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The morning of June 10, 2014, dawns on Washington, D.C., as it typically does in summer: under a sodden blanket of humidity. Although the temperature won’t top 80 degrees all day, by 7:30 a.m. the oppressive mugginess has already settled, eased every few minutes by a fleeting, fluttering breeze. On a pristinely manicured baseball diamond at Gallaudet University, clouds loom overhead, churning toward a storm. As the Democratic congressional baseball team goes through its daily spring practice, banter and good-natured smack talk fill the air. A small boy, the son of the team’s lone female member, California’s U.S. Representative Linda Sanchez, pinballs around foul territory, chatting with players and visitors, climbing on the backstop, and getting warned by just about everyone to watch out for errant bats and balls. In front of the first base dugout, Jared Polis stands alone.
Polis had come huffing up from the parking lot a few minutes earlier, too late to warm up, and immediately took his position in right field. His teammates range from obvious jocks to guys you’d see playing beer league softball. Polis, who played baseball through high school, falls somewhere in the middle, though his worn T-shirt, shorts, black socks, and hiking shoes don’t exactly advertise his athleticism. Naturally, the first hitter launches one his way, sending the Colorado congressman on a stiff-kneed sprint toward the foul line.
He’s been on this team, which plays just one game each summer against the Republican squad in the Washington Nationals stadium, for five years. The annual face-off has been held since 1909, and going into the 2014 matchup, the Dems are riding a five-game winning streak. (“I’m not implying causation,” Polis says, “but we’ve won every year since I got elected.”) He attributes the GOP slump to the same problem afflicting Polis’ beloved Colorado Rockies: lousy pitching. The game always enjoys a good turnout because it’s a $10 ticket, the proceeds go to charity, and, as Polis says, “People like to see members of Congress make fools of themselves.”
After practice ends, Polis winds through D.C.’s urban maze toward the Capitol in a blue Ford Escape hybrid cluttered with papers, empty cups, and plastic bottles. Along the way the conversation turns to the common perception that our “lazy” Congress is only on the job half the time. Polis argues that he and most of his colleagues typically work just as hard at home because lawmakers must be competent, if not strong, in three roles: as legislators in Washington, as representatives in and of their districts, and as campaigners and fund-raisers for the next election. You don’t have to excel at all three, he says, “but you can’t be terrible at any of them or it’ll come back to haunt you.”
He parks on a street next to the Capitol office building, a congressional perk, and plucks a navy suit, solid pink tie, white dress shirt, and black loafers from the backseat, hugging the crumpled bundle like a load of dirty laundry. We head into the building, bypassing a line of people waiting in the morning’s first drizzle to pass through a metal detector (another perk). He climbs a winding staircase to his fourth-floor office, one sleeve of his dress shirt dangling low enough that he keeps stepping on the cuff. He either doesn’t realize it, or he doesn’t care.
Once inside his office suite, Polis excuses himself and ducks into a dingy, cluttered room off the main office. He soon re-emerges, a little rumpled and still sweating a bit from practice. My pocket pedometer has registered a couple hundred steps as U.S. Representative Jared Polis prepares to greet his first guests of the day.
Sometime during one of his brief morning meetings—Polis usually schedules his office sit-downs in 15-minute blocks—his five-year-old wire-haired terrier mix, Gia, appears from an adjacent room. The congressman pulls her up in a warm embrace as he chats with an aide who’s just returned from a research trip to study the Finnish school system. As they talk, he finishes many of his aide’s sentences, a consistent tic in his conversational style. In this case it evokes empathy and a demonstration that he’s familiar with the topic. In more adversarial settings, it can come off as a rhetorical chest thump, as if he’s daring his counterpart to try to tell him something he doesn’t already know.
The office is rectangular, large but cramped with a blocky oak desk and built-in shelves next to a seating area with a circle of dark leather couches and chairs. The canary yellow walls are lined with oak trim and hung with framed posters of cities in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District: Vail, Boulder, Frisco. There are also press clips and pictures from his freshman year in Congress (one is signed in the margins by his colleagues, like a yearbook) and past baseball games. High on one wall is a round clock that looks like it’s been lifted from a mid-20th-century high school. Although it emits a series of loud, nasally beeps every few minutes, no one seems entirely sure why—something about notifying legislators of votes and other motions happening in the House chamber. The alerts go mostly ignored.
Polis solicits his aide’s thoughts on the Finland visit. Before entering Congress, Polis founded two charter schools and spent six years on the Colorado State Board of Education. Despite being the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress and the institution’s first gay parent; despite having founded 14 companies and four nonprofit organizations and amassing a personal fortune that’s been estimated to be between $60 million and more than $200 million (and helping make his parents wealthy); despite heading toward his likely fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives; and despite doing all this before 40 (he turned 39 in May), Polis says the accomplishment he’s most proud of is having started the New America network of public charter schools.
He hit upon the idea during his time running Cinema Latino, a small chain of movie theaters in Colorado, Arizona, and Texas that caters to Hispanics. In conversations with his customers, he began to sense a need for a different kind of school, one that served immigrant teens who were still learning English and trying to earn high school diplomas so they would be better prepared when they entered the workforce. New America also offers childcare reimbursement in Colorado—25 percent of its students have their own children or are pregnant—and classes both day and night to accommodate the kids’ work schedules. Polis founded the first New America School in 2004, and the network now has three institutions in Colorado and two in New Mexico, with plans to expand to the immigrant hotbeds of Nevada and Arizona. And it was all the brainchild of a guy who never particularly cared for school.
Born in Boulder in 1975, Polis was the first of three kids to Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz, both of whom came of age in the ’60s and embraced the era’s antiwar movement and political activism. Susan was a writer, poet, and teacher—she now also makes documentary films—and Stephen earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton but worked only briefly in the field, opting instead to become an artist. Jared’s brother, Jorian, calls that decision the biggest of the children’s lives, even though it happened before any of them were born. “If he’d been one generation older, he probably would’ve worked on the Manhattan Project,” Jorian says. “He decided to take a more independent path, and I thank God for that.”
Although the couple never considered themselves entrepreneurs, they happened upon something that turned out to be lucrative: What started as silk-screening Susan’s poetry on a dozen posters and selling them to a local store evolved into mass-producing greeting cards and distributing them all over the world. By the mid-1980s, the success of Blue Mountain Arts meant they were making names for themselves—today, Susan’s poems have been emblazoned on more than 300 million cards—and the publicity-shy pair didn’t welcome the attention.
To escape it, they moved to Southern California, where young Jared played every day in a canyon near their house, exploring its brush and pint-size mesas and dreaming up elaborate games and
fantasy-scapes with his siblings and friends. When developers announced their intentions to build in the canyon, the local government held a public hearing about the rezoning plan. A neighbor asked Stephen and Susan to speak on behalf of preservation; they demurred, but 11-year-old Jared overheard and asked if he could go to the meeting.
At the hearing an attorney talked about the raccoons, foxes, and homeless population that made the canyon hazardous and ripe for development. Jared raised his hand and asked the man if he’d ever actually visited the canyon; Jared went there every day and had never felt unsafe. He regaled the panel with stories of how he and his friends loved their small tract of suburban wilderness. When he finished, the town’s mayor led the vote to deny the development plans, and the preservationist crowd had found a new preteen hero. (The canyon remains undeveloped today.) Although Jorian, now 30, was too young to remember the incident, he says it’s become part of the family lore and was a formative experience for the future politician. “I can only imagine how it must have given Jared an almost mythical base for future actions,” he says, “that he could assert a value system against a power structure and prevail.”
Despite being highly intelligent and a superior student—Polis had finished numerous AP courses by his sophomore year and passed an AP comparative government exam without taking the class—he always viewed school as a necessary evil that he had to plow through so he could “get into the real world and start doing things.” This outlook never kept him from racking up lofty academic credentials, and his siblings followed his path. Jorian is a Harvard grad, a student of sacred Jewish texts, and a writer who is establishing a permaculture, or sustainable food production, farm in Virginia. Jordanna, 34, recently earned an MBA from MIT and a master’s degree from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and works for a medical technology nonprofit. “Our whole family is a little different,” Susan says. “My husband has never looked at their report cards. And even though all three of them are superachievers and everyone thought we were pushing them, we didn’t at all.”
At 15, Polis told his mother he was ready for college. (He says his teenage family life mirrored the ’80s sitcom Family Ties, with Jared in the Michael J. Fox role—minus the snappy attire and Reaganite conservatism.) She was dubious but relied on her belief in supporting the kids’ choices if they made sense. Just to be safe, she also called Princeton, Jared’s first and only choice, to ask if they would even admit such a young student. When an official told her it happened only rarely, she figured the situation would soon blow over.
Not long after, Princeton accepted Polis. He left high school after his junior year, but not before he spent his last pre-college summer looking for business opportunities in the newly democratized Russia. He’d earned enough money to make the trip by salvaging and reselling scrap metal, and while there he sold privatization vouchers on the country’s commodities exchange, a popular program at the time that has since been blamed for concentrating too much wealth in the hands of oligarchs.
Early in his tenure at Princeton, Polis and two friends acquired a few servers and set up an Internet service provider business, American Information Systems, in their dorm rooms. They expanded and ultimately raised about $2 million in investment capital—by this time, Polis was a 20-year-old senior at Princeton—and finally sold the company for $23 million in 1998. Although he’d been admitted to Harvard Law School, he deferred enrollment; he didn’t want to blunt his flourishing entrepreneurialism. The next time he attended a school regularly, he was running it.
To get to the Library of Congress for a lunchtime meeting, Polis and his small entourage walk through a long, gently curved underground tunnel, the third of what will be at least eight or nine such forays during the day. Considering the feverish activity that unfolds here daily, the above-ground corridors in the 188-year-old Capitol complex are immaculately preserved. The halls and atria are filled with paintings, statues, and other relics of American history, all so lovingly displayed and maintained they can make even the most fed-up political cynic feel a twinge of patriotic pride.
The brightly lit passages underground are less grand but more functional—a sort of pedestrian freeway that moves lawmakers, staffers, and visitors efficiently through their days. It’s lined with overhead pipes and tubes containing power and broadband lines and ductwork. State flags hang from the ceiling, and part of the tunnel has a tram that ferries people to and from the farther Senate side of the campus. Signage is subtle and scarce throughout the complex, and with so many doorways, ramps, and pathways sprouting off the main tunnel, visitors can become hopelessly lost. Even Capitol veterans regularly find themselves retracing steps, trying to remember which route to take to a meeting or where a certain elevator is. Legislative workers stream to and from their destinations, virtually all of them carrying (and eyeballing) more than one cell phone and cradling armfuls of documents and folders. Many are strikingly young, recent grads or student interns, and most of them seem uncomfortable in their new business attire. Whatever unimaginable fortune the government is spending on air conditioning isn’t enough to neutralize the D.C. swelter, leaving everyone perpetually shrink-wrapped in a film of perspiration.
Polis is meeting with Accelerate Colorado, a group that promotes state business interests, and his entourage takes exactly eight minutes to finish off sandwiches and chips before resuming the 15-minute walk to the Library of Congress. The gathering is in a stately room off the library’s main foyer, decorated with rich wood paneling and trim and marble mantels, floors, and windowsills. Polis is ushered to the podium and delivers prepared remarks about Colorado’s highway projects, its aerospace and defense industries, and immigration before he’s asked about the thing everyone in this pro-business room really wants to talk about: fracking.
Colorado’s citizens, businesspeople, and political class have spent much of 2014 discussing and debating fracking, and it’s only slightly oversimplifying things to say that Jared Polis stands on one side of the issue—and on the other stands nearly everyone else. On August 4, he held a joint press conference in Denver with Governor John Hickenlooper to announce a compromise: In exchange for Polis withdrawing two ballot initiatives he’d funded that would’ve proposed adding more “local control” restrictions over oil and gas drilling to the state constitution, the state withdrew its lawsuit against the city of Longmont, which had put fracking regulations in place. The pair also announced that in addition, two pro-fracking ballot initiatives would be withdrawn and the state would set up an 18-member task force that includes citizens to study and recommend future energy policies. Finally, they announced the state would begin enforcing setback distances of at least 1,000 feet (per an existing law). Although the hastily convened press conference provided good photo ops and a chance for Polis et al. to appear to be happy with one another and the deal, many people—Democrats and Republicans alike—now hold Polis solely responsible for the prolonged political circus that preceded the compromise.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Republicans and pro-business Democrats see Polis as a spoiled rich kid who only got interested in fracking once it had a personal impact. A frequently maligned YouTube video shows him explaining how he arrived at a home he owns in Weld County one day in 2013 to find that a large drilling operation had begun, without warning, directly across the street from his house. In the four-minute clip, a 170-foot-tall fracking rig rises near the foot of his driveway surrounded by tanks, trucks, and legions of workers making all the noise you’d expect from a 24/7 industrial operation. Those who accuse him of being a crybaby seem oddly mystified and indignant that someone would see such a surprising and tangible intrusion near his property and want to raise a few questions or concerns.
Polis claims his positions on fracking arose not just from his own experience, but also after four of the five largest communities in his district—Boulder, Lafayette, Fort Collins, and Broomfield—passed moratoriums or outright bans on the practice. That explains why he’s now being criticized from the left: A day after the compromise was announced, “fracktivist” protesters accosted Polis outside a town hall meeting in his district, calling him a sellout and other less savory names. The congressman, who attended antinuclear rallies with his parents in the early ’80s and says he’s comfortable with such heated protests, calmly waded through the crowd and listened to his constituents vent. (He later said the protests outside health-care town halls in pre-Obamacare 2010 were considerably worse.) When Jorian, an avid yoga practitioner, saw a video of the incident, he wrote his brother a note: “I know I’ve accused you at times of not practicing yoga, but that was very advanced yoga. I don’t know of many expert practitioners who could’ve breathed through that.”
Polis’ initiatives, had they remained on the ballot, might have created a scenario for Dems in which waves of outside money would’ve driven more conservatives to the booths, thus complicating, and possibly crippling, the election chances of Hickenlooper, U.S. Senator Mark Udall, and 6th Congressional District candidate Andrew Romanoff. Even though that nightmare has been averted, the hard feelings against Polis within his own party may have lingered. Since the fracking compromise, there have been whispers that the national Democratic leadership must have leaned on Polis to soften his intractable stance or that he may have buckled after realizing he might not have the necessary signatures to qualify his ballot initiatives. He denies both claims and says, in his typically Zen way, that he can’t think of anything he’d do differently. Despite the considerable work left to do on fracking regulation, Polis is mostly at peace with how things played out this past summer. However, a significant number of state Democrats are frustrated that what they view as pointless posturing cost them so much time and effort, all to land on the same deal they say Polis could’ve gotten 10 months earlier.
One day in May 1996, Polis received an email from his parents. The founders of the multimillion-dollar greeting card company had forgotten their son’s birthday, so his dad, a computer whiz, scrambled to create an electronic card that flashed his name. It was early in the Internet era, and Polis instantly recognized the business possibilities. His father had already purchased the bluemountainarts.com domain, and Polis encouraged his parents to put more of their cards online. The simple tweak had profound implications: In 1999, Polis was the point person who helped his parents sell the company to Excite@Home for $780 million in cash and stock. This was a year after he’d established ProFlowers as an online retailer that shipped floral arrangements more efficiently than traditional stores. Polis eventually took that company public before selling it to Liberty Media in 2006 for $477 million in cash.
Although estimates of Polis’ net worth vary widely, whatever treasure is inside his personal war chest means the sixth-richest member of Congress, according to CQ Roll Call, simply doesn’t have to stage as many fund-raisers as most of his colleagues, nor is he beholden to as much influence from outside money. (He recently became the first congressman to take donations via bitcoins and other digital currency for reelection but has never accepted funds from political action committees.) His wealth has often engendered dismissive accusations that he “bought” his seats in Congress and on the Colorado State Board of Education. Criticisms of this ilk—that he didn’t earn his place in government the proper way, whatever that might be—have been around for at least as long as the Kennedys or Rockefellers, but in Colorado the regally wealthy, self-financed candidate is a less familiar political animal, particularly among Democrats. Regardless, as a wildly successful entrepreneur who’s built something from nothing again and again, Polis’ fortune and proven ability to raise money also mean that as confounding as he can be as a legislator, his party’s leadership must pay attention to him—if not reward him—for as long as he’s in office.
Back in D.C., Polis heads toward the House chamber for a vote after having calmly navigated the inquisition at the Accelerate gathering. He walks as rapidly as he talks, striding so quickly across the compound that he nearly loses his companions in the security line as he hustles into the Capitol. Inside the chamber, the vote is underway as visitors come and go from the balcony ringing the cozy floor. Despite the clichéd Hollywood image of heroic members of Congress haranguing their colleagues about issues of grave concern, little of that actually happens in front of a full chamber. Instead, the representatives mill about like high school kids at lunchtime. Some of them move around to talk to various people or submit a vote card; others find a seat and stay there, letting others come to them. The cliques are evident: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, check in and strategize. Across the room, controversy magnets and tea party darlings Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, and Steve King, R-Iowa, huddle in close conversation. Nearby, 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, confers with a few of his allies while, a few rows over, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who recently announced his Senate candidacy, chats with fellow Republicans. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hovers near his post at the front. At one point, the House number two, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, as polished and unruffled as ever, steps to a mic and delivers brief procedural remarks in his baritone drawl. Although his primary election in Virginia is underway, Cantor is heavily favored to win against a no-name candidate and apparently has concluded that being here is more important than doing any last-minute campaigning.
Amid the collegial din, Polis works the room, checking names off a notepad between votes as he speaks to as many people on his list as he can find. Given how much of their days are spoken for outside the chamber, this is the most convenient time for members of the House to see and update one another on joint projects or potential bills. Even so, the chaotic scene is suffused with protocol: calls to order, when and how to vote—even what to wear. Inside the chamber, it’s jackets and ties only, but for Polis, it’s always been anything goes.
Long before he drew the ire—and the offer of a makeover—from GQ Magazine for daring to wear bow ties with polo shirts, usually in mismatched patterns and colors, Polis was generating cringes and giggles for his sartorial choices. Staffers on his first Colorado State Board of Education campaign fondly recall the array of age-inappropriate “Cosby sweaters” Polis sported during the race. (He shrugs: “I’ve always worn turtlenecks in winter.”) During his first congressional campaign, he arrived for a fund-raiser at the luxurious home of his host, Denver investor and philanthropist Blair Richardson, sporting sneakers and jeans amid a roomful of people dressed in business attire. Friends, foes, and associates—even his mother—can’t resist getting in digs about how he chooses to go out in public. “Jared is not one of the best-dressed people I know,” Susan says with a laugh.
It’s unclear if his regrettable fashion sense is a sign of a beautiful mind too absorbed in the problems of the day to care whether he matches or a calculated effort to assert his individuality and keep others off-kilter. It’s a fair question, as Polis is uncommonly private for such a visible public figure. His partner, Marlon Reis, doesn’t speak to the media, and unlike many D.C. spouses, he’s not one to work the room at fund-raisers or social events. Even those who consider Polis a friend can’t say much about what his hobbies are or how he likes to spend his time outside work. (To be fair, lately his free time belongs almost exclusively to the couple’s two-year-old son, Caspian, and newborn daughter, Cora.)
Polis’ coming out to his parents in 1997 came as a “total shock” to them, even though Susan says their family is exceptionally close. Although Polis hasn’t discussed it much since he came out publicly in 2005, those who know him say the revelation didn’t create any obvious drama. His youthful ambition—in and out of Princeton by the age of 21, a multimillionaire and elected member of the Colorado State Board of Education by age 25, a U.S. congressman at just 33—shatters the notion that you have to pay your dues before you can rise so high, which may be one of the reasons Polis is forever perplexing even to those closest to him. One friend, Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank, says Polis, like many tech millionaires, made his money so fast that he doesn’t fully grasp why legislative bodies move so slowly. “Traditional businesspeople have had to deal with so many levels of bureaucracy that they get a better feel for what government can do to business,” he says. “These cyber-millionaires made their money much more quickly; people who’ve built their businesses over generations have more respect for the free market.”
Polis’ positions on the fracking amendments, his support of net neutrality, his frustrations with some NSA surveillance practices, and his unwavering support for human rights issues of all kinds skew left. On the other hand, he’s no friend to teachers’ unions and is a staunch advocate of entrepreneurial approaches to education. He’s mentioned frequently, and mostly fondly, by libertarian commentators as almost one of them. He even once penned an op-ed column suggesting the U.S. Postal Service be privatized. To those who know Polis well, these seemingly contradictory qualities are what make him so unique. “He doesn’t go along to get along,” says Gully Stanford, who worked with Polis on the Colorado State Board of Education. “He’s right at the top intellectually of anyone I’ve ever worked with. He’s like Zuckerberg or Jobs. He transcends the system.”
By midafternoon Polis heads downstairs from his office and through the tunnel again for a meeting of the Rules Committee, whose job it is to set the parameters for floor debates. The bowels of the Capitol building have countless, inconsistently marked hallways and alcoves that house many tiny elevators, some of them barely large enough to hold four people, and the staffers cram together while updating Polis on the rest of the day’s schedule. The meeting itself—a few hours of procedural minutiae about an upcoming hearing on a business tax issue—is as dry as Colorado’s Eastern Plains. Not only that, but Polis is one of only four Democrats on the 13-member panel. No one crosses party lines when it’s time to vote on various motions, so for now, these hearings are little more than an affirmation of the GOP’s game plan.
Polis is the national chair for candidate services of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and it’s no secret in Washington (or Colorado) that he aspires to lead it. Pelosi will select the new chairman sometime next year, and anyone who thinks tapping Polis to run a group whose primary goal is to elect as many Democrats as possible might be unthinkable after all the fracking-related angst he helped create—well, those people simply aren’t following the money. “Jared has a way of working himself out of corners, and his wealth is a key tool in that arsenal,” says Eric Sondermann, an independent Denver political analyst. “It allows him to play by a different set of rules than most politicians.”
Polis spends most of the Rules Committee testimony checking his phone before he’s summoned outside. In the hallway he meets a group representing the Cuban Five, former intelligence officers who were arrested in the United States in 1998 and have become a cause for human rights activists. (Two of the five have since been released.) An English-speaking member of the group offers to translate for Polis until he cuts in. Yo hablo español.
He speaks Spanish.
Polis invites the group to join him on the walk to his next meeting, chatting with the same speed and fluidity in his second language as he does in his first. Ten minutes later he arrives at his destination and bids them good luck. Now he’ll spend 45 minutes crammed into a small room with about 20 representatives of Gen Next, a nonprofit focused on issues relating to economic development, education, and international security. The group is comprised primarily of libertarian-leaning businesspeople and entrepreneurs—this is an environment in which Polis’ sentence-finishing tic assumes a more defiant tone—and the lead member gets a roar when he tells the congressman, “We’ll be meeting with Cory Gardner later, whom I assume you’ll be endorsing.”
The chat touches on numerous issues, including the difficulties of bipartisanship, marijuana legalization, net neutrality, tax reform, national defense waste, minimum wage laws, and a legal decision in California (where Gen Next is based) that earlier in the day ruled against the state’s teacher tenure laws. Although Polis supports the verdict—he and his education aide exulted over it during their discussion about schools in Finland—he cautions the group: “You can’t say it’s a victory to blow up tenure if you aren’t improving anything else. Giving kids a choice between two bad schools doesn’t mean a lot. Market forces are excellent for encouraging innovation and rewarding success, but there’s a lot more to it than just sitting back and watching school improvement happen. I’m a pragmatist. I want policies that work and help kids learn. I don’t care where they come from.”
It’s a good summation of Polis’ overall worldview and political modus operandi: to encourage creative problem-solving in all aspects of life while also taking care not to strand the less fortunate who might not yet have access to those solutions. It’s not enough to rely on tired, unworkable, inefficient, and unaccountable entitlement programs from the left or the blind faith in free markets from the right. Polis and his small but growing cadre of allies on both sides of the aisle are constantly searching for fresh perspectives that combine the most promising ideas into endeavors that challenge the status quo. Over the past few years he’s used this approach to sponsor or pass bills that supported charter schools, affordable housing, hemp-based agriculture, immigration reform, and civil rights for the LGBT community while also being a vocal opponent—on First Amendment and pro-innovation grounds—of bills that would’ve given the government more control over Internet access and communication. He’s even gone as far as suggesting that his friend Ross Kaminsky, a Denver libertarian radio host on 850 KOA, should consider supporting Michigan Republican U.S. Representative Justin Amash. “Jared probably thought he’d appeal to me, which is pretty cool,” Kaminsky says. “And he was right: Amash is my favorite member of Congress.”
Although Polis lives and works in a world of “no”—particularly in the House, where certain members of the opposition wear their willful ignorance and intractability the way a peacock wears its tail feathers—he seems to be perpetually trying to find intelligent, creative paths to “yes.” People unfamiliar with him might expect this “Boulder liberal,” the first gay parent in Congress and the child of hyperintellectual hippies, to be a rainbow flag–waving standard bearer for those who see the Summer of Love as America’s apotheosis. Instead, he’s an entrepreneurial, free-thinking one-percenter who’s equally comfortable hanging out with Caldara and Kaminsky, exasperating the hell out of Pelosi and Hickenlooper, throwing down gauntlets to oil and gas exploration and teachers’ unions alike, and welcoming immigrant children into our education and health-care systems. In short, Polis defies easy classifications of his politics or his character. “When a football is fumbled, you’re not sure which way it will bounce,” Caldara says. “It’s the same with Jared.”
It’s 6:15 p.m., and half a dozen Polis staffers are still tapping away at their keyboards or making phone calls in their cramped portion of the office suite. It’s bigger than their boss’ space, but it’s still jammed like a storage locker with eight desks, a large printer, and boxes of paper and other supplies. Two aides talk over cubicle walls about how best to approach Bachmann’s staff to propose cooperation on an agriculture bill. On a flat-screen TV hanging from one corner of the room, a C-SPAN feed of the House chamber plays under a soundtrack of classical flute music until U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, steps to a mic and asks for a moment of silence. Although these folks spend their days plotting our nation’s future course, breaking news tends to elude them: It’s the first anyone in the office has heard of the high school shooting near Portland,
Oregon, earlier that afternoon.
“Jesus,” a staffer says. “Every fucking day.”
There’s a brief pause, and then it’s right back to work.
Once the final House vote of the evening has ended, Polis attends a fund-raiser in the nether regions of the Capitol office complex for the Latino-Jewish Congressional Caucus, an initiative that aims, in part, to unite Jewish and Latino members of Congress and promote policies that benefit both communities. Among the guests are U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida; U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida; Polis; and Gia, who lounges on Polis’ lap collecting bemused glances as Polis munches his salad at a large, round banquet table surrounded by other pols and attendees.
Before introducing Polis, an official from the host group opens with ceremonial remarks about the promising union of the Latino and Jewish blocs. Then, because he’s batting leadoff tonight, Polis gets to do one of his favorite things: tell everyone something they don’t already know. “I should start by mentioning that there’s likely to be one less Jewish congressmen next year,” he says. “AP just called it: Eric Cantor lost his primary.” After a collective gasp, the 50-or-so heads in the room turn as one to their cellphones and begin tapping furiously as Polis completes his short speech.
By the time he’s heading back through the tunnel, it’s almost 9 p.m. As we prepare to part ways, Polis, with Gia tucked under his arm, says he’s shocked at Cantor’s ouster. He guesses the loss must have been a result of the majority leader’s failure to adhere to one of those three key congressional principles. “He’s certainly a capable legislator and raises enough money,” Polis says. “I suspect he must not have executed his district operation well. The chain reaction this will cause among leadership is a really big deal, because no one was expecting this. I talked to him on the floor today and he seemed fine….” His voice trails off. In the coming days, political pundits will indeed attribute Cantor’s defeat to him being more focused on his own rising star than on the fortunes of his constituents back home. By mid-August, the onetime favorite to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House will have vacated his seat four-and-a-half months early. For Polis and his remaining colleagues, the governmental gears will continue their slow but unstoppable grind, and in his case, the work is guided by a basic, if unpredictable, principle: “At the end of the day,” Polis once told me, “I try to vote in the best interests of the country, even if it’s not popular, while also answering to my own conscience.”
The tunnels below the Capitol are now virtually deserted, and my pedometer has clocked more than 14,000 steps; over the past 14 hours we’ve walked about seven miles without ever leaving the Capitol grounds. With some reading left to do and a few more calls to make before rededicating himself tomorrow, Polis bids his adieus, and he and Gia disappear slowly around the bend.