Editor's note: We dove into the backgrounds of the gubernatorial candidates vying for the governor's mansion this November. Read Walker Stapleton's story here.
Jared Polis might represent the lefty 2nd Congressional District, which includes Boulder, but he was no friend to activists at a recent protest over fracking.
Angered by his support of the industry, many approached the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and tried to argue with him. But Polis engaged with protesters for nearly an hour.
“My brother just stood there and talked to everyone about it,” says Jorian Schutz, Jared’s younger brother.
Little gets in the way of Polis, who is the odds-on favorite to become Colorado’s 43rd governor. If he wins in November, he’d be the first openly gay governor in American history.
“He’s smart, and he’s decided to put the skills that he has to public service,” says Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll, who has known Polis for over a decade. “He’s taken that same entrepreneurial spirit in business ventures [and applied it] to how to solve public-policy problems. What that brings to the table is that he doesn’t necessarily have a playbook like anything that’s been done before.”
Yet that outside-the-box playbook has earned Polis some criticism, even from those within his own party.
Despite representing his home town of Boulder, Polis isn’t exactly a kombucha-chugging yogi liberal. According to voting-record database ProgressivePunch, he ranks almost in the middle of congressional Democrats in terms of the liberalness of his voting record (104th out of 193 Democrats in the House of Representatives), earning him a “D” voting score from the site. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, he didn’t support a ban on assault rifles (he later reversed his position), and he opposes Proposition 112, which would require new oil and gas development to be at least 2,500 feet from certain sensitive areas, like schools, in Colorado.
He’s also an unusual Democratic political figure in that he has amassed a large fortune, so much so that he’s been able to donate about $18 million to his own campaign. His opponent, Walker Stapleton, has accused him of trying to buy the election, but Polis maintains that by funding his own campaign, he’s been able to refuse donations from corporations and other special interests.
But his unique personal and professional background and his history of finding different solutions, sometimes right-leaning ones, to political issues may also make him more appealing to centrists in November’s general election.
“He has principled convictions of who he is,” Carroll says. “He’s always cared a lot about policy. He was always engaged with the state legislature. Jared’s always realized how important the policies are at the state level. I always appreciated that he paid attention to what we were doing.”
That spirit for public service started early in the life of Jared Schutz Polis.
Born in Boulder, he split his time between Colorado and California, in a family that engaged in conversations about the economy, history and politics at the dinner table. By the time he was eleven, Polis had already won his first political battle: At a La Jolla, California, city council meeting, he successfully advocated for protecting a canyon that he and his siblings played in from residential development.
“I think [the experience] was very empowering [for him],” Jorian Schutz says. “[His] voice saved something. He didn’t have to make it up.”
Polis attended Princeton University at age sixteen, and it was there that he and some of his classmates created a technology company called American Information Systems that took advantage of the ’90s dot-com boom. He sold the company in 1998, becoming a millionaire by his early twenties.
Polis then took his parents’ greeting card company, Blue Mountain Arts, and created a web spinoff that was wildly successful, with bluemountain.com generating more than fifteen times hallmark.com’s web traffic just before the Polis family sold the business in 1999. The month the family sold bluemountain.com, for $900 million in cash and stock, the site had 9.1 million viewers, making it the eighteenth-most-popular page at that time. (That was also when Polis changed his name from Jared Polis Schutz to Jared Schutz Polis, to honor his mother’s maiden name and “because I like it better,” he told us [“Young Blood,” August 19, 2004].)
With millions upon millions already in the bank by his mid-twenties, Polis turned his attention to politics. In 2000, he ran for the Colorado Board of Education, squeaking to victory with ninety votes out of the 1.6 million cast. He’d eventually chair the board, while simultaneously earning his stripes in the state’s Democratic Party as a member of the famed “Gang of Four,” a group of liberal big wigs in the state that helped turn Colorado blue in 2004.
It was around that time that Ken Salazar, who went on to become a U.S. senator and Secretary of the Interior under President Barack Obama, got to know Polis. Salazar, who was then Colorado’s attorney general, recognized that Polis might be something special from his earliest entrance into the state’s political scene.
“I would describe Jared as somebody who has a passion to help other people and to fix problems,” Salazar says. “I often speak to young people who think about running for office in the speeches that I give. I use a prayer of César Chávez, and there’s a stanza in a prayer that he wrote: ‘God, grant me the courage to serve others, because in service, there is true life.’ And to me, that’s the heart of what we have to have in people who are elected leaders, and I see that in Jared very, very much.
“He and I share this common approach to political life that the joy is in the journey,” Salazar continues. “I know when he started out he told his staff that ‘I want this to be a good, joyful journey.’ These days, running for high political office, with the huge amount of negative ads, you’re exposing yourself [to negativity]. He seems to be happy and thoughtful.”
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Following a seven-year stint on the State Board of Education, Polis, then 33, ran in a crowded 2008 congressional Democratic primary in the 2nd, taking down party favorite and state Senate president Joan Fitz-Gerald by just a few thousand votes. Polis went on to win the safely blue congressional district in the general election in the fall of 2008, earning the seat in Congress he’s kept to this day.
“It doesn’t seem like he gets fatigued or tired, and he doesn’t get disillusioned,” says Schutz. “He’s lost an election and he’s lost in business, but ultimately those things don’t matter if you keep believing and you keep pushing. He’s really well-suited to being in politics.”
Though nobody would chalk up Polis’s charisma or public-speaking ability to the level of current governor John Hickenlooper, much less Obama, in the eyes of those closest to him, Polis’s gubernatorial run isn’t rooted in a self-financed power grab; it’s based on a genuine desire to use his skills set to help others.
“As perhaps the political person in Colorado who knows him the best...I would say Colorado will be fortunate to have him as the governor,” Salazar says.