Early on the night of Colorado’s June primary election, the congratulations started pouring in for Jared Polis, the five-term congressman who bested three fellow Democrats on his way to winning the open governor’s seat four months later by a wide margin.
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 for governor over Republican Walker Stapleton, the state treasurer, gives him a mandate to pursue universal health care and pull out the stops fighting climate change.
But he's also spent nearly two decades in the public arena aggressively defying easy political categories, including being the only member of the largely conservative House Liberty Caucus who isn’t a Republican.
The Boulder congressman has also sat on the rigidly bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, a group that requires an equal number of members from both major parties as part of its self-described mission to tame excessive partisanship.
During his decade in Congress, Polis has been out front on liberal legislation, supporting a public health-insurance option during debate over the Affordable Care Act, helping repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay men and women serving in the military, and voting a year ago to impeach President Trump.
At the same time, Polis 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 both he and Stapleton are fond of.
As some social media sites would phrase it, it’s complicated.
The bundle of experience brought to the office by the tech millionaire — also the first openly gay governor elected anywhere in the country and Colorado’s first Jewish governor — will mean a chief executive unlike any other in the state’s history, those steeped in Colorado politics contend.
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 any of his predecessors’, outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper prospered after launching a brew pub in Denver’s Lower Downtown and assembling a restaurant empire before winning election as mayor 15 years ago, and Colorado also counts a cattle baron and a railroad magnate among its early chief executives.
But Polis will be the first Coloradan in more than a century to serve as governor after serving in Congress. John Franklin Shafroth — the great grandfather of Will Shafroth, who lost a 2008 congressional primary against Polis — spent several terms in Congress before being elected governor in 1908 and later went on to represent Colorado in the U.S. Senate.
And, while some past governors sat on school boards before being elected to the state’s highest office, Polis will be the only one to have served on the State Board of Education, where he was an at-large member from 2001 to 2007 and chaired the board for two years.
“He’s generally positioned himself as contrarian to the Democratic Party with his support for things like charter schools,” observed 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 alongside Polis for six years 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 for 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 said in an interview with TV host Aaron Harber a month before the election.
“We need more people who are willing to bring together non-conventional coalitions," he added. "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 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, Polis-watchers say, that he emphasizes bringing disparate parties to the table, a claim 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, the father of two children and the ranking Democrat on the House Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee, points to his involvement in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act as a career highlight. As he sees it, the legislation shelved the unpopular No Child Left Behind’s “rigid, one-size-fits all parameters 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 the inner workings of government when he was a teenager and worked as a congressional 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 told Colorado Politics. “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, suggestively trailing off.
Asked what she’s seen in Polis’ congressional career that leaves her convinced 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," Hudak said.
"You can see that with the fact that he's going to hire Cary Kennedy to be his fiscal advisor," she added. "That's smart, because Cary Kennedy knows state finance like nobody else,” Hudak said, referencing the former state treasurer and Polis’ primary rival. Polis announced recently that he’s hiring Kennedy to look for "long-term creative fiscal policy solutions" for the state.
Hudak added that no incoming governor will have as deep an understanding of the state’s education system as Polis — “even those who call themselves 'the education governor'," which is a good many of them.
“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 has been prime sponsor of nearly 250 pieces of legislation — from a bill to treat marijuana like alcohol to one 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 he’s been pushing for years along with U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the Democrat representing the suburban 7th Congressional District, which was signed into law in October by President Trump.
Polis and Perlmutter wrote the bill, known as the Helicopter Fuel System Safety Act, to require that all newly manufactured helicopters be equipped with a safer fuel system, after Flight for Life pilot Patrick Mahany was killed in a 2015 helicopter crash in Summit County when the fuel system of the craft he was flying 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 initial pieces of legislation 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 has made a habit of breaking 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 in a statement 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, the retired Colorado College professor, said Polis is poised to take office with two big advantages 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. That’s going to stand him in good stead,” he said.
“The other advantage is he knows the congressional delegation,” Cronin said, pointing to legislative collaboration with Republicans Doug Lamborn, Scott Tipton and Ken Buck.
“All congressmen co-sponsor things with people from their home state,” he added. “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.”
Polis told Colorado Politics before the election 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 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.”