FORT COLLINS, COLO. — Rep. Jared Polis will gladly visit a marijuana dispensary in his home state of Colorado. He’ll stand in a fluorescent-lit room with hundreds of skunky plants, discuss the different types of high someone gets from Willie’s Wonder versus Super Lemon Haze (one’s a “creative upper,” the other “uplifting and euphoric”) and ruminate on the local ban on edibles. Just don’t try to take his picture in the grow room.
“It’s like, that could go viral,” Polis says, leaving Choice Organics in Fort Collins. “I don’t shy away from the issue; we talk about it, whatever. But the problem is, we get so many more invitations to talk about it than other things, so it seems like that’s all I talk about a lot — when it’s really not.”
His chief of staff, Dan Turrentine, chimes in: “And let’s be honest, the audience in D.C. is a little different than out here.”
This is something new for Polis, the 39-year-old self-made millionaire member of Congress: He is starting to care what people think about him. The same guy mocked by GQ for his sartorial choices — known as Congress’s chief video-game enthusiast, the first member to accept bitcoin donations on the day it became legal, and a top spokesman for legalizing marijuana — now wants to be taken seriously by the establishment. That doesn’t mean he’s about to start going along to get along. It just means he’s looking for a change in style.
“Look, he’s either going to move up or move out,” Turrentine, who once worked as finance chair for then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton before becoming Polis’s right-hand man, said to me earlier in the day. We were volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity in Fort Collins. Polis stood out of earshot wearing a tucked-in blue polo, an enormous silver eagle belt buckle and micro-glasses while hammering nails into a piece of plywood. His thinning hair puffs up into a little faux-mohawk. Turrentine says his first step would be to make a play to head the fundraising apparatus for House Democrats known as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC for short, “D-Trip” if you want to be annoying about it).
It’s not necessarily the most exciting job in the world, being the chief fundraiser for the House. But with top Democrats getting older (average age of Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Steny H. Hoyer and James E. Clyburn: 74), Polis is trying to stake out his ground as an emerging leader.
“If he does a good job at DCCC, anything could happen from there,” Turrentine says. He notices that he got a bit ahead of himself and adds, “It’s no sure thing, of course. It’s a decision being made by a committee of one.” That one, of course, is Pelosi.
In a lot of ways, Polis fits the bill for a future leader in the Democratic Party. He was the first openly gay non-incumbent, the first gay member of Congress with a child — he and his partner are expecting a second child in June. He’s from Colorado — an increasingly important state for the party — fluent in technology issues, big on immigration reform and willing to put his own money into one of the biggest environmental fights in the country.
But being out front on controversial subjects can be tricky for someone trying to move up in the political party apparatus. Yes, being gay and being in favor of marijuana legalization have changed from liabilities to assets, but on the issue of fracking, Democrats remain divided. Polis has spent hundreds of thousands of his own dollars on a series of ballot initiatives in Colorado that would limit places where fracking could occur, and the issue has seriously fractured Democrats in the state.
This is the Polis people have come to know, the one willing to open his wallet and tick off his colleagues for a cause he believes in. Often that cause is himself.
Polis came to Congress in 2009 with a head full of steam (side note: “Cadillac Kush” is said to be a good remedy for this, but Polis says he has never smoked pot).
In 2008, he spent nearly $6 million of his own money to beat an establishment-backed primary opponent in a race for a safe Democratic seat. He quickly made a name for himself as a headache for leadership.
“We had enough problems from all our guys in tough districts, didn’t need another one from a blue district,” said one former Democratic leadership aide who remembers Polis as a freshman who seemed to publicly disagree with the party more than most. “It’s okay to disagree with leadership, but it’s not okay to lead the revolt.”
Polis’s response: “I wasn’t interested in being quiet just because I was a freshman.”
Acting like the smartest guy in the room — this can happen when you become a millionaire before age 23, then help your parents turn their greeting-card company into an operation worth $780 million, and then start a wildly successful floral company named ProFlowers.com. People outside D.C. were noticing the way he conducted himself. During his first week in office, Gawker ran an article titled: “Jared Polis: To Know Him is To Loathe Him.”
Not, however, if you have benefited from his largesse. In 2004, Polis was part of a small group of millionaires who poured money into outside spending groups aimed at turning Colorado from red to blue. That year, Republicans held both Senate seats, five of seven House seats, the governor’s mansion and both sides of the state legislature. With the help of Polis, his rich friends and their network of outside spending, that would all change by 2008.
“You look at Colorado, and it was the first time I know of that that type of independent infrastructure of that size and scope has been built to run state legislative campaigns,” says Rob Witwer, a former Republican state legislator and co-author of the book “Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado.” “It was absolutely extraordinary, and Polis was part of a very small handful of architects that made it happen.”
For all the hand-wringing in the Democratic Party about the role of money in politics, the ability to be able to bring it in is of the utmost importance.
“I support campaign finance reform strongly, but you have to play by the rules that exist,” Polis says. “Unilateral disarmament is just a recipe for failure.”
And Polis has made it clear he isn’t afraid to throw money around. In 2008 — after he was elected but before he came to Congress — he donated $300,000 from his campaign coffers to the DCCC, and is on course to meet or exceed a goal of raising $550,000 for the current cycle.
But the money isn’t always a team sport. Polis has been a major donor to a campaign in his home state that has raised about $1.4 million to allow cities and counties to regulate — and in some cases even ban — fracking. Polis became involved in the issue after a fracking site popped up at the edge of his property last year. Now he’s seen as one of the biggest spokesmen for what has been dubbed the “anti-fracking” movement, though he claims that’s a misnomer.
“I’m for ‘all of the above’ approach, but in terms of the balance of where this extraction and fracking activity is, it needs to be further out from where people live and work and go to school,” he says as we drive on the highway near Fort Collins. Fracking wells dot the landscape. “The people are already there on this issue.”
This is debatable. Last year, a Gallup poll found that the country was essentially divided over whether to prioritize energy production or environmental protection.
It’s even more complicated in a state such as Colorado, where a Quinnipiac poll last November found voters supported fracking 51 percent to 34 percent. There are plenty of Democrats in the state, the most prominent being Gov. John Hickenlooper, who are boosters of fracking and opposed to Polis’s initiatives.
“Having the party in a major fight could well end the eight-year run of success Colorado Democrats have achieved,” wrote Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli in a blog post last week.
For a member trying to sell himself as a coalition builder, here is an issue that seems to be pulling his team apart. But Polis might be onto something.
“Clearly, he’s made a calculated decision that being in the driver’s seat on a key issue will be better for him and the party in the long run,” Ciruli says in a phone interview. “It may be seen as less cooperative, and some Democrats are worried, but it’s calculated.”
It certainly puts him on the side of billionaire and major Democratic donor Tom Steyer, whose team has met with Polis’s to discuss the issue.
“Tom was clearly impressed with the thinking and the approach,” Steyer’s political adviser Christopher Lehane says, noting that no decision has yet been made about getting involved. “Obviously, they are kindred spirits in terms of how they view the importance of climate.” Steyer has already proposed a similar ballot initiative for local control of fracking in California.
“There have been other initiatives that he has taken on where the traditional establishment, me included, were like, ‘Why are you doing this? This isn’t good for us,’ and it turned out to be fine,” said Ted Trimpa, the Democratic lobbyist known as Colorado’s Karl Rove.
Polis likes to think of himself as a translator between groups. On my trip with him, he sat down with parents of gifted students where people said things like, “How do you ID a GT with ESL or ADD?,” then spoke to an older group of Democratic Women of Boulder County voters about what “pay-fors” to use for certain legislation, then spoke about how both Congress and new companies thrive when there are more “disruptive” forces at play at a panel about start-ups.
“What I want to do is be able to appeal to the Reddit generation while also making sure other parts of the party are at the table,” he said while munching on a Bobo’s Oat bar and drinking organic iced tea. “Internet freedom, marijuana and other issues. It doesn’t mean every Democrat has to change their mind, but we need to have a way to talk about these things without alienating the next generation.”
But for Polis, the trick isn’t alienating the younger voters, it’s making sure he doesn’t get too far ahead of the old guard. The way he talks in public these days, it’s clear he’s realizing that.
“You have to pick your battles,” Polis said at a panel about start-ups in Boulder. “You don’t have to agree with the national Democratic Party on everything, and I certainly don’t. But you have to pick where they are really wrong and go along on the other stuff. Otherwise you risk being an outcast.”
Turrentine, who sat next to me in the audience, leaned over.
“And that,” he said, “is the evolution of Jared Polis.”