Early on the night of Colorado’s June primary election, congratulations started pouring in for Jared Polis, the five-term congressman who bested three fellow Democrats on his way to handily winning the governor’s seat four months later.
Among the cheers from environmentalists, gun-control advocates and LGBTQ-rights groups was a back slap from Justin Amash, a libertarian-minded GOP congressman from Michigan, who tweeted: “Congrats to my friend — and the lone Democratic member of the @libertycaucus — @jaredpolis on his big primary win for governor of Colorado!”
To be sure, Polis is an unabashed Democrat. He’s declared that his convincing win over Republican Walker Stapleton gives him a mandate to pursue universal health care and pull out the stops fighting climate change.
But he’s also spent 16 years in elective office aggressively defying easy political categories, including as the only non-Republican in the largely conservative House Liberty Caucus.
As Boulder’s congressman, he also sat on the House Problem Solvers Caucus, which requires an equal number of Democrats and Republicans as part of its mission to tame excessive partisanship.
During his decade in Congress, Polis was out front on liberal legislation, supporting a public health-insurance option during debate over the Affordable Care Act, helping to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays serving in the military, and voting a year ago to impeach President Donald Trump.
But he also has flummoxed leftists by suggesting the U.S. Postal Service ought to be privatized and regularly lending his name to a balanced-budget amendment sponsored by Amash and other fiscal hawks.
Meanwhile, Polis has championed a raft of exotic proposals to encourage everything from cryptocurrency to kombucha, the frothy, fermented beverage that he and Stapleton both like.
As some social media sites would phrase it, it’s complicated.
The bundle of experience brought by the tech millionaire — also the first openly gay governor elected in the U.S. and Colorado’s first Jewish governor — will mean a chief executive unlike any other in state history, say those steeped in Colorado politics.
Polis, who struck it rich in his 20s and went on to found companies worth more than $1 billion, won’t be the first wealthy entrepreneur to occupy the office. Although the governor-elect’s fortune likely outstrips that of his predecessors, outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper prospered after launching a brewpub in Denver’s Lower Downtown and assembling a restaurant empire before winning election as Denver mayor 15 years ago. Colorado also counts a cattle baron and a railroad magnate among its early chief executives.
But Polis is the first Coloradan in more than a century to become governor after serving in Congress. John Franklin Shafroth — the great-grandfather of Will Shafroth, who lost a 2008 congressional primary to Polis — spent several terms in Congress before being elected governor in 1908 and later represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate.
And while some past governors had sat on school boards, Polis is the only one to have served on the state Board of Education, where he was an at-large member from 2001 to 2007 and board chairman for two years.
“He’s generally positioned himself as (a) contrarian to the Democratic Party with his support for things like charter schools,” said Tom Cronin, a retired Colorado College professor and author of books on state politics and government. “He likes fringy things but is basically a liberal progressive. He likes to be different.”
“Jared is not a liberal, not at all,” said Evie Hudak, a former Democratic state senator from Arvada who served six years with Polis on the State Board of Education. “When people would try to say he was a Boulder liberal, I was like, ‘I’m so much more liberal than he is,’” she said. “He works well with both parties, but his ideas — sometimes they’re in the middle, but sometimes they’re out on, I don’t know if it’s right or left field, some other field.”
‘More failures than successes’
The voteview.com congressional voting tracker found that Polis has voted more conservatively than 84 percent of his fellow House Democrats in the almost-completed 115th Congress and has voted within a couple of percentage points of that range for his entire congressional career.
The Center for Effective Lawmaking ranks Polis as the most effective member of Colorado’s House delegation, though other vote-tallying outfits place his record more squarely in the progressive range, as Republicans insisted throughout the gubernatorial campaign.
Polis frames it along a different axis.
“It’s important to have a governor that gets innovation, value-creation, out-of-the-box thinking. We need more creativity in the public sector,” he told TV host Aaron Harber a month before the Nov. 6 election.
“We need more people who are willing to bring together nonconventional coalitions,” he said. “Of course, it’s about bringing Republicans and Democrats together, but there are so many types of divides we need to try to bridge. Too often in politics, they think political. We need to bridge the rural-urban divide; we need to bridge the divide between executive management and employees; we need to bridge the divide between the suburbs and the city. These are all the kind of things we need to get people thinking out of the box and on the same page for real, innovative solutions that save Coloradans money and improve our quality of life.”
It’s no coincidence that Polis leads with the language of startup culture. He co-founded Techstars, a Boulder-based “technology accelerator,” more than a decade ago. But it’s also fitting, observers say, that he emphasizes bringing disparate parties to the table, as his campaign highlighted.
“I’m a startup guy,” he told Harber. “When you’re starting a company, you’re taking a risk. I’m a big baseball guy. It’s like baseball, so if you’re batting .280, .300, you’re doing pretty well. … Representing northern Colorado in Congress, honestly, there’s a lot more failures than successes, right? Most bills don’t pass. I’ve been honored to be a part of rewriting No Child Left Behind. I helped author the Every Student Succeeds Act and worked with President Obama to get a bipartisan bill with almost universal support passed. But there’ve been so many other bills, of course, that just don’t go anywhere.”
Polis, a father of two and the ranking Democrat on the House Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee, points to his work on the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act as a career highlight.
The legislation shelved the unpopular No Child Left Behind’s “rigid, one-size-fits-all parameters,” he said, “and instead lays out a broad framework of accountability and transparency requirements for states to meet, and then gives them the power to set up their own systems that work best for their unique needs.”
Polis got his first extended look at government’s inner workings as a teenage page for then-U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, the Denver Democrat who served 12 terms in Congress from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s.
Schroeder, who now lives in Florida with her husband, Jim, has endorsed Polis in each of his contested primary races.
“His background is so needed now,” Schroeder said.
“States are where the action is right now. The action’s in reverse at the national level. So if we want to hold on to what we’ve got ... ” she said, trailing off.
Asked what she saw in Polis’ congressional career that convinced her he’ll make a good governor, Schroeder said without pausing: “He’s fearless.”
Polis ‘stood by my side’
He’ll also be prepared, said Hudak, the former state senator.
“What I learned from the state (education) board and observing him in Congress is that Jared has an eye for talent. He always hires really good people. Everybody I’ve ever met who worked with him was an incredible, bright person who was very talented,” she said.
“You can see that with the fact that he’s going to hire Cary Kennedy to be his fiscal adviser. That’s smart, because Cary Kennedy knows state finance like nobody else,” Hudak said of the former state treasurer and chief financial officer for Denver, one of Polis’ primary rivals.
Polis announced recently that he’s hiring Kennedy to look for “long-term creative fiscal policy solutions.”
And no incoming governor has so deeply understood the state education system as Polis, Hudak said, “even those who call themselves ‘the education governor,’” as many have.
“They didn’t look at the budget in detail. They didn’t know all the ins and outs of licensing teachers,” she said. “They didn’t know the special ed rules. They didn’t know all the problems people come to the state Board of Education to talk about.”
During his decade in Congress, Polis was the prime sponsor of nearly 250 bills — from one to treat marijuana like alcohol to another that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation by public schools that receive federal funds.
He also helped usher nearly 100 bills across the finish line, including a measure to improve helicopter safety that he pushed for years with U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the Democrat representing the suburban 7th Congressional District. President Trump signed it into law in October.
Polis and Perlmutter wrote that Helicopter Fuel System Safety Act, to require that all new helicopters be equipped with safer fuel systems, after Flight for Life pilot Patrick Mahany was killed in a 2015 copter crash in Summit County when the craft’s fuel system ignited on impact.
Mahany’s widow, Karen, thanked Polis for his tenacity in a campaign ad that began airing in August.
“Since the crash, Jared has stood by my side — including attending hearings alongside me so I wouldn’t be alone and calling on the anniversary of the tragedy just to make sure I was doing OK,” she said when the 60-second spot was released. “And he’s led the effort to improve safety for air medical crews and patients nationally.”
Opportunities at ‘the state level’
From his first months in Congress, Polis stood out from the pack.
One of the first bills he introduced was a resolution mourning the loss of TV actress Bea Arthur and celebrating the “many contributions to equality and social justice for all Americans” made by the “Maude” and “Golden Girls” star and LGBTQ icon. (The bill didn’t make it out of committee.)
As a lawmaker, Polis often has broken with his party’s orthodoxy. He and Perlmutter — and only 20 other Democrats — voted for a 2012 budget resolution modeled on the Simpson-Bowles plan to increase taxes and cut entitlements, earning him praise as an “economic patriot” from one quarter and scorn from another for endorsing plutocracy.
Polis said after the vote: “The continued partisanship of the House majority leadership is paralyzing Congress at a time when we need to work together around common-sense, bipartisan solutions. I will continue to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to move the kind of ‘go big’ budget proposal that will create jobs, restore fiscal responsibility and invest in the future in a way that’s fair to all Americans.”
Cronin said Polis is poised to take office with two big advantages that recent governors haven’t enjoyed.
“He’s been a close observer of the Obama administration and the Trump administration, and he’s had a huge number of interactions with the Bureau of Land Management, for instance, and other agencies of the federal government,” the retired CC professor said. “That’s going to stand him in good stead.
“The other advantage is he knows the congressional delegation,” Cronin said, pointing to collaboration with Republicans Doug Lamborn, Scott Tipton and Ken Buck. “All congressmen co-sponsor things with people from their home state. They work alliances around getting federal funds to their state. That’s a plus (Polis) will have. He comes to the governorship knowing how Washington works, knowing how Congress works.”
Before the election, Polis said that it had been an easy choice to chalk up his years in Congress and run for governor.
“I would always say I want to serve long enough to make a difference but not so long as to be part of the problem,” he said.
“When I look at where the opportunity to really make a difference is in the years ahead, where is it that we can stand up against Trump, where is it that we can achieve universal health care, where is it that we can pass family-friendly policies like paid family and medical leave — it is the state level, it’s right here in Colorado.”