Young Blood

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

Jacobson and Segall give Polis an overview of their progress, but what gets him most fired up is a finished copy of a New America School commercial he shot with Antonio de la Torre of the Colorado Rapids. Like de la Torre, Polis delivers his lines in Spanish, and in keeping with the more exuberant tone of Spanish-language media, he speaks animatedly and pitches his voice louder than normal. Somehow, he restrains himself from shouting "GOOOOOAAAAALLLLL!"

Revved up by the TV spot, Polis practically bounds back to the Navigator for another blitz across the metro area, but in the opposite direction from his previous commute. By 4:10 p.m., he's at Urban Peak's command center, at 1630 South Acoma Street. As he walks through the parking lot near a school bus donated by his foundation, a gaggle of teens stand near the entrance. "Hey," a girl calls to him, "give me some money."

"You want some money?" Polis asks.

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

"Yeah," she replies. "I'll give you an apple for it."

"Actually, I'm going to help start a school here," Polis says, to her apparent confusion. She can't muster a comeback.

Inside, half a dozen teens gathered by the staff await Polis. To put it mildly, they have little in common with him. The slogan on a T-shirt worn by one teen -- "As a matter of fact, the world does revolve around me" -- seems even more ironic than usual.

"I'm Jared Polis," he says by way of introduction, "and I'm head of the Colorado State Board of Education. We oversee schools that are grades K-12 here in Colorado, which maybe you guys didn't have the best experience with, although maybe some of you did."

This line falls flatter than Frankenstein's head, but rather than backing off -- or, worse, trying to act street-savvy to loosen up his audience -- Polis speaks as he would to anyone, and questions about what the students would like to see in a school slowly draw them out. They talk about smaller class sizes, tutors, flexible hours, student mentors and teachers who really care about what they're doing. Suddenly, they're engaged by the idea that someone's listening to them, even if he is a bit of a geek. More students filter into the room, fueling an even livelier exchange.

Around 5 p.m., Polis tells the teens he must depart; he's late for a meeting with the local League of Conservation Voters. His Navigator has already burned enough gas to fuel a small country, but his personal energy isn't depleted. "This was sort of an average day," he says. "More relaxed than normal."

Granted, Polis doesn't share everything that happened during his hours on the road. En route to each of his stops, he takes advantage of being in his vehicle by himself to make "political calls -- things you couldn't hear," he says.

Secrecy is part and parcel of politics, and strategists of every description employ it on a daily basis. That's understood. Still, those who are wary of Polis object to the way he portrays himself as a straight-shooting champion of the little guy when they're sure he has no compunction about playing dirty.

The magnet for such charges is the Rocky Mountain Progressive Network, a liberal nonprofit that stands as a spunky counterpart to the Independence Institute, a conservatively inclined think tank. Polis confirms that he provided "seed capital" for the RMPN's 2003 launch, and he says he supports it in a modest way; he insists he's not its majority funder. But he won't say how much he gives, or what percentage of the Network's budget his largesse represents. Also mum is the group's executive director, attorney Michael Huttner, who declined an interview with Westword, where he once interned.

Huttner's decision is totally counterproductive, since it gives the impression that he and Polis have something to hide. Indeed, Huttner holds a spot on the New America School board and is so close to Polis personally that he helped coordinate his cooperation for this article. It'll take more than his silence to convince political insiders that Polis isn't pulling the RMPN's strings, or at least facilitating the network in a major way.

Polis has reason to keep his distance from the RMPN. The organization started out stiffly; its first significant public event, a September 2003 rally at Metropolitan State College timed to coincide with a talk on behalf of the so-called Academic Bill of Rights by right-wing lightning rod David Horowitz, was unimaginative and dull. Being linked to such a protest wouldn't have hurt Polis politically, but the potential for damage rose in February 2004, when Huttner called on every public official in Colorado who supported Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave's proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage to sign a "fidelity pledge."

The pledge gimmick allowed the RMPN to hint at the marital woes of one prominent Musgrave backer, Republican governor Bill Owens, in a back-door manner that might appear vulgar coming from Polis, who zealously guards his personal privacy. (Polis refuses to talk about affairs of the heart beyond declaring, "It would be difficult to incorporate a relationship into my current lifestyle.") About Owens, and the rumors swirling around him, Polis says, "There might be some socially conservative Republicans who care about that sort of thing, but I think most progressives don't care. It's none of my business, and personally, I wish him well." Since such comments would give off a hypocritical scent if Polis were perceived as being behind the RMPN; he portrays his association with the network as being almost incidental. In his words, "It's certainly a separate organization. Anybody can see that."

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