COVER STORY | Profile: Entrepreneur Jared Polis seeks to make a difference
Author: Ernest Luning - September 25, 2018 - Updated: September 30, 2018
It’s easy to see the contradictions in Jared Polis.
The wildly successful entrepreneur — he launched three companies before he turned 30 that collectively sold for more than $1 billion — routinely faces derision from Republican opponents as an enemy of capitalism and a threat to the state’s very economy.
The 43-year-old power broker with an 18-year unbroken string of wins at the ballot box is often treated as a party-crasher by fellow Democrats, while his libertarian leanings — he once proposed privatizing the U.S. Postal Service — make for unexpected alliances that irk the progressive wing of his party and belie Republican attacks branding him the squishiest of Boulder liberals.
Scratch his public record, and the incongruities multiply: A leading national advocate for marijuana legalization, Polis says he has never smoked pot, for instance. The one-time backer of tough oil and gas drilling restrictions got jeered last month by environmentalists. And the advocate for top-to-bottom campaign finance reform has set state records for self-funding every time he’s sought a new office, including this year’s bid to become Colorado’s next governor.
Although he’s been a fixture in the state’s political firmament for nearly two decades, Polis remains to many a riddle wrapped in an enigma, cloaked in a purple polo shirt.
But on a recent morning at Denver International Airport, Polis appears serene and unhurried as he prepares to embark on what’s been a regular trip to Washington, D.C., for the last decade, since the Democrat won the first of five terms in Congress.
Taking a sip from a bottle of iced tea, he reflects on his decision to give up the safe 2nd Congressional District seat representing Boulder, Fort Collins, Frisco and Vail for a risky run for governor, first against a crowded field of Democrats and now facing Republican Walker Stapleton.
“It’s not about the race, it’s about the job,” Polis told Colorado Politics. “The race is something you have to put yourself through to be able to do the job. When I first ran for Congress, I would always say I wanted to serve long enough to make a difference but not so long as to be part of the problem. I do think that part of the problem is that some people serve generations in D.C.
“I’m always looking for where I can make the biggest positive impact on our state. I’ve done that with education, when I was on the State Board of Education, and in Congress,” he continues. “When I look at the opportunities to really lead — saving people money on health care, protecting our environment and growing our economy — I think that a lot of that will come down to the state level.”
In a year when Democrats are poised to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Polis doesn’t regret passing up the chance to serve with the majority, which he hasn’t occupied since his first term.
“A lot of the work I do is bipartisan anyway,” says Polis, the only Democrat on the libertarian-leaning House Liberty Caucus and a member of the rigidly bipartisan Problem-Solvers Caucus. “I have more frustrations, of course, being in the minority, but there’s plenty of frustrations that I would have with Democratic leadership even if we were in the majority. It’s not like as a legislator you get your exact way on all the bill, but you might have a little bit more of an ability to mold them.”
‘Those are fighting words’
The eldest of three siblings, Polis was born to Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz, who shed their respective careers — he has a doctorate in theoretical physics, and she worked as a freelance writer after teaching elementary school in Harlem and pursing a graduate degree in physiology — to write and illustrate posters and books of poems following a move from the East Coast in the late 1960s to “live in the mountains.”
By the time Polis was born — he legally adopted his mother’s last name in 2000 to “honor my mother’s maiden name, and because I liked it better,” he said at the time, though he kept Schutz as his middle name — his parents had published the first of their illustrated books of poetry and founded the Blue Mountain Arts publishing house.
“[M]y parents were hippies,” Polis wrote in a 2009 dispatch from a congressional visit to Iraq that went on to “bemoan the fact that we defeated the Iraqi military only to help them build an even stronger one that might one day be used against children and innocents.” He summed up his assessment with an earnestly delivered line from Pete Seeger’s anti-war anthem: “Where have all the flowers gone?”
The family divided its time between Boulder and San Diego, Polis recalls, describing cross-country trips in an old motor home, spending a lot of time at the Hopi and Navajo reservations on the way, which sparked his love of the Southwest.
In what counts as his first political win, the 11-year-old swayed a local Southern California planning board against a proposal to rezone and develop a canyon where Polis and his friends played after school.
It might foreshadow the showdown with Stapleton, a two-term state treasurer.
“To me, this election is very much about keeping our public lands public,” Polis says. “I think there’s a big difference with Walker Stapleton, who has aligned himself with Utah-style policies of transferring ownership and privatizing public lands, and my desire to protect our great areas, and even working with different stakeholder groups to expand protection when we can.”
Ticking off public lands legislation he’s worked on, he adds: “It also leads to new alliances, for me to be on the same page as hunters and bikers and outdoor recreationalists. Regardless of their ideology, if someone’s coming after their public lands, those are fighting words, because that’s a big part of our identity as Coloradans and westerners.”
Polis launched his first multi-million-dollar company at 19 while at Princeton University — after finishing high school in San Diego in three years, he went on to receive his undergraduate degree in politics — when he and two college friends founded American Information Systems, an early internet services provider, in their dorm rooms in 1993. They sold it five years later for $23 million.
As the internet was taking shape, Polis helped his parents turn Blue Mountain Arts into an online greeting card company — at one point, among the 10 most popular websites in the country, attracting more visitors than any other e-commerce site except Amazon and eBay.
The family sold the closely-held company at the peak of the dot-com boom in 1999 to AT&T’s Excite@Home for $780 million in cash and stock. Another company Polis founded at around the same time, ProFlowers.com, sold three years later to media magnate John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp. for $477 million.
Once he’d amassed a fortune, Polis set about spending it to nudge the world closer to his vision of how things ought to be.
He established a foundation that hands out annual recognition awards to teachers and donates thousands of refurbished computers every year to schools and nonprofits, and he founded charter schools for recent immigrants and at-risk youth with campuses in Colorado and New Mexico.
Breaking self-funding records
In 2000, Polis set Colorado’s political world on its ear when he spent more than $1 million to win what had previously been a sleepy race for an at-large seat on the State Board of Education — prevailing by just 90 votes over the Republican incumbent, Ben Alexander, who spent about $10,000 on his campaign.
Midway into his six-year term on the education board, Polis joined three other wealthy Colorado Democrats — they were soon dubbed the Gang of Four — to rewrite the rules of state politics, pouring millions into a network of outside groups that flipped the General Assembly from red to blue in the 2004 election for the first time in generations.
The next cycle, he bankrolled Amendment 41, a successful ballot measure to create a state ethics commission and set strict limits on gifts to lawmakers and other public employees.
By the time Democrat Mark Udall gave up his 2nd Congressional District seat to mount a successful 2008 run for the U.S. Senate, Polis says his frustration with federal education law prodded his to jump into the three-way primary to replace Udall.
On his way to a narrow win, Polis poured $6 million into the campaign, setting a new high mark for self-funding candidates in Colorado — and held the record until this year, when he shattered his own record by spending more than $18 million on the gubernatorial race, through the most recent reporting period.
With a net worth estimated in the neighborhood of $400 million, the candidate is capping contributions to his campaign at $100 per donor and refuses money from political action committees, which Polis maintains frees him from the influence of special interests, though his critics say that’s just high-minded talk for the ability of one of the wealthiest members of Congress to buy yet another election.
The first openly gay man to win a seat in Congress — others were outed or came out after they were elected — Polis would be the nation’s first openly gay governor and Colorado’s first Jewish governor, if he wins in November.
“To those respective communities, it certainly means a lot, just like the election of Barack Obama has been so inspiring to a whole generation of African-American youth,” he says.
“Certainly, in these troubling times when there seems to be a lot of divisiveness — there’s attacks on the LGBTQ community, there’s a rise of the sort of neo-Nazism and attacks on the Jewish community — I think it certainly means a lot to members of those communities, and I mean nationally, to see themselves represented in all parts of government.”
Colorado, he noted, “has always broken barriers. It’s a state that makes decisions based on your character and your ideas.”
He’s already notched other firsts. When he won the at-large seat on the board of education, Polis became the first openly gay candidate to win statewide office in Colorado, and when his son Caspian — now 6, he goes by CJ — was born in 2011, Polis became the first openly gay parent to serve in Congress. Polis and his partner, Marlon Reis, an author, welcomed their daughter Cora, 4, to the family four years ago.
At the airport restaurant, Polis nods toward the reading material he’s packed for the flight — a hardcover copy of “Fear: Trump in the White House,” Bob Woodward’s latest blockbuster — and then shakes his head.
“There’s nothing that surprises us in here,” he says, noting that he had only begun the thick book, released the previous day. “It’s a shame. It’s one thing to have a president or a leader that you can agree with on some issues, disagree with on others, but you understand their deliberate thought process and can work with them. It’s another thing entirely to have this irrationality and lack of respect for the truth that, unfortunately, we’re seeing at the highest levels and risks polluting Colorado politics.”
Tussle over taxes
Polis says he’s talking about the recent round of attacks leveled by Stapleton and his cohorts, including a TV ad aired by the Republican Governors Association and multiple mailers from Better Colorado Now, the super PAC backing Stapleton — all telling voters that Polis “didn’t pay a single penny in income taxes for five years” despite his wealth, as a flier paid for by the super PAC puts it.
Sounds damning — except the ads don’t mention that Polis didn’t owe any income taxes during those years in the early 2000s, before he entered Congress, because he was starting several businesses and nurturing them toward sale so didn’t have a net income during a stretch.
The ads also inaccurately claim Polis “has a history of investing in the Cayman Islands, a notorious destination for the ultrawealthy to hide profits from taxes,” citing a charge by a 2008 primary opponent that was debunked almost as soon as it was aired.
“It’s become almost the norm, this false bubble,” Polis says. “Obviously, I’ve paid all my taxes, and I’ve even released my tax records [from before entering Congress in 2009], and my opponent hasn’t released any of his tax records, so nobody knows if he’s paid them. I assume he has, or he’d be in trouble. But we actually proved that we paid them. It’s bizarre it’s part of the political discourse.”
(Neither candidate has released his most recent tax returns. The Stapleton campaign hasn’t said whether he’ll release his returns; Polis said on Sept. 11 that “after [Stapleton] releases some [returns], we’ll be happy to talk about releasing more.”)
Polis fired back the day after the first RGA attack with a TV ad refuting the Republican claims — and tying Stapleton to Trump, who lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton and is unpopular with state voters, polling shows — but noted almost a week later that he was still chafing at the attack.
“I’m optimistic enough to believe that the era of objective truth is not over, I think that there is truth,” he said. “I think that this example set by Donald Trump, whatever you think of his policies, has degraded the integrity of the system. And I want to have a very different response to that as governor. We want to provide facts and answers and truth, and we’re willing to own our positions and debate our points, but it should be done in a logical and rational setting, not in a false bubble.”
Polis has also been subject to condemnation from allies, including anti-fracking activists who welcomed his backing in 2014 when Polis helped finance a ballot measure to require a 2,000-foot setback between new oil and gas operations and homes and other structures, up from the existing 500-foot buffer around homes. Polis withdrew the measure at the last minute in a compromise that involved the creation of a state commission to ponder the industry’s activities.
Environmental activists heckled Polis at last month’s Colorado Oil and Gas Association Energy Summit in Denver when he outlined his opposition to a ballot initiative to require 2,500-foot setbacks, though he said the question deserves a reasonable look.
At the same time, the state’s oil and gas interests have made no secret of their aversion to Polis — pointing to a central campaign promise, to move the state to 100-percent renewable-energy power production by 2040, in addition to his earlier support for bigger setbacks, which industry experts say could devastate the fossil fuel sector and cripple the state’s economy.
Described by GQ as possibly the worst-dressed member of Congress in history — “Am I having a seizure?” the men’s fashion site complained before offering Polis a make-over a few years ago after he spoke from the House floor wearing a gray bow tie with a striped purple golf shirt — Polis is as likely to appear at a campaign event in comfortable trousers and bright blue sneakers as he is to show up in an impeccably tailored suit, though he appears to have sidelined the tie-dyed T-shirts and cargo shorts that have drawn ridicule from conservative critics over the years.
For Polis, his sartorial style embodies not only the impatience felt by business owners who strike it rich at an early age but also points toward a disdain for convention, an avowedly disruptive approach to tackling problems.
Lamenting elected officials “chained to an ideology that is rooted in the past,” Polis wrote in a 2015 op-ed in The Advocate: “While this may be commonplace in the political world, it doesn’t work in the business world, as I’ve experienced first-hand from starting and building several companies. In the business world, if you’re not looking ahead, you’re missing something.”
Since the start of his political career, Polis has championed seemingly pie-in-the-sky goals that entered the mainstream sooner than expected, from marijuana legalization to gay marriage — the planks of what he termed his “marriage-juana platform,” whose adoption he called “illustrative litmus tests that separate those on the right side of history from those that aren’t.”
‘An above-average salesman’
Another policy he’s favored since his first run for Congress — a single-payer health care system, a notion at the heart of national “Medicare for All” legislation he’s co-sponsored — has turned into a consistent target for Republicans, who have attempted to lash Polis to a 2016 statewide ballot health measure rejected by an overwhelming margin, despite his opposition to it.
The Stapleton campaign and its allies have also kept up the attack on a companion Polis proposal to explore a regional single-payer system with like-minded states, something the Democrat describes as aspirational rather than a blueprint.
“While Congressman Polis touts his radical, government-run health care ‘plan’ on the campaign trail, Coloradans should know he has no idea how to pay for or implement it,” said Stapleton campaign spokesman Jerrod Dobkin in a statement. “King Jared may think he can pull a fast one on voters, but it’s time Coloradans are introduced to the real Jared Polis: an above-average salesman with no ability to deliver on the empty promises he sells.”
Polis says voters understand the difference between describing objectives and laying out a step-by-step policy prescription.
“We hope of all the great things that we’re talking about (in the campaign) — if we can accomplish half of them in four years, that would be a success. It’s a lot like baseball,” he says in one of several analogies to the sport. “I think people care about the values we talk about and our goals, and they’re going to make sure that we work toward those goals, and we’re going to make progress toward them.”
Then Polis invokes a different sport to illustrate another element of the “bold vision” outlined by his campaign.
“I’m running on making sure that people have access to preschool and kindergarten across our state,” he says. “In my first term, we’re hoping to get to full-day kindergarten, with some expansion of preschool. It’s about making progress toward those goals. This would be a football metaphor — measuring that in yards and trying to get that next first down.
“I work hard, I try to figure out the answers as best I can, and then I try to build the coalition to make it happen,” he adds.
“Businesses like ProFlowers wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t come up with the idea and transformed that idea into reality. To me, the governorship is an opportunity to take good ideas and transform them into reality. Good ideas are not enough — you also need the action-plan and the ability to build a coalition, to make sure they positively affect people in the real world.”