Young Blood

Rising political powerhouse Jared Polis is rich, tireless and filled with contradictions.

I am so happy
with the direction
that your life
is taking you
Your decisions and actions
are noble and intelligent
I often think about
how you were the same way
when you were a little boy
I hope that you remain strong and in control
of your life forever
Sometimes you will make mistakes
and because you take risks
you will have your share of opponents
I want you to know
that at all times
the proudest mother in the world
is always here
to encourage you
to understand you
to talk with you
to support you
and to love you forever

On May 12, Polis's 29th birthday, Susan finds another way to express her affection for her firstborn. To brighten up a day when he's slated to oversee an eight-hour Board of Education work session at the state's Department of Education building, she sends him a cake. A big cake.

Anthony Camera
Jared Polis cheers with students in the Summerbridge 
Anthony Camera
Jared Polis cheers with students in the Summerbridge program.

Festivities in the boardroom take a while to get under way. At the outset, the main person who happy-birthdays Polis is Karen Gerwitz, the director of state board relations. A couple of folks chime in, but for the most part, the other boardmembers -- fellow Democrats Christine Baca, Evie Hudak and D. Rico Munn, and Republicans Randy DeHoff, Clair Orr, Pamela Jo Suckla and Peggie Littleton -- seem focused on the task at hand. They gather a few items from a breakfast spread near where the still-boxed cake sits before joining Commissioner of Education William Moloney at a series of tables and getting to work.

The agenda is crowded with reports by DOE staffers and a presentation by principal Lawrence Hernandez, who outlines how he turned Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter school in Pueblo whose student body is three-quarters Hispanic, into a statewide role model with steadily improving test scores. Boardmembers are consistently polite to everyone, and because no particularly divisive items are up for debate, chairman Polis, wearing a blue blazer, a collarless burgundy shirt and prescription glasses that add a few years to his appearance, isn't stuck playing referee. He keeps things moving in a gentle way and is attentive during all of the presentations, frequently asking questions for clarification. Even so, sitting in place for long periods is difficult for him. He's a foot-tapper and a cuticle-chewer; he gnaws on one finger like it's an overcooked ear of corn. There's also his propensity for facial twitches, which become more intense as the clock's hands turn. Tic, tic, tic.

At noon, Polis says it's time for lunch, and the members grab plastic containers filled with appropriate fare that were moved into place following breakfast. After settling down with their grub, they listen to a presentation by Bill de la Cruz, who is on an action committee whose goal is closing the achievement gap between minority and Caucasian students. "I'm asking you to deal with this like it's a crisis," de la Cruz states forcefully, and his frustration is understandable. At a State Board of Education work session in December 2000 that was covered in these pages ("Making the Grades," January 4, 2001), he offered virtually the same plea. Almost four years later, the Cesar Chavez Academy is a rare exception to a distressing rule.

When de la Cruz finishes, his emotional words don't get a chance to linger for long. Suddenly, Gerwitz starts singing "Happy Birthday" to Polis. The rest of the people in the room look a bit confused, but several halfheartedly pipe up. As for Polis, he seems abashed and pleased at the same time. After Gerwitz wraps up the ditty with an aside ("And happy birthday to Randy last week"), he looks at the cake's single candle and says, "I'm only one."

Gerwitz cuts the cake, but most of the boardmembers pass on the dessert. In contrast, Polis takes a huge slab, shovels it down lickety-split and goes back for seconds. Shortly thereafter, he leaves the room. And he doesn't come back for a very long time.

Business called at that moment, as it does frequently for Polis, but he insists that his decision to answer it shouldn't bring his loyalty to the education board into question. He's dedicated to fulfilling his elective responsibility, he says. But not only does his high profile sometimes makes him seem bigger than the board (a situation lamented by several of the other members), but it magnifies the importance of everything he does. No wonder his disappearances set tongues wagging.

"All of us have to step out of meetings occasionally," concedes Randy DeHoff, the board's vice chairman. "But I think he spends an inordinate amount of time outside board meetings doing other things, and that's caused resentment among some boardmembers." Since Polis "has made no secret that he's got higher ambitions than the State Board of Education," says DeHoff, "I've always had questions about his commitment to this."

Clair Orr, who's been on the board for a decade, isn't quite as harsh, but he thinks that DeHoff has a point. Polis is the chairman, he says, and "maybe he has a little responsibility to say, 'Some of this has got to wait.'"

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