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Gay Coloradan vies for seat in Congress
Question of the Day
If anything, Democrat Jared Polis, an openly gay man running for Congress, could use a little more openness. Here at Pridefest, a gay pride pa-
rade and street fair, more than a few of those who stopped at his booth to shake his hand last week were surprised to learn afterward of the candidate’s sexuality.
“Jared’s gay? I didn’t know that,” said Kyle Pape, a clean-water activist who had grilled Mr. Polis minutes earlier on environmental issues. “That’s awesome … To have someone who’s openly gay running for office - that’s a huge deal. It tips the balance for me right there.”
The confusion is understandable. In Colorado political circles, Mr. Polis isn’t known as “the gay guy.” He’s known as “the rich guy.”
An Internet entrepreneur and heir to a greeting-card fortune, Mr. Polis, 33, has already sunk $3.7 million into his campaign, making the race for the Boulder-based 2nd Congressional District the sixth-most expensive in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
He may need every penny. He’s running against former state Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, 60, the legislature’s first female Senate president and a Democratic favorite who’s lined up most of the party’s political muscle.
The wild card is Will Shafroth, 51, an open-spaces advocate and great-grandson of former Colorado Gov. John Shafroth, who enjoys strong support in the district’s considerable green community.
The three are vying to succeed Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, now running for Senate, but the suspense won’t last long. Republicans rarely put up a struggle in the ultraliberal district, meaning that the winner should be all but determined by the outcome of the Aug. 12 primary.
With that in mind, Mr. Polis began running television ads in May. His opponents, unable to match his resources, have yet to follow, saving their media dollars for the weeks immediately preceding the election.
Fitz-Gerald spokesman Matt Moseley pointed to his candidate’s strength at the party caucuses, where she took 61 percent of the vote, and dismissed Mr. Polis’ financial dominance.
“If the only way you can win is to dump $4 million of your own money into your campaign, what does that say about you as a candidate?” Mr. Moseley said.
Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann noted that Colorado has seen other uber-rich candidates, notably oilman Bruce Benson and beer baron Pete Coors, go down to defeat despite their hefty war chests.
“Polis’ money puts him in the game, but to mix metaphors, it doesn’t close the sale,” Mr. Sondermann said. “His personal contributions guarantee him exposure, a voice and visibility, but they don’t guarantee a result.”
There’s something else. Even though Mr. Polis has spent millions on Democratic candidates and causes, to the point where he can be credited in part with the party’s takeover of the state legislature, his relationship with the party establishment can best be described as love-hate.
More than a few Democrats were unhappy with his decision to take on Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, seen as the rightful heir to the Udall throne. Mr. Polis has countered by channeling presidential candidate Barack Obama, arguing that real change can’t come from political insiders.
“This is similar to what we saw on a national level - a lot of Democrats are hungry for change, and feel it can’t come from within the system,” Mr. Polis said. “Like the Obama campaign, we’re not taking PAC money. It’s hard for real change to come from anyone who’s been in the system.”
Certainly, Mr. Polis has some experience with ruffling the status quo. In 2000, four years out of Princeton University, he stunned Colorado politicos by spending nearly $1 million to win a seat on the state board of education.
His opponent, the incumbent board member, spent $11,000. Mr. Polis won by 90 votes.
A few years later, he teamed up with three fellow millionaires, software mogul Tim Gill, medical-technology heiress Pat Stryker and businessman Rutt Bridges in an effort to flip the Republican legislature by funding independent but pro-Democrat campaign committees.
It worked: The Democrats took over both houses in 2004. Any good will Mr. Polis earned from such largesse, however, evaporated in 2006 when he threw his weight behind Amendment 41, a Common Cause-backed ethics measure aimed at reining in lobbyists.
The measure, which placed a $50 cap on gifts to state employees, passed in November over the objections of many lawmakers. Within weeks, stories abounded about low-level secretaries and clerks worried that Amendment 41 would result in their children being denied state scholarships.
In the ensuing uproar, Democratic legislators placed the blame squarely on Mr. Polis. State Sen. Peter Groff dubbed the measure “Jared’s Law,” even as Mr. Polis insisted that the amendment was being misinterpreted.
The measure has so far survived several court challenges, although more are expected, and a commission has been appointed to hear ethics violations.
While the episode contributed to Mr. Polis’ reputation as a maverick, it’s hurt him with big-name endorsements. Most top Democrats are supporting Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, including all three of the other “four millionaires” - even Mr. Gill, a nationally known backer of gay causes who’s also openly gay.
Mr. Polis shrugged off the Gill snub - “Tim doesn’t live in the district” - and pointed out that other gay leaders who marched with him in the Pridefest parade are buoyed by the chance to make a little history.
If elected, Mr. Polis would be the first openly gay man to win a House race without the benefit of incumbency. Both of the known homosexual men to win House seats - former Rep. Gerry Studds and Rep. Barney Frank, both Massachusetts Democrats - disclosed their sexuality after having first won election to Congress.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democrat, was the first openly gay woman to be elected when she won in 1998.
Of course, Mr. Polis may have to work on the “open” part.
“Is Jared gay? That’s a definite plus,” said Boulder resident Arthur Gonzales after meeting Mr. Polis. “I just thought he was gay-friendly.”
About the Author
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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