In Congress, so-called ‘Boulder liberal’ Jared Polis hasn’t always acted like one

How Jared Polis gets what he wants: Part 3

Jared Polis speaks at TEDxBoulder in 2010. (Photo by David Fellows via Flickr)

This is part of The Colorado Independent’s four-part series on Jared Polis, Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor. You can click directly to Part 1 (Polis’s early years and business career), Part 2 (Polis’s entry into Colorado politics and his role in the Democratic takeover of the state) or Part 4 (Polis’s run for governor), and you can also listen to reporter Alex Burness discuss this series on The Colorado Independent’s Indycator podcast.

In 2008, Mark Udall was giving up his seat in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District to run for U.S. Senate. The since-redrawn district then covered Boulder County, Thornton, Northglenn, Westminster and mountain towns along I-70. It now includes Fort Collins and Loveland as well.

Though Jared Polis spent most of his childhood in southern California, his family would frequently return to Boulder and to their cabin in Vail. Polis moved back to Boulder after college and met his partner, Marlon Reis, there. The two are raising their children in a luxury condo off of Pearl Street.

When his second hometown’s congressional seat came open, he pounced.

Before he entered the race, many had seen Joan Fitz-Gerald, Colorado’s first woman state Senate president and later that chamber’s minority leader, as Udall’s heir apparent. All three of Polis’s past Gang of Four allies — Tim Gill, Rutt Bridges and Pat Stryker — endorsed her.

At that time, Polis had also rankled Democrats, Republicans and lobbyists alike by bankrolling Amendment 41, a 2006 ballot measure that created the Colorado Ethics Commission and put rigid limits on gifts legislators and public employees can receive from lobbyists. It was partially inspired by a report from Colorado Common Cause that found lobbyists paying for access to lawmakers with expensive meals and sports tickets.

The measure banning lawmakers from taking any gifts at all from lobbyists and prohibiting public employees and their families from receiving gifts valued above $50 was lauded as a step — albeit an imperfect one — toward loosening the grip big business has on the state. Voters approved it by a nearly two-to-one margin on Election Day in 2006.

Still, the amendment deteriorated some relationships at the Capitol, and had the effect of regulating gift-giving so strictly it created a slew of unintended consequences.

Lobbyists couldn’t so much as buy lawmakers cups of coffee with clear consciences under Amendment 41, which some around the Capitol started calling Jared’s Law. Then-state Sen. Norma Anderson, a Lakewood Republican, said she couldn’t spend more than $50 on her grandchildren because her daughter was the clerk and recorder in Jefferson County at the time. The Denver Post reported a planning commissioner in northern Colorado resigned because two of her children were receiving scholarships at the Colorado School of Mines, and she said Amendment 41 put her in conflict. And a campus cop in Denver said Amendment 41 chilled his free speech rights because he couldn’t collect more than $50 from co-workers for a fundraiser to help someone whose son had died.

Polis acknowledged that the measure could have been better worded, but defended its creation of a formal process for ethics complaints to be evaluated, which did not exist previously.

Looking back now, says Boulder Democrat Alice Madden, the former House majority leader, “there were certainly a few hiccups along the way … but I think it has been a good thing for the state.”

When Fitz-Gerald and Polis squared off in the primary in 2008, Fitz-Gerald raised almost $2 million, but Polis flexed his financial might just as he had in his run for the education board, pouring $7.3 million, mostly from his own bank account, into what that year would end up among the most expensive primary contests in the country. Polis’s self-funding in that campaign smashed previous state records since and has been eclipsed only by his gubernatorial bid this year.

Polis won the seat by defeating Fitz-Gerald by 4 points in the Democratic primary before beating Republican Scott Starin, a veteran of the aerospace industry, by 23 points in the general election.

During the campaign, Polis came out publicly as gay. His friends and family had known since he was in college, but, he says, he felt an uncomfortable pressure to tell the world before the election. The Boulder Daily Camera broke the news.

“What was a little weird was it had to be sort of official and in print, because otherwise it looked like I might be hiding something, even though I wasn’t. There had to be something on record,” he says today.

Polis has never been one to emphasize his sexuality — or much of anything personal — during his campaigns.

If he wins the governorship in November, he’d become the first openly gay man ever elected governor in the United States. He’s also a practicing Jew who’s one of just two Jewish people elected to the House of Representatives from Colorado (Ken Kramer is the other), and he could become the first in the state to be elected governor. Rarely has he mentioned his faith or sexual identity in his campaign, though during the primary he did give a speech to Democrats saying he would be proud to be the first openly gay elected governor in the country — a sentiment he punctuated with the declaration, “Take that Mike Pence.”

“I don’t wear any of those things on my sleeve,” he says. “But I’m happy to talk about them whenever they come up.”

His family, notably, is also not much of a feature in his campaign. Reis, a writer who Polis says spends most of his time taking care of their kids, Caspian and Cora (ages 7 and 4), is not often seen on the trail, and is almost never heard from. He’s given only a handful of interviews since Polis entered politics, and a spokeswoman for Polis’s campaign declined a request to speak with Reis for this story. The campaign also declined to respond when asked what kind of writer Reis is, and whether he remains active in that role.

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This June, on the night Polis secured the Democratic nomination for governor, The Independent approached a joyful Reis while he was celebrating the win with supporters, and asked for an interview. He agreed, but seconds later Polis swooped in and said, “He’s not doing any media. Sorry.” The interview never happened.

“We want to maintain the privacy of the family,” Polis later explained. “And so that’s why (Reis) and our kids are not out front in a public way.”

And yet, he ran an ad earlier this year featuring his son.

That he is gay and Jewish comes up much less frequently in public than the two words that have become more of an epithet in this campaign than a description: Boulder liberal. It’s generally invoked to mean pro-tax, socially liberal, self-righteous and snooty. Some believe that, when applied to Polis, it can also be a subtle reference to his sexuality.

“I do think that there has been a lot of coded language around Jared Polis being from Boulder and I do think there has been some homophobic undertones to a lot of statements,” Leslie Herod, the state representative from Denver, told The Independent this summer.

Polis has called some descriptions of himself “dog-whistle” attacks.

Still unpredictable

Since being elected in 2008, Polis has cruised to four re-elections without any serious challenge. As a congressman, he has shown himself to be a bit unpredictable, just as he did on the state education board.

He’s on the record calling Ayn Rand one of his favorite authors. He opposed a ban on assault weapons after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2013, saying that it would violate the Second Amendment, though he’s since reversed that position. He supports privatizing the U.S. Postal Service, stands with Libertarians in opposing government surveillance, and even sits as the lone Democrat among Republicans on the House Liberty Caucus.

He surprised and offended some in his deep-blue constituency when in 2016 he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a (now defunct) trade pact unpopular among many left-wingers who believed it was friendly to corporations but not to workers or the environment.

A review of Polis’s voting record in Congress shows his is a reliably blue vote — he’s sided against Donald Trump 84 percent of the time — but also that he has an above-average appetite for bipartisan legislation, as evidenced most directly by his experience on the House Rules Committee.

The committee, on which Polis has served for all 10 of his years in D.C., is the bouncer of Congress. Nothing gets to the floor without passing through it, and Rules members are tasked with deciding how long a bill should be debated and which amendments might be needed. Rules meets more frequently  than any other committee, often gathering for many hours at a time, at all hours of the day.

The Democrats have been out of power for four of Polis’s five terms, which means that he and fellow Democrats on Rules can’t stop legislation from reaching the House floor. They’re outnumbered nine to four, and so their task is to try to mitigate harm they perceive in bills where and when they can while understanding that the best they can usually hope for is a measure they find imperfect, but on which they feel they’ve made some meaningful indentation.

According to congressional records, Polis has pushed more amendments to the floor than any other Democrat on the committee — an indication of relative adeptness at working with Republicans. He’s dogged and comes to committee meetings better prepared than most, says his Democratic colleague and fellow Rules member Jim McGovern of Massachusetts..

“It’s the place democracy goes to die,” McGovern says of the committee. “Republicans are afraid of a fair fight and I think what Jared tries to do is ensure there is a fair fight.”

McGovern and several others interviewed for this story say Polis isn’t exactly the type to cut backroom deals or twist arms, but rather that he’s opportunistic, and gets his way by forging unlikely partnerships.

“He’s someone who is good at convincing you that it’s in your interest to favor a particular issue,” McGovern said. “He has the skill to persuade people, to try to build relationships with people nobody thinks he would.”

Former staffer Danielle Oliveto recalls that during staff retreats, “Jared would always bring in people from the other side to talk to us. No matter how many of us would groan to have some guy come in from some libertarian organization, he wanted us to have that mentality.”

According to the nonpartisan watchdog GovTrack, Polis was 11th most effective last year among the House’s nearly 200 Democrats at securing bipartisan co-sponsorship of his bills and resolutions. Since 2008, he’s co-sponsored legislation with 72 different Republicans, including 10 bills with U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora.

Adds former Polis staffer Kristin Lynch, “Once he’s looked at a problem and made a decision, he’s relentless in getting things done, and that’s when you see, sometimes, some strange bedfellows.”

Little scrutiny

When it comes to liberal causes, the Rules Committee is often the only place any fight goes down, since Democratic legislation is unlikely to ever see daylight in the Republican controlled House. For all his relative success in working across the aisle, Polis, like other Democrats, doesn’t get his way very often. He has offered up the Dream Act as an amendment six times this Congress, for example, and has failed each time. (He’s passionate about that issue, and once went viral for screaming his frustrations on the House floor.)

Polis has been a primary sponsor on only two bills that were enacted, and both concerned issues specific to his district. A representative’s total number of enacted bills is not necessarily an accurate measurement of effectiveness, particularly if he or she is a member of the minority. Polis has made his mark more by pitching in on causes related to two of his interests, education and technology. Congressional colleagues say he played a critical role in helping to thwart internet censorship laws, including two bills in 2012 that would have shut down giant swaths of online content with little accountability or process. They also laud his work in the rewriting of No Child Left Behind. Almost half of the 168 bills he has sponsored as a congressman have concerned education.

The Colorado Independent reached out to several House Republicans who’ve worked closely with Polis. Many of them count Polis as a friend, and some have said so publicly over the years. But with the election coming up, none was interested in discussing the Democrat’s bid for governor.

U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia, who works on Rules with Polis, has a “packed schedule” and couldn’t talk, a spokesman said. Ditto for another Rules colleague, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. Ken Buck, who represents northeast Colorado and also sits on Rules, never returned a call. A spokesman for Colorado’s Mike Coffman, whom Polis said years ago he “really likes,” called Polis a “two-faced liar,” telling The Independent that Polis hasn’t been nice to Coffman of late, then failing to follow up on an interview request.

The bulk of Polis’s day-to-day work in Washington has gone unnoticed in Colorado. That’s in part because there have been almost no local eyes on Polis’s work in Congress, save for a one-person Denver Post news bureau that no longer exists. Polis acknowledged in a recent interview that his congressional record has not been subject to much scrutiny from the Colorado press.

That’s been true in good times and bad. His effectiveness on matters including internet freedom, marijuana laws (he’s been a consistent and outspoken supporter of legalization) and education have gone mostly unreported in Colorado, as has the fact that he has a poor attendance record for House votes. Polis has missed 5.4 percent of votes since he entered Congress, which is more than twice as many as the average member. He says his attendance numbers dropped because of the votes he missed during the 2013 flood in his district and during the births of his kids.

In fact, the biggest story of Polis’s career as a congressman didn’t even take place in D.C. It was a fight he waged in Colorado four years ago over fracking — a central issue in this election, and one that’s forced Polis to do more politicking than he ever had to do as a comfortable incumbent from Boulder.

This is part of The Colorado Independent’s four-part series on Jared Polis, Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor. You can click directly to Part 1 (Polis’s early years and business career), Part 2 (Polis’s entry into Colorado politics and his role in the Democratic takeover of the state) or Part 4 (Polis’s run for governor), and you can also listen to reporter Alex Burness discuss this series on The Colorado Independent’s Indycator podcast.

Alex cut his teeth as the Boulder Daily Camera's city hall reporter and, prior to that, as an education reporter at the Loveland Reporter-Herald. He's interested in city issues, governance and homelessness, and he once spent two months investigating the suspicious death of a backyard rooster. Alex is a D.C. native who's lived in Illinois, Chile and now Denver.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I noticed a little mistake in this article. It mentions the Sandy Hook massacre as occurring in 2005. I believe that was in 2012.

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