New sheriff, new town: Jared Polis takes reins from Hickenlooper in a vastly different Colorado

The 43rd governor inherits a Democratic state government, a smoking economy and jobs to spare

Jared Polis, left, with his partner Marlon Reis by his side, center, is sworn in as Colorado's 43rd governor and the first openly gay man elected to lead a U.S. state. John Hickenlooper, whose gubernatorial term ended today, can be seen clapping on the far left. (Photo by Evan Semón for the Colorado Independent)

Colorado had never seen an Inauguration Day like it did on Tuesday.

It had never seen a governor-elect descend the Capitol steps in blue sneakers, which Jared Polis did on Tuesday.

Nor had it ever seen an openly gay governor, which Polis became when, with partner Marlon Reis by his side, he was sworn into office at noon. Neither had any other state.

Colorado had never seen a Jewish governor take state constitutional office, either. Three of the four executives sworn in on Tuesday — Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser and Secretary of State Jena Griswold — are Jewish.

And, as some noted during the inauguration ceremony, not in recent history had it seen so many Democrats in power at once.

When former Gov. John Hickenlooper gave his first inaugural address eight years ago, he was joined by three Republican executives: Attorney General John Suthers, Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Secretary of State Scott Gessler. The state legislature was split.

Not only does Polis enter office under opposite circumstances, but he inherits a very different Colorado than Hickenlooper did. In 2011, unemployment in Colorado was at 9 percent and the state was struggling to add jobs. The deficit stood at $1 billion.

Today, the budget is balanced and the state is adding so many jobs so quickly that many are worried Colorado’s beauty and economic health are attracting an unsustainable volume of visitors, businesses and new residents.

“We have transformed Colorado’s economy into the envy of the nation,” Polis said during his inaugural address. “We have plowed through the tough times and overcome them together.

“Our mission now is to build on that legacy and make Colorado’s success work for everyone in our state, from Grand Junction to Yuma, from Trinidad to Fort Collins.”

Polis spoke for about 15 minutes. He thanked a lot of people and talked about Colorado’s promise and greatness. He did not mention any specific policy goals and if one didn’t know of him to begin with, one might have walked away with no sense of the man’s politics.

He’ll offer more clarity on that front Thursday, when he gives his first State of the State address. Many will be watching to see which Polis shows up then, and as he moves forward — the progressive (with more than a dash of Libertarian) that he was in Congress, or the cautious, Hickenlooper-esque centrist who moderated his tone during his gubernatorial campaign?

Hickenlooper offered a speech of his own at the inauguration, reflecting on how he’s observed Colorado transform in recent years from a state people would “pity.”

“Today, I think we are looked up to with a certain reverence,” he said.

Hickenlooper bid farewell by saying, “One last time: Giddy up.”

In the coming weeks, Hickenlooper is expected to announce whether he’ll move ahead with a presidential campaign he recently said he was leaning toward. “Giddy Up” is the name of the PAC he’s used to fundraise and travel the country as he explores a possible run. Late Tuesday at the ball honoring Polis, Hickenlooper told the crowd of about 3,000, “This may be my last day as a public servant, at least for a while,” and before he could finish the sentence, people started whooping and cheering him on.

Inauguration Day in Colorado. (Photo by Evan Semón)

Tuesday’s ceremony ran for about 90 minutes and included blessings from leaders in the Ute, Sikh, Baptist and Jewish communities. Two women read poems.

Below the state Capitol, about 2,000 people gathered to watch the inauguration. With their hands shading their eyes from the sun, they watched the speeches on a television screen. Some gathered inside a fenced-off area. Others leaned on their bikes in Civic Center Park. Some walked by and paused to view the inauguration before moving on. Many people said they lived in Denver, and some said they came from Boulder, Polis’s hometown.

“It’s just a historic moment to see an openly gay man in office,” said Annika Mayer, a 20-year-old from Evergreen, who herself is openly gay. “It’s a really historic and personal moment.”

Gay icons Barbra Streisand and Cyndi Lauper, who performed at Polis’s inaugural ball, congratulated the governor on Tuesday, as did the television host Andy Cohen, who sent a video message played at the ball.

“It just seems like a big step forward. We’re starting to come together as a community and as a nation,” said Francisco Alvarado, a 16-year-old from Denver.

Gregg Looker, a 68-year-old from Stapleton, said he recently received a check from Polis’s campaign for $80 for exceeding what he said was a donation limit. “He’s not going to be tainted by rich special interests.”

Many supporters said they hope Polis will move the state on climate change.

“We’re looking forward to working with him to address the climate crisis in Colorado,” said Seth Harrison, the state director for Defend Our Future, an environmental advocacy group.

Molly Enright, a 27-year-old from Boulder, who said she interned with Polis when she was in college, said she hopes he will offer industry-focused solutions to climate change, such as offering job training to people who work in coal or the oil and gas industry so they can transition into renewables.

“I’m just really excited. He’s really good at being bipartisan,” Enright said.

Ryan Hardy, a 28-year-old from Boulder, said he started volunteering with the campaign in 2018. “I spent 11 months just knocking doors,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and I’m happy to see it end like that.”

After the speech, many said Polis came off as positive and unifying, though one person described it as “gloriously cheesy.”

For Rick Bryant, a 60-year-old from Denver, the speech, delivered by the nation’s first openly gay man to win a governor’s mansion, meant that “our state is not judgmental and divisive.

“Our state overcame that.”