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It’s a cloudy August afternoon at a coffee chain in Cherry Creek, and it’s about to rain. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic contender for governor, has just come from a startup event—one of his many stops in a bustling campaign tour during Congress’ August recess.
The wind is already stirring the open umbrellas as we choose a spot on the deserted patio, but the quiet space beats the noise and crowd inside. Dressed in a dark blue polo shirt paired with a navy blazer, Polis gets a needed energy boost from iced green tea and sour candies as he launches into his vision for Colorado.
He’s got a lot of ground to cover as a candidate running a statewide campaign while simultaneously fulfilling his congressional duties in Washington D.C., representing Colorado’s second district. But he’s unflustered by the pace. Long before he started his 10-year career in Congress, Polis co-founded three successful technology companies, the startup accelerator Techstars, and two charter schools—all of which he achieved by the age of 33. Today he’s the 3rd richest person in Congress, with an estimated net worth of more than $300 million.
An entrepreneur to the core, Polis brings a startup ethos to politics. Despite championing progressive ideals, he claims to have little interest in partisanship. “I always approach problems as a business person and say: ‘What is the bottom line and how can we improve it?’” he says.
Now Polis—the first openly gay person elected to Congress, who, if he wins, would be both Colorado’s first gay and Jewish governor—is seeking to lead the state with his unique blend of policy expertise, startup acumen, and fearless gumption. And with 39 percent of voters (and half of voters 25 and under) refusing to affiliate with a political party, Colorado is a state ripe for political disruption.
“I like to think of myself as somebody who is bold and always offers new ideas,” Polis says. As he talks, the rain starts to fall, slowly growing more persistent, until it crescendos into a forceful chorus. Unphased, he continues: “I don’t care whether good ideas are from the left or the right: I just believe in the power of good ideas to make our lives better.”
The wind rises, so we decide to head next door to the roomier Marg’s Taco Bistro. We take a circuitous route, winding through the coffee shop, escaping out a back door, crossing an interior hallway, and finally ducking into the restaurant’s rear entrance. As we slide into a banquette with lime green seats, Polis offers to share his candy, places his lunch order—mahi-mahi tacos and ceviche—and seamlessly resumes the answer he started 10 minutes earlier: “What we need in this state is a governor that embraces and celebrates ideas that work regardless of where they come from on the political spectrum,” he says.
In today’s ultra-partisan environment, it’s rare to see a politician speak freely about eschewing traditional party structures. But Jared Polis isn’t your typical politician.
As a young dot-com entrepreneur, Polis founded Internet access provider American Information Systems (AIS) in 1994 when he was in college at Princeton. Two years later, he helped transform his parents’ greeting card company, Blue Mountain Arts, into an e-commerce success, and reinvested his profits to support the launch of ProFlowers in 1998.
“I have never met anyone with the kind of indomitable spirit and tireless dedication that Jared brings to the work he does every day,” Marlon Reis, Polis’ partner of 16 years, wrote in an exclusive email interview with 5280. “A lot of people would probably be quick to call something a ‘problem’, but I’ve only ever heard Jared use the word ‘opportunity.’”
For example, when first imagining ProFlowers, the company was little more than an idea sketched on the back of a napkin to connect consumers directly to growers via the Internet, says co-founder and former CTO Bernd Lutz. “I told Jared this is a great idea, but it hasn’t been done before and there is no technology that’s in place today for this,” he says. Polis convinced him to give it a shot—a venture that paid off when the company went public in 2003 and sold for $477 million in 2006.
In the education space, the charter schools Polis founded were created to solve the unmet needs of underserved youth. He launched the New America School in 2004 to address challenges faced by older immigrant children in public schools. The Academy of Urban Learning opened in 2005 to assist teens with unstable living conditions.
By the time he waded into politics in the early 2000s, Polis’ role as a disruptor was only amplified. In 2004, as chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, Polis and a group of wealthy Democrats dubbed the “Gang of Four” coordinated an effort to upend the state’s party infrastructure—a strategic move that transformed the historically conservative Centennial State from red to blue in just four years, according to Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer, authors of The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado.
Two years prior, a new campaign finance reform law had placed strict limits on how much money candidates and parties could raise in Colorado elections. The Gang of Four—including Polis, Pat Stryker, Tim Gill, and Rutt Bridges—organized a coalition of nonprofits, which were not constrained by these laws, that met to coordinate their spending to help elect progressive candidates. By taking a business-like approach, they were able to set aside political agendas, eliminate duplicative efforts, and utilize data to inform their decision-making.
Polis told the authors of Blueprint that party leaders were inefficient at allocating resources because they wanted to win friends. “He was proposing a way of disrupting party machines and he was coming at it in a totally market-oriented way,” says Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
In part because of the Gang of Four’s efforts, by 2008, Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, five of the state’s seven House seats (including Polis’ first congressional win that same year), and both chambers of the state legislature. “They called it the Colorado Miracle,” the authors write. “By any measure, it was one of the most stunning political reversals in American history.”
Polis’ gubernatorial campaign is similarly unafraid to venture into new territories. Some of his core issues include establishing universal access to preschool and full-day kindergarten and creating a single-payer healthcare system—two top issues for Colorado voters, according to an October poll. To complement his education experience, Polis chose former state representative and Susan G. Komen Colorado CEO Dianne Primavera as his running mate, in part because of her equal passion for healthcare.
Polis also supports transitioning Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, protecting public lands, fixing transportation, reforming immigration, and safeguarding civil rights. It’s an ambitious agenda, but Polis maintains that innovation requires pushing boundaries. “You can’t be afraid to try, and you always have to think big,” he says. “That’s what we need to do as a state.”
In the business world, an entrepreneurial approach is a requirement for agile companies that successfully create new markets. But in America’s nearly 200-year-old (and perpetually gridlocked) two-party political system, unorthodoxy is both rare, and ripe for criticism.
Although Republican rival Walker Stapleton has simply defaulted to calling Polis a “radical and an extremist” in nearly every debate, Polis doesn’t personally identify as a far-left candidate. In fact, Polis has voted more conservatively than 84 percent of his Democratic colleagues—including fellow Colorado Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, according to the tracking site VoteView. He’s the lone Democrat on the House Liberty Caucus, which focuses on issues like economic freedom and individual liberty, and he was a founding member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which has addressed healthcare, immigration, and transportation.
But Polis also isn’t a “purple” moderate like outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who often moves to the middle to seek compromise. Instead, he envisions breaking the partisan mold to collaborate with any interested stakeholders on finding new solutions. “I am willing to take on both party establishments to make progress for Colorado families,” he says.
Critics question how he plans to fund his core policy proposals. While Polis offers detailed plans that outline his ideas and how they will be implemented, he’s short on specifics when it comes to funding. On healthcare, for example, Polis envisions a consortium of Western states that uses cost sharing to create a common-payer system with lower rates, but so far lacks details on pricing: “Any proposal that I would support for healthcare would cost less than what we do for healthcare today,” he says.
Polis recognizes that change—especially change at this scale—comes slowly, and so he’s also willing to take small steps in order to reach these larger goals. The path to offering free preschool and kindergarten, for example, could start with a transition from half-day to full-day kindergarten.
Ultimately, however, much of the cost and funding of Polis’ plans will depend on the state legislature, where the Senate is up for grabs, and both the current House Speaker, Crisanta Duran (D-Denver), and Senate President Kevin Grantham (R-Cañon City) are term-limited in 2019. “It’s actually a bit of a wild card,” Masket says. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, how progressive new leaders are interested in being, or how creative they can be with funding solutions.”
As a self-funding candidate—the congressman has poured almost $20 million into his own campaign, in addition to receiving donations from more than 4,000 individual supporters—Polis also has the ability to change the status quo, says Masket. “He doesn’t owe the party anything, so he can actually offend some sacred cows with very little consequences,” he says. “If there’s something he doesn’t think is working, he can come up with something new.”
Polis has been using this freedom to strategically court independent voters since the primary—the first in which unaffiliated Coloradans have been allowed to vote. His progressive ideals and nonconformist style may be a strong match for a voting bloc that tends to lean toward party values, but expresses frustration in its leaders. So far, it looks like Colorado voters are favoring Polis’ approach. In an early October poll by Magellan Strategies, the congressman led rival Stapleton by seven percentage points overall and 26 points among unaffiliated voters.
Although his aggressive (and record-breaking) self-funding leads to grumbling that Polis is “buying seats,” he says it enables him to be independent of special interests, and levels the playing field. “The other side will always have more money than the Democrats,” he says. “That’s just a reality.” He may have a point: Progressive Democrats in many gubernatorial races across the country are being outspent by Republican opponents, in addition to fending off millions of dollars in spending on attack ads sponsored by the Republican Governors Association (RGA), reports Governing Magazine. In Colorado, the RGA has spent over $4 million to support Stapleton, while Stapleton’s campaign has raised nearly $4 million more, about a third of which is self-funded. (Still, those numbers pale in comparison to Polis’ own contributions.)
History shows that big money doesn’t necessarily yield big results. Among the top 10 self-funders in governor’s races from 2010 to 2015, for example, only one candidate won, according to a 2016 report by the National Institute on Money in Politics. As one of Colorado’s few successful self-funding candidates, Polis says winning requires a focus on helping people solve their problems. “If you don’t have a plan to make your state better, you can have all the money in the world and you still won’t get elected—nor should you,” he says. “We’ve always been very specific about what we hope to do to be able to make our state thrive.”
It would be easy to stereotype Polis as a wonk. A wunderkind who started Princeton at age 16, became a millionaire in his early 20s, and was elected to the U.S. Congress in his 30s, he’s not exactly your average American. But those who know him best say Polis is also mindful of others, a generous boss, and strongly values personal connections. “He wears a lot of hats, but relationships mean more to him than anything else,” says Reis.
On the campaign trail, driving long hours between Western Slope towns over the Labor Day weekend with no Internet connectivity, Polis’ team suggested he sleep. Instead, he entertained tired staff by singing silly songs, including his Colorado adaption of a popular George Gershwin tune: “You say Sa-LEE-da, I say Sa-LIE-da,” he improvised.
In his business ventures, Lutz says that Polis unreservedly lent his time and energy to help projects succeed. When a holiday surge crashed ProFlowers’ servers, for example, Polis (who had no operational role in the company) slept on an office couch in Lutz’s Boulder home for two days, working in four-hour shifts with Lutz to keep the servers up and running. “Whatever it is he believes in, he gives everything he has,” says Lutz. “You can always rely on him.”
As a congressman, candidate, and father, Polis has a challenging work-life equilibrium, but family is always at the forefront. Reis says that on a recent trip home from Washington, D.C., Polis took his son, 7-year-old Caspian, fly-fishing in Eldorado Springs (a new skill learned over the summer). The next day, before leaving again, he joined the family for a tea party meticulously planned by daughter Cora, age four.
“He understands what matters to each of us, as his family members,” Reis says. “In my case, he knows that my very favorite pastime is walking our Cairn Terrier before bed. It’s the time we get to talk about the day’s events, and what we have coming up, but it’s also a chance for us to decompress.”
Polis says family time often includes taking the kids to the park, hiking, swimming at the local recreation center, and bike riding, which Cora is still mastering. As for his own downtime, Polis is an avid computer gamer, who plays League of Legends, WarCraft, and Age of Mythology. He avoids TV, loves baseball, and geeks out about science. His personal Twitter feed offers a glimpse into the offbeat topics that spark his interest—from a new species of blind eel to plastic-eating caterpillars and quantum computing. You can even find a few memes in the mix.
Reis says the key to balancing family and political life is learning to be flexible. “The only rule of the day is that there is no rule,” Reis says. “What we have discovered works best, is to aim for as much time together as we can find, but to be prepared for a phone call asking Jared to return to the office, or to get in-touch with someone who needs his help. We count every minute precious, and if a plan needs to change, we find other days and times to make that happen.”
Polis credits his parents—who he calls every day (as his mother testified in a recent Facebook comment)—for instilling in him a sense of civic duty. “I really grew up knowing that it’s our responsibility that if we were fortunate enough to be in a position to give back, then we should to try to make the world a better place,” he says.
He was especially close to his grandmother, June Polis, who grew up in an immigrant household in Brooklyn and was one of the first female real estate agents in Peekskill, New York. Polis says Nanny June, as she was called, was his first business mentor, and in a rare moment of vulnerability, he gets choked up while talking about her. “My grandmother just passed away a couple years ago,” he says. “I’m glad my kids got to meet her.”
“She was our family matriarch and she took me on trips and taught me a lot about business and life,” Polis adds. “I can still taste her recipes and baked goods. I was honored to inherit her recipe Rolodex and I make her recipes regularly with our kids.”
Polis may be the one on the ticket, but politics are starting to become a family affair. Cora was featured in a message explaining Polis’ support for free preschool and full-day kindergarten, while Caspian starred in a video on the same topic. “I really got to see the importance of early education firsthand with our own kids,” he says.
Dianne Primavera balances her now 18-month-old granddaughter, Kailani, in her lap at the Polis headquarters on a September day. Beyond her policy and nonprofit healthcare expertise, Primavera is a four-time cancer survivor. She was 38 when first diagnosed with breast cancer, and doctors gave her five years to live. “I had one cavity my entire life and my vision was better-than-average,” she adds. “I had never really been sick a day in my life and then all a sudden you’re facing the Grim Reaper.”
During her year of treatment, Primavera lost her job, her health insurance, and her marriage. “I think my personal perspective really helps keep the patient and the citizen in the forefront of our minds,” she says. Primavera, who marked the 30th anniversary of her first cancer diagnosis in September, pauses to look down at Kailani. “I never thought I’d have a grandbaby to babysit,” she says softly.
Primavera says she and Polis will fight for women’s access to reproductive healthcare, including cancer screenings, contraception, and legal abortion. “No matter what the ideologues of the Supreme Court or President Trump decide to do in Washington D.C., Jared and I are committed to make sure that we have provisions in statute that will protect a woman’s right to choose,” she says.
Ultimately, Polis says his historic, high-energy race is about giving all stakeholders a seat at the table—regardless of their political leanings—and coming together to find innovative solutions for Colorado. “I don’t see this contest as an ideological election,” he says. “I really feel that the issues that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents care about are similar, and they just want a governor that’s going to actually to solve these problems.”
As a political disruptor, he’s ready to find new answers. “Politics is the art of the possible,” Polis says.