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Colorado Politics Exclusive: Jared Polis explains why he is thinking about running for governor

April 24, 2017 Updated: April 25, 2017 at 7:06 am
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Congressman Jared Polis, D-Boulder, is backing a movement to get two local control questions on the ballot asking voters to allow for more regulation of the oil and gas industry. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Leaning over a table in an upscale downtown Denver Mexican restaurant, Jared Polis eats nachos while energetically contemplating a run for governor.

"I'm going to be deciding in the next month or two whether or not to launch a statewide race for governor," Polis, a five-term congressman for the 2nd Congressional District, told Colorado Politics in his most extensive interview on the subject.

Wearing a blazer and a polo shirt, Polis' eyes light up as he talks about the possibilities: "I've been really focused on where I can make the biggest impact on improving our schools and protecting our environment and how to make these vast changes that are occurring work for Colorado families.

"There's a lot of frustration out there because people feel that the deck is stacked against them."

Polis' entrance into the gubernatorial race - an open seat next year with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper being term limited - could shakeup an already crowded Democratic primary. He has name recognition and wealth.

The congressman said he has already begun to reach out to friends and colleagues.

If Polis chooses to enter the race, he would be competing against another congressman, Ed Perlmutter, who announced a run for governor this month. Also in the race is former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who has proven that he can fundraise, and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy.

"They will both be well-resourced enough to increase that name recognition. That's one of the interesting aspects of just a Perlmutter versus Polis race, is we know Polis is a very well resourced candidate," said Kyle Saunders, a political expert at Colorado State University, pointing to the likely front-runners in the race. "How that would be brought to bear in a statewide race, we don't really know. But it is interesting in how that could manifest itself."

The 41-year-old openly gay congressman began seriously considering a run for governor after former Interior Secretary and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar in March announced that he would not seek the seat. Salazar was believed to be the party's standard-bearer in the race.

After Salazar contacted Polis to say that he would not pursue the state's executive office, Polis began to rethink his direction.

"I started to examine what is the best way for me to contribute," he said.

As a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, the former chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, and the founder of several charter schools, education remains a top priority. He would be competing against Jonhston, a former school principal, who has made education reform a focal point of his career.

Polis has the advantage of having won a statewide race in 2000 when he ran for the at-large position on the state Board of Education. Kennedy also has the advantage of having won a statewide race, when she became treasurer in 2006.

A life in innovation and business

Perhaps Polis' greatest asset is his ability to connect with the business and technology communities and his head for innovation. Polis started his first company in college at the age of 19, co-founding American Information Systems, which was an internet access provider dealing in dial-up modems.

The company was founded partly on money from selling a rare stamp that he stumbled upon. It was a "Legends of the West" stamp that erroneously featured the picture of the brother of famous African-American cowboy Bill Pickett. The stamp was very valuable.

Having grown up attending trade shows with his grandmother, Polis seemed to have an instinctual eye for business. Two years before he sold American Information Systems in 1998, Polis co-founded, an electronic greeting card website, which was sold in 1999.

But he didn't rest there. In 1998 Polis founded ProFlowers, an online florist that allowed people to send flowers directly from the grower to the consumer. It was an innovative way to think about the online florist industry in its early stages. The company went public in 2003 and was later acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Now I'm a retired florist," Polis joked. "I'm the only retired florist in Congress, and if I were to run for governor, I would be the first florist to be elected governor of this state."

Polis is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.

In 2006, Polis co-founded Techstars, a Boulder-based technology accelerator program that connects entrepreneurs with mentors and funding. In 2008, as he was campaigning for Congress, Polis would finish with campaign work at around 8 p.m. and then immediately head to Techstars to mentor participants.

"If Jared was governor he would help attract capital to our state and support startup friendly policies," said Brad Feld, a prominent voice in the Colorado startup world, who co-founded Techstars with Polis and others. "He's already been a big part of growing the Boulder area startup ecosystem and a lot of innovators and businesses would be excited if he chose to take that leadership to the state level."

Feld called Polis an "awesome entrepreneur, great leader and strong manager."

"He knows how to listen, has strong critical thinking skills, is very empathetic to different perspectives, and is able to look for ways to collaborate in search of a clear solution."

Close friend Polly Baca, a prominent Colorado Democrat and former state lawmaker, said of Polis, "Jared has always been an innovative out-of-the-box kind of thinker. He just embraces so much and he's just creative and innovative."

A curveball in a crowded Democratic race

Some Democratic observers have expressed concerns that Polis might complicate the Democratic primary, casting a shadow over the race. But Baca said she's not worried, pointing out that she is also a very close personal friend of Perlmutter and Johnston.

"They're all fine candidates. A primary is supposed to shake out who is the best candidate ." Baca said. "I was disappointed when Ken Salazar decided not to run, and now we have this amazing new group of candidates. It's always good for a political party to have movement."

Just as Perlmutter's announcement set into motion a fierce primary in the 7th Congressional District, a gubernatorial run by Polis would do the same in the 2nd Congressional District.

"It's a crowded field already, that's not a factor in my decision," Polis said. "The times call for someone who is bold and innovating."

The question is whether Polis will be able to combat his image as a wealthy member of Congress with a public that is wary of both politicians and the rich.

"When I envision the ads for that campaign, those are exactly the ads that the other side is going to run," Saunders said. "When you think about Polis in the 2nd District, the 2nd is a competitive district, but he's been able to fend off quality challengers simply because he has a large war chest. Most people don't want to run into that buzzsaw."

Unlike a run for Congress, Polis would face strict campaign contribution limits from businesses, corporations, unions, committees and individuals.

"If Polis does choose to run ... I have to think that his resources would be an advantage," Saunders said.

Polis shrugged off the notion that he would have a difficult time convincing Coloradans to support him, stating, "My message and my work ethic has always played well, even in the more conservative parts of the state."

His diverse district includes rural agricultural communities, resort towns and large cities.

A 'liberty' candidate focused on the environment

Polis focused much of his thinking on education during his one-one-one interview with Colorado Politics. But he also turned to oil and gas and "liberty" issues, such as marijuana legalization.

In 2014 Polis pushed Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, to create an oil and gas task force to address local control issues after Polis threatened to bankroll anti-fracking ballot initiatives. The issue is divisive in Democratic circles.

Polis said he supported efforts this year in the legislature to increase the distance of wells from schools and to enhance local control.

"What's important here is protecting peoples health and welfare," he said. "The state can do a better job doing that. These are common sense measures and I sure hope all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates are supportive of those measures."

The congressman also highlighted a focus on "freedom," pointing out that he not only supported Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in Colorado in 2012, but that he would also serve as "an ambassador for the cannabis success story of Colorado."

"I have no reluctance about being a national ambassador for our successes," he said. "It's a story that I think deserves to be told."

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