DENVER — Rep. Jared Polis and his personal fortune were instrumental in helping Democrats wrest control of Colorado from Republicans, but now Democrats fear that he may jeopardize everything they've worked for with his anti-fracking crusade.
The multimillionaire Democratic congressman from Boulder is sponsoring two ballot measures targeting hydraulic fracturing, and, in doing so, he's awakened a powerful foe that has even more money than he does: the state's oil and gas industry.
If Initiatives 88 and 89 gather enough signatures by Aug. 4 to qualify for the November ballot, analysts say the ensuing political bloodbath could wipe out the Democrats' gains over the past decade by boosting pro-fracking Republicans and endangering the re-election bids of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall.
The situation worsened last week for Democrats after the pro-fracking Mr. Hickenlooper abandoned his push for a special legislative session, which was aimed at convincing Mr. Polis to drop his initiatives in exchange for a compromise bill giving localities more authority over the industry.
"If there's no compromise coming, [Mr. Polis] is going to end up doing this," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "He's going to be the financier of a group of people who will spend every waking moment criticizing the governor. That is so utterly unbelievable for a person who is ambitious in the Democratic Party."
Then again, Mr. Polis is no ordinary Democrat. Before he turned 30, he was one of the so-called Gang of Four that, starting in 2004, sunk untold millions into creating a political machine aimed at establishing a permanent Democratic majority in Colorado.
Known as the "Colorado model" or the "blueprint," the plan was wildly successful, but it came at a price. Unlike the Gang of Four's other three members — Quark founder Tim Gill, heiress Pat Stryker and businessman Rutt Bridges — Mr. Polis had political ambitions of his own.
There's been no one to check Mr. Polis as he pursues his agenda with little regard for the impact on others. Democrats bit their tongues in 2006 when he sponsored Amendment 41, an ethics initiative that has created havoc for officeholders, and then again in 2008, when he defeated veteran Democrat Joan Fitz-Gerald, the first woman state Senate president, in the congressional primary by outspending her 4 to 1.
Mr. Polis insists his initiatives are commonsense reforms that will be widely supported by voters in November. Initiative 88 would increase setbacks from drilling operations from 500 to 2,000 feet, while Initiative 89 would create an environmental bill of rights that would allow localities to enact fracking rules stricter than those of the state.
The campaign, Safe. Clean. Colorado., recently released a poll conducted in May showing that more than half of voters surveyed would vote for the measures.
"I don't think it has anything to do with helping Democrats or Republicans or independents. It's about solving a problem," said Mr. Polis last month on KDVR-TV's "#COPolitics" show. "And I hope Democrats and Republicans can come together around a solution, and I'm confident that they will, whether that's at the ballot box or the legislature."
He had agreed to pull his anti-fracking initiatives if the state legislature passed the compromise bill without changes, but with no special session in the works, Mr. Polis finds himself under enormous pressure to abandon his campaign.
"If he goes ahead and puts these measures on the ballot, Congressman Polis will be the standard-bearer of far-left green groups, clueless celebrity activists and ultrarich environmental donors who want to effectively wipe out domestic oil and gas production across Colorado and the rest of the nation," said Simon Lomax, Denver-based spokesman for the industry-backed advocacy group Energy in Depth.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hickenlooper's efforts to stave off the initiatives are already coming back to haunt him as Republicans accuse him of putting at risk the state's economy in order to appease Mr. Polis.
"Hickenlooper was poised to let Jared Polis impose his radical anti-energy development agenda on the people of this state and send our economy right back into the depths of recession," said Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez in a statement. "That is not leadership."
While Mr. Polis is accustomed to getting his way in Colorado, he's now feeling the heat from national Democrats. And he has a new incentive to be seen as a team player: He's on the short list to become the next chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"Jared has enough '[forget] you' money to even say '[forget] you' to Democrats," said Jon Caldara, president of the free market Independence Institute in Denver. "However, he doesn't want to be known around the country as the guy who lost the Democrat-controlled Senate."
On the other hand, if he does pull the initiatives, Mr. Polis will become a pariah to "fractivists," who are already furious with him for signing onto the compromise bill.
"Polis has become a top target for conservatives. He looks like an extremist to independents and has angered his base — Democrats and environmentalists," said Mr. Ciruli in a blog post. "Fortunately for Polis, his usual solution to election challenges is to spend whatever it takes to win."
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