When Colorado Democrats took full control at the Capitol in January, the stage appeared set for a progressive revolution in state politics. Gone was the crucial one-seat Senate majority that Republicans had used to block so much legislation over the previous four years, swept aside by the Blue Wave and a new generation of Democratic lawmakers promising big, bold changes. Conservatives feared the worst. Moderates cautioned against "overreach."
Four months later, Colorado's dramatic leftward lurch hasn't materialized. While Democrats have enacted a long list of liberal reforms, many of their most ambitious and transformative proposals have been defeated, delayed or substantially scaled back. And the biggest moderating influence on the state legislature's new Democratic majority might come as a surprise to some: Governor Jared Polis, the Boulder liberal who campaigned on his "bold, progressive vision" and whom conservatives decried as “the most radical and extreme governor candidate in Colorado’s history.”
At least half a dozen major Democratic proposals were blocked or significantly watered down following opposition from Polis during the General Assembly’s four-month regular session, which ended May 3. On issues ranging from public health and climate change to labor rights and protections for undocumented immigrants, Polis has been instrumental in keeping some of the most progressive elements of the Democratic majority’s agenda from becoming law.
Activists have noticed — and as the dust settles on a tumultuous session at the Capitol, they’re starting to speak out.
“We miss Congressman Polis, who used to speak about the need to reduce funding to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and Border Patrol, who stood up and said ICE was an agency whose purpose was harmful to our community,” Jennifer Piper, an immigrant-rights organizer at the American Friends Service Committee, said at a rally at the Capitol on Monday, May 13. “We want that Congressman Polis to be our governor.”
Advocates have been frustrated by Polis’s opposition to a proposal known as Virginia’s Law, which would have established a variety of protections for undocumented immigrants, and by his remarks defending ICE as a “legitimate law enforcement agency.” His stance forced Democratic lawmakers to dramatically narrow the bill’s scope, and disappointed activists who had viewed the governor as a strong advocate for immigrants’ rights during his time in Congress.
"The Governor believes Colorado’s immigrant community makes our state stronger," a spokesperson for Polis said in a statement. "Throughout his career he has worked to support immigrants and continues doing so today
through actions like expanding driver’s license locations from one location to ten, expanding access to student aid for DACA recipients, and more.”
At Monday’s demonstration, activists held signs bearing slogans like “Keep Families Together” and “Don’t Legitimize ICE” on one side — and Polis’s face on the other. They read a letter from Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented activist who has again taken sanctuary at Denver’s First Unitarian Church as she faces the threat of deportation, and who said she was “angry and frustrated” by the governor’s recent actions.
“I think for a lot of people, this is a drastic deviation from expectations,” says activist Garrett Suydam, who attended the rally wearing a papier-mâché puppet of the governor’s head.
Immigration is far from the only issue on which Polis has disappointed progressive Democrats this year. He joined moderate lawmakers in voicing concerns about a landmark paid-family-leave proposal, which was ultimately put on hold while the state conducts a series of implementation studies. A bill to grant state employees collective-bargaining rights was also scrapped after the governor raised objections.
But Polis has done more than just rein in what some might view as the excesses of his party’s left flank. Often, he’s found himself to the right of the state’s Democratic establishment, too, clashing with top lawmakers on proposals well within the liberal mainstream. Early in the session, he endorsed a GOP-backed plan to cut state income taxes that was ultimately rejected by the legislature, and his opposition helped sink a Democratic bill to strengthen immunization requirements at public schools.
Environmental groups cheered the passage of House Bill 1261, which commits Colorado to achieving a 50 percent cut in statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and a 90 percent cut by 2050. For all its ambitious goals, however, the legislation contains no mandates, fines or other enforcement mechanisms to ensure that polluters are making the necessary emissions cuts — which Polis reportedly fought House Speaker KC Becker to exclude from the bill.
“We don’t have time for half-measures,” says Micah Parkin, executive director of climate activist group 350 Colorado. “We need bold leadership, and we were hoping [Polis] would work hard behind the scenes to be strengthening the bill, and certainly not opposing it. So it’s yet to be seen whether he’s the bold leader that I think everybody thought he was, and that we need him to be at this point in history.”
A spokesperson for Polis did not respond directly to a question about his reported opposition to emissions mandates, but issued a statement that read: “The Governor is supportive of the goals established in HB 1261, and believes it, in conjunction with other policies passed by the legislature, will help to combat climate change and transition the state toward renewable energy.”
It's certainly true that under Polis’s leadership, Democrats scored plenty of significant policy victories during the legislative session, including funding for full-day kindergarten, a gun-control measure, a sweeping package of oil and gas reforms and a variety of bills aimed at reducing health care costs.
“Governor Polis is doing for the state what he has always done, finding bold creative solutions and making life better," the governor's office said in a statement. "He’s made enormous progress in less than half a year including full day kindergarten, saving people money on healthcare, and putting Colorado on the path to 100% renewable energy."
But the defeat of some key progressive priorities, and the scaling back of others, has led some influential GOP lawmakers and conservative business groups to express a degree of quiet relief at how the session turned out: “It’s been better than we thought it was going to be at the beginning of the year,” Nick Hoover, government affairs manager for the Colorado Restaurant Association, told the Denver Business Journal earlier this month.
Since his early days as an at-large member of the Colorado State Board of Education and a member of the "Gang of Four," Polis’s personal fortune has allowed him to chart his own path in state and national politics and remain an idiosyncratic figure in an era of increased partisan sorting. Perhaps few things illustrate that better than the governor's social-media habits; he's a regular on link-sharing site Reddit, where he frequently posts articles and comments on forums like r/Neoliberal and r/Libertarian.
"Any ideas for Colorado? I’m the governor here and could use your ideas to make our state even better!" read a post Polis published early Monday morning on the Neoliberal subreddit, which describes itself as a forum for those who believe that "individual choice and markets are of paramount importance" and stand "against new threats posed by the populist left and right."
It shouldn't be terribly surprising that Polis, a centimillionaire charter-school founder, Ayn Rand enthusiast and longtime member of the House Liberty Caucus, would largely choose to govern from the center — and yet if you're a new or casual observer of Colorado politics, you're probably shocked.
With a few exceptions, Polis’s makeover as a “bold progressive” and GOP hysteria about his “radical and extreme” agenda informed the bulk of the media's coverage of the 2018 governor's race. Fox 31 unreservedly described him as a "far left liberal." Polis and Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders “have a lot in common,” the Colorado Sun declared. “In the Race for Governor,” asked a New York Times profile of Polis’s primary bid, “How Far Left Is Colorado Willing to Go?”
Given that Polis spent the entire campaign being painted as a Marxist revolutionary and still won a resounding eleven-point victory over Stapleton in November, the answer seems to be: pretty far! But it’s become increasingly obvious that Polis isn’t going to take it there.
With the legislature adjourned until next January, the locus of state policymaking now shifts to the sprawling executive branch that Polis oversees, giving the freshman governor more direct control than he often enjoyed during the first four months of his term. Critical rule-makings to implement new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas development and more are set to get under way at various state agencies over the next several months.
Although the activists who demonstrated at the Capitol on Monday said they were "hurt and confused" by Polis's recent stances on ICE and immigrants' rights, they're cautiously optimistic that Polis will hear their concerns.
"This is a last push, based on a long relationship, to have a good-faith conversation about how we move forward in this state," says Piper. "And we hope that the governor will answer that call."
“I’m still holding out hope,” says Parkin. “But what I’m seeing is not impressing me at this point, as far as him living up to the bold climate leadership that he promised during his campaign.”
Polis may still have a "bold, progressive vision for Colorado," but so far he seems to be taking a cautious, conservative approach to bringing it into reality. And while many left-leaning Coloradans hoped that he would represent a break from former governor John Hickenlooper, a business-friendly centrist who often left progressive activists frustrated, it was Polis himself who — perhaps jokingly, perhaps not — suggested otherwise on the campaign trail last fall.
At an October gubernatorial debate sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Stapleton warned that Polis would be an “extreme departure” from his moderate Democratic predecessor. “I know John Hickenlooper, and I can tell you, you are no John Hickenlooper,” Stapleton told his opponent.
What Polis said next prompted laughter from a crowd full of conservative business leaders — but maybe it shouldn’t have.
“He’s a bit of a lefty compared to me,” he replied. “I agree on that.”
Update, 5/16: We've added an additional comment from Polis's office.