Within minutes of my getting together with Jared Polis, he almost kills me. Twice.
My near-death experiences take place toward the end of April, after Polis, an idiosyncratic Boulder businessman, politician and philanthropist just shy of his 29th birthday, picks me up at Westword's offices on the way to Coors Field, where the ill-fated Colorado Rockies are taking on the world-champion Florida Marlins. The temperature is well into the 80s, but Polis wears black slacks and a purple pullover far too heavy for the weather -- not that he minds. After all, the outfit, which he supplements with silver sunglasses that give off a goofy, Jetsons vibe, has an attribute more important to Polis than comfort. "Rockies colors," he points out.
Settling into Polis's mammoth Lincoln Navigator is something of a chore, considering the number of items scattered inside it. A Rocky Mountain News piece about his New America School, a two-campus charter high school for immigrants and non-English speakers that opens its doors on September 7, is spread across the dash, and random food wrappers and the like litter the front portion of the passenger compartment. The back seat holds an array of baseball paraphernalia, including two gloves he got when he was a kid.
The mitt he's taking with him to Coors Field sports his given name, Jared Schutz, written in amateurish cursive alongside various childhood phone numbers. As he cranes over the seat to gesture to it, a dreamy expression on his face, he blows past a stop sign and enters an intersection where a minivan containing what looks to be a substantial family has already started to turn in front of him. The man driving the van skids to avoid a collision, punching the horn and shouting angrily as he does so.
If he notices the van or its driver's distress, Polis doesn't let on. Instead, he zigs and zags erratically, but at high speed, from one side street to another. "I have a horrible sense of direction," he says, quite accurately. "I'm probably taking the longest possible route."
Within sight of the ballpark, Polis tries to veer into a parking lot just as a sedan is attempting to exit. This time it's Polis who takes evasive action, jamming on the brakes. He misses the sedan by inches -- about the same distance my head comes from bouncing off a Ken Salazar-for-Senate bumper sticker affixed to the Navigator's dashboard.
After Polis parks against a curb, I'm overwhelmed by the urge to kiss the pavement in relief, but he's entirely unruffled. He smacks his timeworn glove, ready for anything that comes his way.
When he isn't eager to bird-dog fly balls, Polis can seem like the oldest twenty-something in America. His obligations on the Colorado State Board of Education, which he chairs, not to mention his devotion to Democratic Party politics, means he spends big chunks of his days hanging out with folks who are frequently decades older than him -- and he fits right in.
When the subject is baseball, though, Polis seems more like someone who attends elementary school than the person who oversees them. He plays on multiple softball teams, spends much of his free time practicing his pitching at area facilities, and serves as commissioner of an online fantasy-baseball league. This hobby has provided him with detailed knowledge of professional baseball personnel, and at the Rockies-Marlins pairing, he happily debates the skills of players on both squads between handfuls of Cracker Jack and slurps of soda. He's got killer season tickets at Coors Field (they're directly behind home plate, just over a dozen rows back), and he shares a suite at the Pepsi Center as well -- but he mainly uses the latter for concerts, not Nuggets or Avalanche matches. A recent show by Metallica wasn't to his taste, but he really dug Christina Aguilera and Shakira.
He loves the Rockies, too, but he can't afford to spend an entire weekday afternoon hanging out at the diamond. After just over two innings, with the Rockies trailing in a contest they'll lose 9-4, Polis announces that he's got to leave to attend a Democratic Party function at which officials from the Colorado Education Association will be present. He only gets lost two or three times on the way back to Westword, and when he arrives at the paper's headquarters, he has no time to spare. The instant I disembark, he hits the gas, and the Navigator squeals forward like a battering ram on rocket fuel.
Oh, the humanity.
Polis's entire life is a wild ride, and he has the fiscal wherewithal to keep the pedal to the metal for the foreseeable future.
In 1998, Polis sold American Information Systems -- an Internet service company he started in his dorm room at Princeton University, where he majored in political science -- for over $22 million in cash, a deal that looked even better after the tech bubble burst. The 1999 sale of Bluemountain.com, a greeting-card business he guided in conjunction with his parents, Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz, proved to be awfully lucrative, too, topping out at over $900 million -- a ludicrous tally in just about every respect, but characteristic of that cyber-crazy era. Polis took home $150 million personally, with a sizable portion of the sum coming in the form of legal tender that wasn't devalued by the stock-market swoon. Last year, Fortune estimated his net worth at $174 million, a total that landed him on the magazine's list of the forty richest Americans under forty, as well as on a secondary roster of the dozen most affluent U.S. bachelors within those parameters. Appearing alongside him were Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Shaquille O'Neal and Tiger Woods.
Today, Polis is keeping pace with these luminaries via a wide range of enterprises. First up is Jovian Holdings, a New York-based outfit that he describes as "my incubator for starting companies and managing my assets." Most of Jovian's efforts center on Provide Commerce, which runs the San Diego-based Proflowers, an Internet-based floral delivery service; Massachusetts's Dan's Chocolates, an online vendor of assorted sweets; Sonora Entertainment Group, which specializes in Spanish-language movie theaters modeled on Aurora's two-year-old Cinema Latino; and Asia Investment Partners, an operation with offices in Tokyo and Colorado that pairs him with Barry Hirschfeld Jr., scion to a local printing fortune. "We're basically buying notes on distressed property and then either settling them or doing stuff with the property we claim," Polis reveals about the last endeavor.
Provide Commerce did well during the first portion of 2004 -- well enough, anyway, that in early May, Polis was invited to ring the opening bell on the NASDAQ exchange, where the company is traded. "They showed it live on FNN and three or four other networks," Polis says. "It was exciting."
While several other items in Polis's portfolio are more focused on enjoyment than windfalls, he thinks "they could end up making money, too." This category includes Nabil's, a Boulder restaurant specializing in Mediterranean food that he's backing in conjunction with the joint's namesake, Nabil Karkamaz, and January Studios, a fledgling movie company whose inaugural production is scheduled to be The Dwarf, an oddball flick to which Peter Dinklage, star of The Station Agent, a critically acclaimed 2003 indie, has committed his talents. Producer Marc Rosen, a fellow Princeton grad who helped put the Harry Potter films on the big screen, is also aboard. Rosen's track record helps explain why The Dwarf has already received writeups in Variety and Entertainment Weekly despite the fact that financing and distribution haven't been finalized.
Meanwhile, Polis is involved in a bevy of non-profit efforts, most of them having to do with education. In addition to the New America School, he plans a 2005 debut for Denver Peak Academy, a school that's being forged in conjunction with Urban Peak, a Denver establishment that assists homeless teens. In the same vein, he funds the Jared Polis Foundation, which supports many educational missions. Most prominently, the foundation provides free curricula for students in kindergarten through eighth grade in Denver and Boulder; offers access to Starfall.com, a reading program designed to assist learners with dyslexia; and funds Community Computer Connection, aka C3, which refurbishes old PCs for schools and organizations that couldn't otherwise afford them.
For example, C3 furnished 35 computers to the University of Northern Colorado's Native American Student Services department (NASS), an organization that Polis has come to know firsthand. Last September, Polis and friends Scott Stein and Josh Metnick accompanied NASS director Solomon Little Owl and a swarm of students to the Crow reservation in Montana as part of a trip sponsored by the department; Polis, Stein and Metnick take annual vacations together, with one of them doing the planning in secret to surprise the others. According to Little Owl, an account Stein and Metnick wrote about the journey for the June issue of the lad mag Maxim gave NASS "great exposure" -- something that's a Maxim specialty.
Little Owl believes the excursion, which included a buffalo hunt, was just as positive for Polis. "I think going on the hunt, visiting the reservation and seeing the inequality there were big eye-openers for Jared," he says. "He's educating himself about these things, and that's good, because Jared's the future. He's an ally in education, and also, hopefully, an ally when it comes to public policy."
Relationships like these benefit Polis both personally and politically. He's made it clear that he's interested in elective offices beyond the State Board of Education, and in March, he proved it by announcing his intention to seek the congressional seat supposedly being vacated by Mark Udall. Polis withdrew after Udall changed his mind about going after the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, but since then, he's stayed deeply involved with the Democratic Party. For one thing, he's donated generously to candidates and causes, giving Salazar $4,000, the maximum allowable under current law, and spreading $2,000 donations around to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and faded aspirants Howard Dean, Bob Graham and Wesley Clark. Bigger bucks have gone to political organizations, which don't have the same campaign limits as candidates. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee wound up with $10,000; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee received $20,000; and Moveon.org, a prominent national group dedicated to shooing George W. Bush from the Oval Office, stepped things up a digit, scoring $200,000.
Given the size of his wallet, it's no wonder Polis is regularly an honored guest and participant in strategy parleys and powwows with local and national officials at places like the recent Democratic convention in Boston, which he attended in its entirety. "I don't want to put Jared in the category of future leader, because I think he's a leader now," says Chris Gates, head of Colorado's Democratic Party. "He came into the political process as a young man who was fairly new to this world, and we've all seen him grow and mature and, frankly, become a real player in the last few years. He's absolutely one of the leaders of our party right now."
With a little help from friends like these, even bigger things may be in the offing. Although Polis says that the work related to his foundation is done "for social good," pure and simple, there's no denying how nice it might look on a political resumé. Yet Polis remains a largely unproven commodity on a statewide scale; he spent a sum in the high six figures running for the State Board of Education's at-large seat in 2000, as opposed to under $11,000 expended by the incumbent, former Republican state senator Ben Alexander, but he won by just ninety votes out of over a million cast. Since then, he's collected no shortage of enemies. Critics like Republican state senator John Andrews feel that Polis has a dark side that even his greenbacks can't paper over.
"Polis is a gravitational pull on the Democratic Party of Colorado that's a whole lot like the gravitational pull of Saudia Arabia on the world oil industry, and not much more healthy," Andrews says. "You combine huge dollars with a passion for secrecy, and honorable Democrats like Mark Udall or Ken Salazar are probably somewhat embarrassed by him, even if they won't admit it."
To that, Polis offers the verbal equivalent of a shrug. "I don't particularly care what people think of me," he says, "as long as I know what I'm doing is right."
Does that mean Polis isn't concerned with his image? Not quite.
At one juncture, I ask him for the names of anyone he thinks would have interesting things to say about him, good or bad. At first he demurs, telling me that I should feel free to speak with anyone I please -- but when word filters back to him that I've been reaching out to a lot of political colleagues and observers, he e-mails a batch of suggestions for extra contacts, all of whom are employed by him or collaborate with him on non-profit projects.
Not surprisingly, each of these individuals speaks of Polis in glowing terms. "I've worked with Jared for four years, and I'm continually amazed with all he does in this community," says Lisa Finkelstein, executive director of the Jared Polis Foundation.
"He's great and really innovative," chimes in Wayne Jin, director of the C3 program, who predicts that he and his associates will give away 3,000 computers to deserving individuals during 2004. "He's always got great ideas."
Polly Baca, chief executive officer of the Latin American Research and Service Academy (LARASA), agrees. A New America School boardmember and partner with Polis on assorted LARASA undertakings, she finds him to be "very proactive -- a very thoughtful person with a big heart."
"He has a passion to give kids who normally don't get opportunities the chance to be successful in school," adds Richard Garcia, founder of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition and president of the New America School's board. "At the New America School, he's focusing on immigrants who are in the sixteen-to-twenty age group -- kids who are on the verge of dropping out, have dropped out, or haven't even registered. Society often discards these youths, but he's reaching out to them. In that way, what he's doing is really visionary."
Susan Polis Schutz, Polis's mom, couldn't have said it better herself -- but when it comes to this profile, she keeps her lips zipped. She's released a new book through the Schutzes' Blue Mountain Arts publishing company titled Blue Mountain: Turning Dreams Into Reality, which tells the tale of her various personal and business travails and triumphs. Many of these adventures directly involved Jared, but she didn't respond to multiple interview requests -- even those passed along by her son. "My mother doesn't do many interviews," Polis says.
Schutz takes as offbeat an approach to autobiography as she does to book publicity. In Blue Mountain, she juxtaposes her softer qualities, epitomized by the extremely dewy, sentimental verse that turned her greeting-card company into a left-field success, with the steel it took to file lawsuits against two corporate behemoths, Hallmark and Microsoft. (Blue Mountain Arts got the best of Hallmark in a trial over alleged copyright infringement during the '80s; the Microsoft matter fell by the wayside after the Schutzes sold Bluemountain.com in 1999.) Along the way, she enthuses about her family, but the only one of her three children she specifically names in the text is Jared. She did so, she writes, because Polis has "chosen to go into a career of public service, and his name is well known," whereas his siblings "are people with the right to have a private life, and I don't want to invade that."
Susan is certainly important to Polis. In the late '90s, he changed his name from Jared Polis Schutz to Jared Schutz Polis "to honor my mother's maiden name, and because I like it better," he maintains. The swap wasn't intended as a slight to his father, because "Schutz is still in my name," and, as a bonus, it served as an excuse to stage a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that netted $40,000 in contributions.
Switching a moniker for charity makes perfect sense in Polis's world, where attending posh private institutions like San Diego's La Jolla County Day School, as he did, doesn't prevent someone from becoming a champion of public education. In Blue Mountain, Susan traces his do-gooder streak to his eleventh year, when "he attended a city council meeting and gave a spontaneous, passionate speech about saving a canyon. Because of his speech, the members voted to save the canyon and Jared realized that one person can influence decisions that affect the lives of people. From that moment on, he knew he wanted to be a public servant when he grew up." After expressing her confidence that Jared's Board of Education gig "will not be his last elected position," she prints a poem she wrote in his honor:
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.
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.'"
That's how Evie Hudak feels. In an e-mail exchange, she calls Polis's absences "more excessive than other members'. I have expressed some concern to him about it, and it has gotten better since then." Nonetheless, Polis "puts a tremendous amount of energy into his board work.... I'm sure he aspires to future political office (so, probably, do some other boardmembers), but he acts as if he is going nowhere else."
Republicans who wish he was gone entirely tried to use the 2000 census to hasten his departure. Board of Education members correspond to the state's congressional districts, and the Colorado constitution calls for an at-large seat like his to be added when the number of districts are even, to prevent deadlocks. During the '90s, Colorado had six districts, but the most recent census authorized a seventh. As such, former state house speaker Doug Dean reasoned that the term for the education board's at-large seat should end after two years instead of its normal length, six years, because a boardmember from the seventh district would be elected in 2002. Dean wasn't alone in this assumption. "I know Ben Alexander thought it would be a two-year term," DeHoff says. "Ben was assuming he'd serve for two years and then resign when we got a seventh congressional district, and we assumed Jared was feeling that way, too. But Jared said, 'I was elected to a six-year term.'"
Largely because Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar -- the man whom Polis supports for the U.S. Senate with his dollars and his Navigator's dashboard -- determined that the term shouldn't end early, two separate Republican attempts to legislate the at-large seat out of existence came to naught. Once the position was declared safe until January 2007, the board had to temporarily alter some of its procedures. Chairmen were previously selected for two-year terms, but with an even number of members, it was decided that this period of time be sliced in half, with representatives from each party taking one-year turns as chairman and vice chairman. Hence, in 2003, DeHoff was chairman and Polis was vice chairman, and this year, those roles are reversed.
DeHoff didn't like the compromise, but he signed on to it -- and he acknowledges that the board has seldom been hamstrung by the even-number configuration. "There's rarely a partisan divide, even if there's an ideological or doctrinal divide," he says. "It rarely breaks along party lines."
Hudak isn't so sure. Republicans "are less willing to be cooperative with" Polis, she says. "Sometimes they seem suspicious of his motives. Sometimes they are argumentative, and in general, they seem less forgiving and patient with him than with other members. When he first became chair, they made an effort to cooperate, but at our April meeting, they got upset when he carried on a conversation at length with some people who spoke during public comment, and they made some rude comments. It seemed like the honeymoon was over. However, at our retreat in June, we talked through the concerns they had, and things seem to have settled down."
That makes sense, since Polis isn't in lockstep with traditional Democratic positions on education. In 2003, for instance, he voiced his support for vouchers as long as laws concerning them are initially tailored to assist disadvantaged youth -- a position not far from the one espoused by conservative icon Bob Schaffer. But Polis's convictions didn't prevent Republicans from coming after him again with regard to the New America School. As the institution's founder, Polis was originally on its board of directors, and political opponents as well as frequent supporters like Hudak saw that as a potential conflict of interest, since the charter school would be under the supervision of the State Board of Education. On this issue, Polis acquiesced, resigning from the New America School's board. He dismisses the situation as "pure politics."
Maybe so, but that's the game he has chosen to play, and Orr thinks he's improved at it. "He's grown a lot since he came here," he says, "and he's gotten a lot of valuable experience."
In the beginning, Hudak adds, other boardmembers feared that Polis "lacked knowledge about education issues because of his youth, not being a parent, etc. That has been somewhat true; however, he has made substantial efforts to get to know the education Œlandscape' in the state.... He seems to devote a great deal of time to being a well-informed SBE member; his wealth allows him to do that, in terms of both traveling around the state and having the time to do so."
Even DeHoff admits that Polis isn't phoning in his board duties. "The hiccups he's had in his tenure on the state board have been from not really understanding the role of the board and the role of the individual on it," he says. "But he's learning."
A mid-July day in the life of Jared Polis affords more educational prospects than most people encounter in a month.
The itinerary begins at tony Kent Denver School, where representatives of Summerbridge, a program that helps promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds progress during the summer months and beyond, have readied a presentation for city officials. The most prominent invitee is Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who arrives with his retinue at close to 9:30 a.m., when things are slated to begin. A hefty press contingent is also on hand, including Rocky Mountain News photog Maria Avila and Denver Post shutterbug Kathryn Scott Osler.
After a few minutes of waiting for Polis, whose foundation donated oodles of computers to the project, Summerbridge director Jenn Fitchett decides to get the party started. Hickenlooper takes a seat on the stage of Kent's El Pomar Theater along with other dignitaries and a handful of Summerbridge instructors and students. Several speakers later, Fitchett is about to play a Summerbridge video when loud noises emanate from the theater's entryway. "It sounds like a tornado around here early in the morning," she jokes as she tries to locate the cause of the racket.
Sure enough, it's Polis, clad in his typical sports jacket. He's 23 minutes late and has a shaking-off-slumber look, but the video gives him time to regroup. Afterward, he cheerfully engages in a Summerbridge cheer dubbed "the spirit clap." The clap's pattern gets increasingly complicated as it goes along, and Polis is utterly incapable of mastering it. As he thrusts his fist into the air, crying "Summerbridge!," he snickers at his own ineptitude.
Afterward, the guests are ushered into a classroom to see a Summerbridge math lesson in action. The students, all at their respective desks, have been instructed to keep working, but the appearance of twenty or so big shots shadowed by the media instantly transforms the session into a circus. When Hickenlooper leans over to talk with one pupil, the Rocky's Avila and the Post's Osler get within a few inches of the kid and squeeze off shot after shot in rapid-fire fashion, their cameras' shutters clicking like teletype machines run amok.
A few feet away, Polis glances at a female student's worksheet. He recognizes it as being part of an arithmetic exercise called "exponent bingo," and when he sees that she's got a row of numbers across her page, he tells her to call out "Bingo." She hesitates for a moment before speaking up. In reply, the embarrassed teacher says, "We haven't started to play yet."
Amid the cackles that greet this revelation, Polis asserts that "it's a very complicated version of bingo. It's not like the church version."
After brainstorming with Fitchett about grants Summerbridge might be able to attract, Polis heads to the Navigator and checks his schedule on what must be the most selfless Dell laptop ever made, since it's missing the letter "I." Next on his agenda is a conference call that's about to begin almost immediately, but he wants to take it from an apartment he keeps in lower downtown Denver. With that in mind, he tells me to follow his Navigator in my far less muscular compact car -- a task that isn't quite like a scene from The Italian Job, but close.
The apartment is ultra-modern: wood floors, exposed pipes, industrial lighting and, against a bare brick wall, an oversized photo of Polis in his early twenties, smiling against a backdrop of colorful graffiti. The place is also ultra-slovenly. The kitchen counter is lined with open cereal boxes augmented by a carton of matzoh. The coffee table, which sits opposite a high-tech TV and a pricey stereo unit, is covered with a smattering of papers, publications and, for good measure, a Madonna CD. An end table beside the couch has a hurriedly discarded dress shirt and tie on top of it and old running shoes beneath it, while a desk a few feet away holds the latest in modern communication gear partially illuminated by a digital clock that repeatedly flashes "12:00." The time is close, actually -- a few minutes before noon.
As Polis leaps into the conference call, a slew of people are already talking about The Dwarf, an adaptation of a 1944 novel by Pär Lagerkvist, a Nobel laureate from Sweden. (The dark narrative spotlights Piccoline, a 26-inch-tall misanthrope who commits crimes on behalf of the Renaissance-era royal he must serve.) Those yapping include producer Rosen, Scott Stein, who adapted the screenplay, and Josh Metnick, Polis's partner in January Studios. Polis just returned from a jaunt to Sweden, where he and a Dwarf team led by actor Dink-lage screened The Station Agent, and everyone's thrilled by the buzz the junket generated.
As it turns out, Dinklage was the second diminutive celebrity with whom Polis recently shared time. In June, he attended BookExpo America in Chicago, where he was assigned to assist eminent sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose latest book is coming out under the auspices of Blue Mountain Arts. "She signed autographs for two hours, and I managed the process of people coming for signatures, making sure they weren't taking up too much of her time," Polis says. "And she's very small, so I had to help her get onto things, lift her onto platforms. I was her manservant for the day."
The conference call wraps up just short of 12:30 p.m., and after lunch with friends, it's back to the Navigator for a dash to the New America School's East Denver campus, in the Community College of Aurora facility near the former Lowry Air Force Base. At the time of Polis's 2:30 p.m. arrival, the school's second-floor office is a beehive of activity, with the director, Marla Jacobson, finalizing a class schedule and executive director Alby Segall, the former manager of the Children's Museum of Denver (and a failed Denver City Council candidate last year), checking enrollment figures, which appear to be on track. By early August, New America School board president Richard Garcia estimates that 600 full- or part-time students are committed to attending classes in Aurora or at the Adams County Campus in Thornton beginning September 7.
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.
"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."
Not Senator John Andrews, who's still frosted about a billboard the RMPN put up near the Capitol that accused him, Governor Owens and Representative Lola Spradley of spurring Colorado's post-9/11 economic downturn. "Mike Huttner runs around doing these frat-boy pranks on Polis's nickel," Andrews proclaims.
Andrews can't say for certain, but he presumes that Polis's most elaborate scheme to date involves the formation of two political parties that apparently espouse conservative ideals: the Pro-Life Party and the Gun Owners' Rights Party.
The organizations first aroused Andrews's curiosity when he couldn't find anyone in traditional conservative circles who knew anything about them. The main contact person for the groups, lawyer John Sackett, deepened the enigma by shielding the name of the person or persons who hired him to collect signatures that led to the parties' certification by Colorado's secretary of state this past spring; Sackett claimed attorney-client privilege. These clues led Andrews to conclude that the parties had been started by liberals who hoped they might siphon off votes from Republicans in much the same way that ballots filled out for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election were perceived to have come at the expense of Democratic candidate Al Gore.
Also sniffing around was Mike Rosen, KOA talk-show host and columnist for the Rocky Mountain News. Rosen heard from a man who said his son was part of the petition drive and confirmed to him that the parties were stalking horses. On top of that, Rosen wrote in a May column, he found a reference in the secretary of state's petition file to the law firm of Foster, Graham and Huttner -- yes, that Huttner. So he called Polis, who'd been a semi-frequent guest on his program and had never previously failed to reply to him, to ask if the parties were his babies.
This time, Polis didn't call back. Correspondingly, he took weeks to respond to an open letter sent to him by Andrews on the same topic -- and when he finally dialed Andrews's number, he didn't directly answer questions about the political parties. "It was clear that Jared was just being coy and enjoying this man-of-mystery-and-money role that he's carved out for himself," Andrews mutters.
Today, Polis sings much the same tune. "There's a reason I won't address the charges," Polis says. "It's the sort of thing where if you start selectively addressing certain things and saying no to certain things, then if you don't answer something, it's like you're saying yes. So I don't want to address any of that stuff. In general, I think it's an advantage politically to keep people guessing."
To Colorado Republican Party chairman Ted Halaby, who put out a press release in February accusing erstwhile senatorial candidate Rutt Bridges of being behind the parties before identifying Polis as the chief suspect, such Clintonian logic is positively appalling. "I think this was Jared's opportunity to come clean with the Colorado voters, not hide behind ambiguous statements," he affirms. "If he was behind the effort and it wasn't some subterfuge, then there's no reason for him not to be candid about it. But if he was behind the effort and he wants to hide his participation, it speaks with a loud voice about what his clear intentions were in terms of misleading and deceiving the Colorado voter."
In terms of the upcoming election, the Pro-Life Party and the Gun Owners' Rights Party won't have an impact, because neither fielded candidates. Their inactivity can be seen as further evidence of their illegitimacy, and indicates that they were dumped when the Republicans caught on.
The cost of this charade was upwards of $75,000, Rosen estimates, but Polis could certainly afford it, and the entertainment value of freaking out the Republican establishment may have made it worth the investment. For Polis, a good deal can pay off in something other than negotiable currency. "To a certain extent, it's ridiculous," he says, "but it's also fun when Republicans see everything as the arm of Jared Polis."
On a Saturday night in July, Polis is among the fun-seekers at Cinema Latino, the anchor for what he says is the nation's only Spanish-language chain of movie theaters. The operation is modest at this point -- he also owns theaters in Phoenix and Fort Worth, bringing his screen total to 24 -- but he hopes to open two more branches in new markets over the next year and expand from there.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
The Aurora base is bustling on this evening, with hundreds of locals drawn to films such as Spiderman 2 and Catwoman, presented in either dubbed or Spanish-subtitled variations. The building previously housed a second-run theater, but Polis paid to spiff it up, and he likes it to be kept scrupulously clean. A piece of popcorn that hits the carpeting near the concession stand lies there for less than fifteen seconds before an employee sweeps it up. That pleases Polis, as does the spotless condition of the restrooms.
He keeps just as close a watch on other aspects of Cinema Latino's business. In an office upstairs, across a hallway from projectors lazily spooling out enormous loops of celluloid, he shows off a computer that tracks each snack or beverage purchase in real time. (Among the theater's customers, Fanta far outsells Coca-Cola, and the most popular munchies are manufactured by the Bimbo Group, a food supplier in Mexico.) Across the room, a chart traces the theater's financial performance. Polis says the most popular diversions are animated movies -- Shrek 2 did well -- and action-adventure offerings, but nothing has compared to The Passion of the Christ. The demand to see Mel Gibson's gory chronicle of Jesus's final hours was so spectacular that staffers booked it on two screens in spite of having only one copy. After a portion of it was shown in one part of the house, it was moved to another projector and cranked up again.
Recounting this triumph, Polis beams -- but it doesn't take him long to get restless. He's got a lot of balls in the air, and if he doesn't keep juggling, all of them will hit the floor. "I don't know what I'll be doing in the future," he says, a reflection of Tobey Maguire kissing Kirsten Dunst flickering over his shoulder. "I like to plan a reasonable amount of time ahead of things, but I'm not one of these conniving politicians who have their whole life laid out for the next twenty years. If there are opportunities, I'll examine them and decide if I want to do them. I can be happy in the private sector, the non-profit sector or the public sector. Right now, I'm enjoying being in all three, and I'm sure I'll be doing exciting stuff in whichever one I'm in."
As he speaks, Polis has the faraway look that swept over him in April as he looked at his beloved baseball mitt and nearly got into that head-on collision with a minivan. "I might be starting a company," he goes on. "I might be starting new non-profit schools. Or" -- he allows himself the slightest glimmer of a smile -- "I might be the governor of Colorado."