Jared Polis cut in line to run for governor. Now he’s playing it safe.

How Jared Polis gets what he wants: Part 4

Polis Wins
Jared Polis addresses supporters after winning the Democratic primary for governor in June. (Photo by Evan Semón)

This is the fourth and final part in a series about Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor. Part 1 examined Jared Polis’s early years. Part 2 examined his entry into Colorado politics and his role in the Democratic takeover of the state. Part 3 examined his congressional career. You can also listen to reporter Alex Burness discuss his series on Jared Polis on The Colorado Independent’s Indycator podcast.

Sue Suh recalls a meal she shared with her senior seminar shortly before graduating from Princeton in 1996. Her professor took the class out for lunch, then asked what each student had planned for his or her future.

Her memory of that lunch stuck with her so vividly, she says, because of the way one classmate, a politics major from San Diego named Jared Schutz, answered the professor.

“Jared said, ‘I would love to be governor of Colorado,’” remembers Suh, who’s now a talent recruiter in New York. “We were all, what, 21, 22 years old, and I definitely teased him for that. But really I was impressed that he had that vision for himself.”

Polis, now 43, may realize his vision in November, when Coloradans will vote to put him or Republican Walker Stapleton in the governor’s mansion. But as recently as early last year, few – maybe not even Polis himself – had any sense that he would take his chance this election cycle.

As big a political surprise as Polis’s decision was get into the race, anyone who has paid close attention to his political career could well have seen it coming. He’s never been one to wait his turn. He came from nowhere to run for the State Board of Education at 25. He jumped the line in challenging and beating an establishment favorite in his run for Congress 10 years ago. His entire life, dating back to his early teens, has been propelled by a certain level of comfort developing and then following through on ambitious plans, often ahead of his time.

This was supposed to be Ed Perlmutter’s year — at least, that was the case once former U.S. Senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in March 2017 he wasn’t running. Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat who’s represented the north and west suburbs of Denver in Congress since 2007, launched his bid for governor in April. He’s well-liked in his district, experienced in Colorado politics, and was immediately viewed as a front-runner because of his longstanding connections with nearly every segment of the Democratic base, from environmentalists to labor to Hispanics to moderate suburbanites.

Before announcing his candidacy, Perlmutter had a conversation with Polis, his colleague in Colorado’s congressional delegation for a decade. Three sources with knowledge of that exchange say Perlmutter told Polis of his intentions, and Polis said he’d stay out of the way.

So, Perlmutter entered the race believing Polis would not enter the primary. It was an important thing to be sure of: Polis is smart, he’s similarly experienced in Congress, and he hasn’t lost an election since college. Perhaps most significant to Perlmutter’s calculus was Polis’s proven record of funnelling so much personal cash into his own campaigns that no opponent can hope to keep pace on the finance front.

In the weeks that followed Perlmutter’s announcement in the spring of 2017, however, Polis got to thinking that maybe he should enter the race, says a source close to both men who did not want to be seen as bad-mouthing Polis.

“It seemed like this spur-of-the-moment thing, where you could see the wheels turning in Jared’s mind, thinking, ‘Why should I leave this chance just to Ed?’” says the longtime Colorado political insider. “That makes it sound very ego-driven, but I think it was in large part.”

Two former staffers in Polis’s congressional office told The Independent they’d never seriously discussed a 2018 gubernatorial bid with the congressman. “Nobody expected it. His staff wasn’t prepared for this, and was surprised,” says the source close to Polis and Perlmutter. “I think Jared’s very smart and very sure of himself, and he acts on instinct oftentimes.”

Polis jumped like a cannonball into the pool of governor hopefuls on a Sunday in June of 2017, tweeting, “I’m running for Governor to protect what keeps CO special, 100% renewable energy, economy that works 4 all!” The candidate whose political climb was powered largely by his dot-com business success held an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit that same day.

Polis’s entry immediately changed the race: If nothing else, it put serious financial pressure on Perlmutter and the rest of the Democratic field, which at that time included Mike Johnston, Cary Kennedy and Noel Ginsburg.

Not one month after Polis announced his run, Perlmutter withdrew.

“It takes time and it takes money and it takes energy,” Perlmutter told a melancholy crew of supporters in Golden when he formally announced he was dropping out, “Putting all those together, I found looking down deep it was going to be a tough road to hoe.”

He said nice, if circumspect, things about Polis, and explained he didn’t feel the “fire in the belly” to stay in the race. He declined to be interviewed for this story, instead issuing a written statement in which he said his decision to withdraw was based on “a lot of factors.”

But Perlmutter almost certainly would not have quit had Polis stayed out of the race. It was widely understood that Polis was as much a factor in extinguishing Perlmutter’s belly-fire as anyone or anything else.

Polis denies having betrayed his longtime congressional colleague, who apparently recaptured his fire when he announced four months later that he’d seek re-election in the 7th District.

“He knew that there was a chance I was going to run. I think part of him hoped that I wouldn’t,” Polis said in a June interview. “We retained our friendship.”

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“People always underestimate Jared”

The prospect of Polis winning the governorship — the most recent poll shows him seven points up on Stapleton — wasn’t a sure thing when he entered the race. He’d have to contend with a big and formidable field of Democratic primary opponents. Former state Treasurer Kennedy had strong backing from teachers’ unions and, in the first election since Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, seemed to harness the enthusiasm of voters eager to see Colorado elect its first female governor. Former state Sen. Johnston had the support of Michael Bloomberg and other deep-pocketed education reformers, and seemed to be energizing young voters. And Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne seemed early on to have the nod from the business community and her boss, Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In such a crowded field, many political observers wondered if Polis, who’d been labeled a “Boulder liberal,” could win statewide.

Polis had a slow start in the primary race, eclipsed by Kennedy, who dominated both the March caucuses and the April party assembly.

Even after Kennedy’s springtime run of success, Polis maintained a narrow lead in the polls, thanks to mailers, TV ads and get-out-the-vote efforts with which he carpet-bombed the state with his own cash, close to $1 million combined from the Sierra Club and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, plus a fraction raised from individual donors, whose donations he capped at $100 apiece.

Kennedy lost momentum when the independent PAC Teachers for Kennedy went after Polis and Johnston in an ad that offered misleading characterizations of the pair’s positions on education. By national mudslinging standards, it was mild stuff, but it made headlines in Colorado because the Democratic primary rivals had agreed ahead of time to keep their campaigns clean.

Gov. Hickenlooper, who famously once filmed an ad in a shower to demonstrate his commitment to clean campaigning, said he was “really disappointed” in the ad, which Kennedy didn’t denounce, and he publicly wondered whether it would hurt her in the primary. Polis released an ad in response, in which a group of teachers condemned Kennedy for breaking the clean campaign promise, and questioned whether her other promises could be believed.

On June 26, voters made clear whom they preferred. Not a half an hour after polls closed, it was clear that Polis, with 43 percent of the vote, would trounce Kennedy (26 percent), Johnston (24 percent) and Lynne (8 percent), to snag the Democratic nomination.

Polis spent $10 million of his own money on the primary alone, smashing a self-funding record he set 10 years prior. The money he poured into the race was so unprecedented that during one Democratic debate, Lynne lamented that the governor’s mansion appeared to be “for sale.”

Over the state’s previous eight general election cycles, only four other candidates – Republicans Joe Coors, Jack Graham, Pete Coors and Bob Beauprez – had put more than $1 million of personal cash into their races. Victor Mitchell, a candidate in this year’s Republican primary race for governor, joined that list when he spent about $4 million. But both Joe and Pete Coors plus Graham, Beauprez and Mitchell all lost.

Polis’s campaign bristles at any suggestion he’s tried to buy this race, and Polis himself said during one primary debate that he was only spending big in order to keep pace with Johnston. (He wound up outspending Johnston and his PACs by $3.5 million — almost as much as Kennedy’s camp spent in total.)

Polis is reluctant to discuss his wealth. This was apparent in recent investigations by The Aurora Sentinel and CBS4 into his finances. Polis, like Stapleton, has declined to release recent tax filings, which would give the public a better sense of his assets and net worth. Also like Stapleton, Polis says he has a blind trust, meaning he’s transferred control of nearly all of his assets — save for those related to private property and “legacy investments,” a spokeswoman told The Sentinel — to a trustee and no longer know what assets they’re holding. Polis says he does this to avoid any possible conflicts of interest, but his campaign would not comment when asked by CBS4 last month how much of his wealth is tied up in the trust.

Andy Schultheiss, a former staffer who ran Polis’s philanthropies a decade ago and later managed his congressional campaign, said money is only part of the story. Polis wins, Schultheiss says, because he has a loyal army of supporters. He’s especially popular in Boulder, in the cannabis industry, the tech world, among LGBTQ groups and young voters. He leads Stapleton by 54 points among 18-34-year-olds, according to an Oct. 2 poll.

“People always underestimate Jared politically. Every time,” Schultheiss says. “A lot of people assume that the only thing he has going for him is his pocketbook. It’s not true. If you actually go to events with Jared, yeah, he’s goofy and he kind of dresses funny, but people really like him. He has this base that I don’t think a lot of people realize he has.”

Rosemary Rodriguez, a former Denver councilwoman, shares one example: Polis opened a chain of first-run Spanish-language movie theaters, opened schools for immigrant and undocumented kids and has advocated for fairer treatment of Latinos by police. People remember those gestures when elections roll around, she says.

“Jared has really put his neck out for a lot of individuals,” Rodriguez adds. “People in the community know who’s in their corner.”

Fracking flip

Well before the primaries were decided, Stapleton was talking about the urgency of defeating Polis. The state “can’t afford” Polis, Stapleton said over and over during the spring, and has said over and over in the months since.

Stapleton points to Polis’s campaign promises to provide free universal pre-K and kindergarten statewide. Polis says he’d pay for the program by building a “winning coalition” behind a ballot measure asking voters to increase taxes.

Stapleton also warns that Polis’s stances on oil and gas development would cost the state dearly. On almost every campaign stop, he mentions Polis’s record of anti-fracking involvement and says a vote for Polis could kill thousands of jobs in Colorado.

Republicans snipe at Polis’s support for single-payer health care and a statewide transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. They often portray the congressman as a radical progressive who, if elected, would usher in a much deeper blue era of politics than Colorado has ever seen.

Polis’s congressional record shows he has been a solid, if at times unpredictable, Democrat. But, not surprisingly, he has done what general election candidates for governor do: tack to the center.

The longtime ally to immigrant communities who founded charter schools that serve undocumented kids has, for example, downplayed the hot-button issue of sanctuary cities — that is, jurisdictions such as Denver and Boulder that limit public employee cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. His campaign website has a dropdown menu with a list of 13 different issues, including “CO workers,”  “blockchain,” and even “animal welfare.” Immigration is not among the 13, though he briefly addresses the issue under “agriculture.”

Polis’s lean toward the center can be seen in his opposition to a ballot measure that would increase the sales tax to pay for long-overdue transportation and transit needs in Colorado, and in his neutral position on Amendment 73, which would raises taxes on the wealthy to fund schools. But it perhaps most glaring on oil and gas drilling – the issue on which he made the most headlines and spent the most political capital before his bid for governor.

In 2013, Polis learned that an oil and gas company was fracking next to his second home in Weld County. He posted a short video in which he said he’d become a “face” of the anti-fracking movement. He spoke of the death of the “Colorado dream” that he and his partner, Marlon Reis, had carved out on their 50 acres near Berthoud — acreage that, to Polis’s chagrin, wound up abutting a drilling site.

Polis followed through on his video’s promise and put his weight — and money — behind stricter rules on fracking in Colorado. In 2014, he helped lead an effort to collect nearly 300,000 petition signatures for two proposed statewide ballot measures that terrified 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.

Activists and homeowners who had been challenging the oil and gas industry’s increasing presence in residential areas lauded him at the time as the rare Colorado politician who was willing and could afford to stick his neck out on behalf of his constituents and his beliefs.

This move to limit fracking was bolder and riskier than his push for Amendment 41, the lobbying transparency measure that won him plenty of critics seven years earlier. Again, Polis went rogue, crossing not only the deep-pocketed oil and gas industry, but also the Democratic power structure led by Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas geologist who once famously drank fracking fluid as a sign of his confidence that drilling is safe.

Hickenlooper opposed the Polis-backed regulations on fracking both on the merits of the measures and for political reasons: to avoid an expensive and explosive ballot fight that year, when he and former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall were seeking re-election.

After weeks of tense negotiations during the summer of 2014, Polis and Hickenlooper agreed to a compromise. Polis, in a rare turn, had backed down. The ballot measures were pulled.

The deal didn’t soften hard feelings among Hickenlooper and other party leaders who felt Polis’s action had endangered Democratic prospects throughout the ballot at a particularly sensitive time. Udall’s defeat that election to Republican Cory Gardner was a big blow to the party in Colorado and nationally.

Fractivists also felt Polis had forsaken them.

He’d scheduled a town hall event at a Boulder library for the day after the compromise was announced. When he showed up, he was mobbed by an incensed group of anti-fracking constituents who shouted “Shame!” and “You sold us out!” At that event, the documentary director Josh Fox, a national spokesman against fracking, described Polis’s agreement with Hickenlooper as a “betrayal.”

Some still aren’t over it. Polis was heckled by anti-fracking activists during a recent appearance at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s Energy Summit.

“The problem with Jared is I’m not sure which Jared will show up,” the environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez wrote in Facebook post 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?

Anti-fracking protesters shout at Jared Polis outside a town hall in Boulder that was held the day after Polis agreed to a fracking compromise with Gov. John Hickenlooper. (Photo by Paul Aiken/Daily Camera)

Polis was asked about that criticism during a recent candidate forum. “People who believe in you as an environmental champion still sometimes get confused on where you are on setbacks and oil and gas,” the event moderator told him. “Make it make sense for people who are like, ‘Well, what are you doing?’”

Polis responded, “Well, I think people kind of understand that I try to push where I can to protect our health and safety, for greater setbacks that allow property owners to have more rights, and people also realize I have to operate in the political arena to accomplish things that often involve compromise.”

This year, the expensive, explosive fracking fight many feared in 2014 has made the ballot, despite the fact that oil and gas interests helped pass a measure in 2016 making it more difficult for citizen-initiated measures to qualify. In November, Colorado voters will decide on a measure that, if passed, would require drilling rigs to be set back at least 2,500 feet from occupied structures and protected areas, such as water sources. The industry says it would be crippled by the measure if voters approve it, and that the economic ripple effects would be devastating.

Polis the congressman led the charge for 2,000-foot setbacks. Polis the candidate for governor opposes the 2,500-foot setbacks. When addressing industry representatives at the Energy Summit, he indicated that, should he be elected, oil and gas interests would find in him an open-minded collaborator.

Delicate balance

To seize the office he’s coveted since college, the boy in a hurry, who became the almost-overnight multi-millionaire, who became the out-of-nowhere state education board member, who became the jump-in-front-of-the-line candidate for Congress and the congressman unafraid of a fight, is doing something new: playing it safe.

The outlier who irked the party establishment in 2014 was named state Democrat of the Year in 2017. Throughout this year’s campaign, he has adopted a tone more like a seasoned statesman well-practiced in the delicate balance that winning a purple state requires.

He predictably has dumped a heap of additional cash into the race — more than $8 million of his own money since July — and blanketed the airwaves with ads. Those TV spots portray him as an advocate for all Coloradans, but don’t convey any especially progressive stance.

He has mostly refrained from sniping back at Stapleton, whose campaign’s first TV ad of the general election aired this week. Every sentence besides the first — “I’m Walker Stapleton.” — is a criticism of Polis.

The governor’s contest to date has been so lacking vibrancy that Steve Welchert, a longtime Democratic political consultant and the former campaign manager for Ed Perlmutter, was quoted by the Denver Post as saying this “is perhaps the most boring race in Colorado history.”

Polis is drowning the state in mailers and ads that no doubt up his profile, but, Welchert observed in June, they are not doing much to help people know him, and he struggles ”to create warmth, imbue trust, get people to come around to him.”

During interviews, Polis can be careful to the point of being cagey. When The Independent asked him recently by phone, for example, how many homes he owns, he deferred to his spokeswoman, who was also on the call. “Do you have any information on that?” he asked her, as if he didn’t know. It didn’t sound much like the Polis of just a few years ago, who would text with reporters and seemed always available for a call.

Once at odds with Hickenlooper, the work-with-all-sides centrist, Polis now appears to be drawing from the governor’s playbook.  At this stage of the campaign, with ballots dropping soon, with a lead in the polls, in a year that favors Democrats, there is no margin in ruffling feathers.

Rutt Bridges, who in 2005 briefly ran as a Democrat for governor, says he sees Polis as more of a pragmatist than his reputation suggests.

“I think in a lot of ways, he’s the same kind of Democrat that Hickenlooper is,” Bridges says. “He’s capable of bringing that business perspective that a lot of other Democrats aren’t able to see as clearly. They’re both entrepreneurs by nature and by spirit.”

Hickenlooper is weighing a presidential bid. That’s one thing Polis says they’ll never have in common. Though his career to date has been defined by seemingly limitless ambition, Polis insists he’ll have reached his ceiling with the governor’s office. Asked whether he’d ever run for president, he says, “Of course not. I’m focused on being the best leader for Colorado that I can.”

That, of course, is what you’d expect a politician to say, but in Polis’s case, it’s the right question. If there’s one thing most striking about his career, it is the pace at which he moves — taking one very large step at a time.

This is the fourth and final part in a series about Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor. Part 1 examined Jared Polis’s early years. Part 2 examined his entry into Colorado politics and his role in the Democratic takeover of the state. Part 3 examined his congressional career. You can also listen to reporter Alex Burness discuss his series on Jared Polis on The Colorado Independent’s Indycator podcast.

2 COMMENTS

  1. With Hick’s sights set on the presidency and Polis’ on the governor’s office, perhaps we can convince Perlmutter to give Cory Gardner a reason to (openly) become a paid Koch lobbyist in 2020.

  2. Wonderful profile and impressive reporting! Thank you for giving the people such in-depth insight into their candidates. I look forward to Stapleton’s pieces.

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