary cash-outs, turning his family’s greeting card business, Blue Mountain Arts, into an e-card retailer, then selling it for $780 million to a company that sold it two years later for just $35 million. He also launched TechStars, a start-up accelerator, with three partners and co-founded American Information Systems and ProFlowers – both of which have since sold – among a dozen other businesses
Having turned himself into a multimillionaire, Polis decided he’d run for the State Board of Education in 2000. That’s a seat for which candidates typically spend in the tens of thousands of dollars. He dropped a record $1.2 million on his campaign, while his opponent spent just $10,000. Polis won by 90 votes. He was 26 years old.
In 2008, Polis won his congressional seat by defeating Joan Fitz-Gerald by 4 points in the primary before breezing to victory in the general election. Many had seen Fitz-Gerald, the first woman state Senate president in Colorado history and later the chamber’s minority leader, as a natural successor to Mark Udall, who vacated his seat in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District and became a U.S. senator.
Fitz-Gerald raised almost $2 million over 16 months during her campaign, but Polis raised $7.3 million, mostly from his own bank account, in what would end up among that year’s most expensive primary contests in the country. The money Polis put into his campaign in 2008 smashed the previous state record for candidate self-funding.
“It’s like watching a tsunami come,” Fitz-Gerald said at the time of the way Polis has drawn from his wealth to help win elected office.
In this year’s gubernatorial race, for which the primary election is June 26, Polis so far has spent $10.5 million of his own money. That’s roughly the same amount all candidates spent combined in the last governor’s race in 2014. It’s also more than the considerable combined expenditures made so far from outside groups – or, as Polis calls them, special interests – on behalf of other Democrats, like the pro-Johnston PAC Frontier Fairness and Teachers for Kennedy.
Polis brushes off the common suggestion that he’s bought his way into political office. He characterizes his massive self-funding efforts as just another way he’s uniquely liberated from “special interests.” His mantra is that he’s the only contender worthy of electing because he alone isn’t bought and paid for.
On multiple occasions this month, including at a candidate forum hosted by 9News, he has lobbed blanket criticisms of opponents whose campaigns are fueled by those interests, then declined to say specifically which candidates he sees as compromised and by whom.
“They all trouble me in the sense that we should have a governor that works for the people,” he says.
Over the state’s previous eight general election cycles, only four other candidates – Republicans Joe Coors, Jack Graham, Pete Coors and Bob Beauprez – poured more than $1 million of personal cash into their races. All lost. And if conventional wisdom and current polling prove accurate, Republican gubernatorial candidate Victor Mitchell, who’s loaned himself about $4 million, will join that list.
“Clearly,” Polis says, “money can’t buy victory.”
One reason that may be true, said Colorado Democratic strategist Steve Welchert, is that “as the stakes rise and the races get bigger and have a bigger platform, your money, while important, can be more easily used against you.”
This election cycle, Welchert was the campaign manager for Congressman Ed Perlmutter’s short-lived bid for governor. Perlmutter entered the race last May, then dropped out in July just weeks after Polis announced his candidacy. Discussing that turn of events, Polis says, “I think part of (Perlmutter) hoped I wouldn’t run.” The two congressmen say they’re friends.
Welchert, who has worked for former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and advised the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Al Gore and Barack Obama, says spending big money can have the consequence of overexposure. Compared to candidates with leaner budgets, he says, those like Polis can come off as “trying to be all things to all people.”
“Polis runs five different ads at the same time. It’s a scattergun approach,” he adds. “I think if you put 20 people in a room, they’d have a harder time defining Jared Polis’s brand. What’s he stand for?”
At the end of May, pollsters at right-leaning, Boulder County-based Magellan Strategies spoke with 500 likely voters in the Democratic primary, for a poll funded by a Texas energy analysis firm. While the firm’s report didn’t touch on how those voters perceive the candidates, it did indicate Polis is in a comfortable position ahead of the Democratic primary. He’s up 13 points on Kennedy, though 39 percent of respondents remained undecided, according to the poll, which had a 4.5-percent margin of error.
That apparent lead has helped Polis reclaim the headlines Kennedy had earlier seized after strong showings on caucus night in March and at the assembly in April.
He’s fond of noting that Kennedy, when trying to defend her state treasurer seat in the red wave mid-term election of 2010, outspent but still lost to Walker Stapleton, the current frontrunner Republican candidate for governor.
‘Ahead of my time’
Polis at one point tried to distinguish himself out of about 200 Democrats in the U.S. House by seeking to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The position would have vaulted him into the House leadership circle, and, though he made the final cut, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi picked Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico instead.
Four years later and five terms into his tenure in Congress, Polis is leaving D.C. These days, he believes, “the opportunity for innovation and moving forward is at the state level.”
Over the past decade, Polis has, by many measures, been more active than the average member of Congress. The nonpartisan Center for Effective Governance – a joint project of researchers at the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University that ranks lawmaker “effectiveness” based on 15 indicators – has often ranked him well above Colorado’s Democratic U.S. senators and Congress members.
In D.C., he has been a champion for immigration reform, early childhood education and drug policy reform, in particular.
But he may be best known for a fight he waged back home – a high-stakes stand-off over Colorado’s regulation of the oil and gas industry. It was the most significant blow-up of his political career, and it ended in a now-infamous compromise with outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper.
In 2013, Polis learned that a company was fracking next to his second home in Weld County and posted a short video detailing his willingness to become a “face” of the movement against oil and gas development. He spoke of the death of the “Colorado dream” that he and his partner, Marlon Reis – with whom he now has two kids, ages 3 and 6 – had carved out on 50 acres near Berthoud.
In 2014, Polis had helped collect nearly 300,000 petition signatures for two proposed ballot measures that greatly worried the state’s $30 billion oil and gas industry and its supporters. One would have required drilling rigs to be set back at least 2,000 feet from homes. The second aimed to add to the state Constitution a new “bill of rights” so local governments could have greater ability to set environmental protection laws.
Meanwhile, the industry was gathering signatures for two other ballot measures that would have barred local governments that prohibit oil and gas development from gleaning any oil and gas revenues from the state. It also would have required fiscal impact notes accompanying future ballot initiatives.
Hickenlooper – a former oil and gas geologist who opposed the Polis-backed regulations over the industry – sought to prevent an explosive ballot fight that year, when he was seeking re-election. So the governor scrambled to persuade Polis to drop his support of the anti-fracking measures in exchange for creating a new task force on oil and gas issues and agreeing to drop the state’s lawsuit against Longmont over local drilling regulations enacted there.
After weeks of tense negotiations during the summer of 2014, Polis acquiesced to Hickenlooper’s compromise.
The showdown helped Polis thrust concerns about fracking, and his own public profile, to the center of state politics. But it also made him enemies in both the moderate and left wings of his party.
Despite their compromise, he had crossed Hickenlooper, who, in addition to securing his own re-election that year, had aimed to avoid hurting the re-election campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall by drumming up greater support from the well-resourced industry and from Republican voters. Given the outlook of the electoral map that year, Polis was blamed for enabling the candidacy of Republican Cory Gardner, who unseated Udall.
Polis’s deal with Hickenlooper also left many in his anti-fracking base feeling alienated. In his hometown of Boulder, the Congressman was greeted with frenzied protest in the summer of 2014, and he still has not won back the trust of some environmental hardliners.
“The problem with Jared is I’m not sure which Jared will show up,” the activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez wrote this year. “Is it the Jared who collected the signatures to get local control and setbacks on the ballot or the Jared who pulled those same initiatives before Coloradans could vote on them?”
Polis’s 2014 oil and gas flap hurt him in the Democratic Party for which he always been a prolific fundraiser. He was part of the “Gang of Four” that spent big a decade earlier to blue-ify Colorado, and since 2009 he’s made at least one contribution of $100 or more to almost 200 different political groups, committees and candidates in Colorado alone. He has worked hard the past few years to fix his relationship with the party, which named him Colorado Democrat of the Year in 2017.
Looking back on the fracking showdown of four years ago, he acknowledges he may have pressed too hard: “I’m a future-oriented candidate and sometimes I am a little ahead of my time. I have to recognize that sometimes that’s a strength and sometimes that’s a weakness. I think I was talking about a lot of the worries communities had about fracking before it hit them.”
Polis has, at many points in his political careers, been at the vanguard of issues that later became popular among Democrats. He was an early and consistent opponent of the second Iraq War and an early supporter of legalized marijuana and gay marriage. He was the first congressman to accept campaign donations in Bitcoin.
He’s been speaking out in favor of immigration reform for a decade, well before most of his party’s leaders, and founded New America Schools, which has three campuses in Colorado and two in New Mexico, for young immigrant and undocumented students. Rosemary Rodriguez, a former Denver Councilwoman, says Polis has very much walked his talk when it comes to support of Latino and immigrant communities. She cites the schools he opened, his advocacy for fair treatment of Latinos by police and his founding of a first-run, Spanish-language cinema chain.
“The Spanish-speaking community can go see blockbuster movies, too,” she said. “It’s not just entertainment, but there’s dignity that comes with being able to see the latest Star Wars movie in your language.”
Rodriguez is joined in backing Polis by other prominent workhorses in Colorado’s Latina political scene, including former state lawmaker Polly Baca, former Denver Councilwoman Ramona Martinez, and Nita Gonzales, the educator, activist and daughter of Corky Gonzales.
Voters who support Polis tend to trust in his instincts and willingness to follow them, even, in some cases, when doing so is politically risky.
“I think he’s a very current politician,” said Andy Celani, a Boulder businessman. “He’s a very hard-working guy who doesn’t sit around, who spends time with constituents, who does a lot of non-campaign functions. … I would call him modern in that he’s addressing problems that may get broomed under the rug.”
Jared Polis at 2018 Democratic state assembly in Broomfield on April 14, 2018. Photo by John Herrick.
Some critics say Polis’s campaign promises are unrealistic.
For example, experts say that dramatically increasing Colorado’s renewable portfolio is achievable, but that achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, as Polis promises, could prove impossible without cooperation of major and municipal utilities alike, and without more capable, affordable energy storage technology than exists today. Besides, if he becomes governor, he’d be term limited in 2027 and there’s no guarantee his successor would continue working toward that goal.
Skeptics also question the realism of paying for universal pre-K and kindergarten when Colorado’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights already puts a chokehold on public education funding.
The Congressman addresses skepticism by describing himself as a free and critical thinker who doesn’t shy away from big ideas. He says, in response to a question about the feasibility of his 2040 energy target, “John F. Kennedy challenged America to go to the moon in 1961, and even though he didn’t live to see it, Americans were on the moon.”
Some in his own party see in Polis a libertarian streak. He opposed banning assault weapons because he said doing so would “make it harder for Colorado families to defend themselves,” though he since has changed that stance. He also has advocated for the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service, spoken out against government surveillance, and even sat as the lone Democrat on the House Liberty Caucus.
Republicans, meanwhile, paint Polis as a reliably extreme liberal.
In crafting this image, they point to his 2014 anti-fracking efforts and to various ways they predict he’d throttle the oil and gas industry as governor. GOP candidate Walker Stapleton, during his 9News debate performance June 7, pleaded with voters to help him stop Polis and policies that Coloradans “can’t afford.” Stapleton has also warned that Polis would try to turn Colorado into a “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants, something Polis says he would actually not seek to do. Rather, he says he supports local control on the sanctuary front, but no statewide policy.
It’s this depiction of Polis, deserved or not, as a lefty extremist that many cite as the reason conservative voters should hope he wins this month’s Democratic primary. Several Colorado Republican insiders say Polis would be the easiest general election opponent for Stapleton, or whoever emerges as the GOP nominee, to beat.
“Republicans like me and others would relish the opportunity to (face Polis) because he is so far out of the mainstream and has such a high profile of attacking some of the major industries and job creators in the state,” said former party chairman Ryan Call.
Offered Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, another ex-party chair: “I think there is kind of a general consensus among Republicans that Polis would be the weakest Democratic nominee because he has such a liberal record and reputation.”
During the 9News debate, Polis said such talk amounted to “reverse psychology” from a GOP that deep down fears him.
‘We’re talking about governing here’
On a hot Saturday in early June, Polis heads from a candidate forum to a meet-and-greet at the Denver home of his friend and former campaign manager, Wanda James, who owns a dispensary.
He struts in wearing a Creamsicle-orange polo, slacks and blue sneakers. It’s typical Polis garb; for all the positions he’s taken before they became popular, he’s got a hundred outfits that will never be in style, and he’s happy to joke about that.
“He may not grace the covers of Vogue magazine,” said Rick Palacio, the former chair of the state Democrats and current head of the Bold Colorado super PAC supporting Polis. “But the proof is in the pudding,”
In conversation, Polis can be friendly and inquisitive. But many see him as awkward, bordering on arrogant and lacking in charisma – not exactly the work-a-room type.
Asked about some of those labels, even James said, “They’re not unfounded,” before adding, “but we’re talking about governing here.”
Polis also frequently faces criticisms that he’s unelectable in Colorado’s highest-profile statewide race – assertions that tend to make mention of his roots in ultra-liberal, tax-friendly Boulder County. But state Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver, the first openly lesbian black woman elected to state office in Colorado, reads in these predictions a coded subtext about Polis’s sexual identity.
“I do think there has been some homophobic undertones to a lot of those statements, from Democrats and Republicans. The undertone is ‘because he’s gay,’” she said. Polis has called some of the descriptions of himself “dog whistle” attacks.
“Jared is not running because he’s gay,” Herod says. “He’s running because he has real, bold ideas that he wants to put to action.”
Those bold ideas, Polis told the crowd at James’s meet-and-greet, are his singular focus. When an older man at the event spoke up to ask if the American dream is “still possible,” Polis assured the man, “I wouldn’t be running if it wasn’t.”
“I don’t have to do this work,” he added. “I’m certainly not doing it to earn a living.”