U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Boulder, is running for governor of Colorado.

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis grew up in Boulder, where his parents built a greeting card empire. The Democratic candidate for governor followed in their entrepreneurial footsteps, founding his own online businesses, including ProFlowers. Polis pivoted to politics with a six-year term on the state Board of Education before winning a seat in Congress in 2008. His campaign for governor is currently the most well-financed of all the candidates: He has raised $8 million -- with $7.8 million of that coming from his own pocket. If elected, he'd be the country's first openly gay governor.

We’re asking each candidate for governor a range of questions, including education, health care and transportation policy.  And, because this is the first Colorado primary in which unaffiliated voters can participate, we're linking to the Colorado Secretary of State’s online guide.

Read more about each of the candidates running in the primary in our Colorado Governor's Race page.

Interview Highlights

On how he would finance his proposal for free early childhood education: 

"First of all, how could we not pay for it? It actually saves money over time. A number of studies have shown it reduces special education rates. If kids get preschool and kindergarten it reduces the grade repetition rate. I'm the father of a six year-old and a three year-old. We can afford preschool and kindergarten. Why should my kids start out at an advantage over families that can't? It's completely unfair. It perpetuates the social, economic, and racial divide.

Three ways to pay for it. First of all, of course, we want to find room in the general fund to pay for it. Second of all, public-private partnerships through social impact bonding. This is how Westminster, Adams 50 School District has gotten to universal kindergarten for every kid for free. They have half their kids in full-day preschool. And third, if there's any left to fund, we're willing to roll up our sleeves and go to the ballot to do it. I think if we show we've done the most with what we have, voters will be willing to make that basic guarantee to all parents that, yes, your kids can go to preschool and kindergarten."

On how he would organize a state-led, 'Medicare For All' healthcare model:

"Our top priority would be to do it through a multi-state consortium, and I think that's possible, indeed, even likely that a number of states will feel this frustration with Washington, that it won't be Colorado alone. It might Colorado, Washington, Oregon. Who knows what other states might join? You're absolutely right. The larger the risk pool, the greater leverage you have in negotiating better prescription drug rates. Can Colorado do it alone? Yes. Is it better to do it together with several states? It is, and the savings will be even more profound for you in paying for your health care."

On how he would ease congestion and improve road quality:

"One of the highlights include Front Range rail, from Pueblo to Fort Collins, which can compete on being time-effective and cost-effective for people to get to work and commute from the suburban communities. We've got to get probably more alternatives through freedom of transportation to take more than just the single occupancy vehicle. It's not that lane widening doesn't have role, but you will never widen your way out of this traffic and growth dilemma that we are in. You've got to look at rail. You've got to look at bike commuting. You've got to look at transit planned communities, and yes, you've got to look at affordable housing, so people can live closer to where they work rather than forcing taxpayers to pay for it on the back end through roads to the only places where people can afford to live."

On how he would organize a state-led, 'Medicare For All' healthcare model:

"Our top priority would be to do it through a multi-state consortium, and I think that's possible, indeed, even likely that a number of states will feel this frustration with Washington, that it won't be Colorado alone. It might Colorado, Washington, Oregon. Who knows what other states might join? You're absolutely right. The larger the risk pool, the greater leverage you have in negotiating better prescription drug rates. Can Colorado do it alone? Yes. Is it better to do it together with several states? It is, and the savings will be even more profound for you in paying for your health care."

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Colorado's primary elections are less than a month away, and we have introduced you to all the major party candidates for governor except one, Democrat Jared Polis. He's our guest today. If elected, he'd be the nation's first openly gay governor, perhaps why he held a campaign event recently called Breaking Barriers.

Jared Polis to the audience at Breaking Barriers: As a basic value I, and probably most of you here, believe that diversity is a strength. If you believe that diversity is a strength, then you want more of it, right? That's at all levels, including appointments that I get to make as governor, whether it's on the judicial side or in executive office. At all levels of representation. It has so many benefits. I mean, it means that people growing up from all backgrounds have that role model. It's about making sure that everybody knows that there should not be any barriers that hold them back from everything that they have the ability to accomplish.

RW: Polis grew up in Boulder, where his parents built a greeting card empire, which he later brought online. Along the way he met Pat Schroeder, who became the first woman to serve Colorado in Congress. Polis brought her to this campaign event, citing her as a pioneer and a family friend.

JP: Pat knows my parents, some of you do. My parents raised us in that way. As kids in the '80s we thought it was a very normal thing to go to marches and demonstrations on weekends, whether it was nuclear disarmament or civil rights, we were always out there doing that. I knew I wanted to give back.

RW: Polis became an entrepreneur, starting companies including the online florist ProFlowers. Then he turned to politics, serving six years on the state Board of Education. He was elected to Congress in 2008, representing a district that stretches from his hometown across a swath of northern Colorado.

When the campaign event was over, Schroeder and Polis chatted in the parking lot, where Polis said he's ready to leave Washington.

JP: There's an urgency, where on an issue like climate change, we can't afford to wait until there's a new president and a new Congress. We need governors, and cities, and counties to lead the way. On early childhood education, you're only young once. If you don't have preschool and kindergarten in place, that child doesn't get it and it leads to another generation of the divide. So that's the urgency of acting now.

RW: Jared Polis is in our studio. Welcome to the program.

JP: Good morning, Ryan.

RW: What's the single biggest problem facing Colorado? How will you solve it?

JP: The frustration that I hear from so many people, not just in the Denver metro area, frankly across our state, is yes, most people have a job, unemployment's low. But people say, "Look, I've gotten a 2 percent, a 3 percent raise a year, but my cost of living's gone up 10 percent or 15 percent.” “My rent," or, "my mortgage," or, "my kids can't afford to go to college or buy a home." So it's this overall frustration that this economic growth just hasn't worked for everybody. That's why we focus on how we can raise incomes, really across the whole continuum in Colorado, and also make meaningful contributions on reducing costs with more affordable housing closer to where people work.

RW: It makes sense for a candidate to say, "I'll raise your incomes." That's a nice promise to make to voters who are deciding whether to cast a ballot for you. How does a governor do that? Isn't that a company decision from a CEO?

JP: So a couple ideas. First of all, I support letting local communities set their own minimum wage, above the state minimum wage, that allows communities to reflect the local labor market in higher cost-of-living areas like Denver, or like the mountain communities, or like Fort Collins or Boulder. In addition, I talk a lot about employee ownership models, meaning EAS ops, co-ops, stock options. The companies that I started, like ProFlowers, every employee got stock options, whether they were answering phones taking flower orders, or whether they were programmers. I kicked off my campaign at Save-A-Lot grocery store in Colorado Springs, and there's some in the Denver metro area as well. It's a 100 percent employee-owned grocery store. So we want to remove barriers to implementing real meaningful models, making sure that the people who work and create value actually share in that value.

RW: Are you saying that, right now, if a company wanted to do that for its employees, that's not easy to do in Colorado?

JP: It's not that easy. I talked to an entrepreneur in Loveland the other day, about a 25-person company, who wants to implement an employee ownership model, but when they talked to the lawyers and accountants they say it would cost $100,000 to $200,000 to do that. That's like their whole profits for a year, so it's not realistic. So we want to remove those barriers and provide technical assistance to allow more, and my goal is for Colorado to be the leader in meaningful worker participation in profits and ownership.

RW: Back to the idea of the minimum wage, Colorado already has increased it. What would you say to business owners who are shaking in their boots at the idea that it might go up even further?

JP: Well I think we have very different communities across our state, and it should absolutely be the right, on a number of issues, for communities to reflect the local conditions of their labor market. And frankly, there are vast differences between the labor market in Denver and Trinidad, or Fort Collins, or Sterling. So I think it's perfectly appropriate.

RW: Should rural areas lower their minimum wages?

JP: Well no, there's gotta be a floor, right? We also have a national floor and we have a state floor that's part of our state constitution. I'm certainly not talking about tinkering with that. But I think many communities are very interested in saying, 'You know what? We want to go above and beyond the state floor in setting a minimum wage that works for local businesses and for workers,' because these are communities where often, on minimum wage, you can't even afford to live. By the way, that's not just Denver, or Fort Collins, or Boulder, it's many of the suburban communities. I mean this is a very important and vibrant community discussion and I don't think our local residents should be deprived of the opportunity to do more for workers.

RW: And they are, thus, deprived today?

JP: They are. They're prohibited under state law from setting a higher minimum wage. 

RW: I'd like to talk to you about another big issue in this campaign, certainly for you, but for many of the other candidates on the Democratic side, and that is, education. You would like free full-day preschool and full-day kindergarten in Colorado. How do you pay for it?

JP: First of all, how could we not pay for it? It actually saves money over time. A number of studies have shown it reduces special education rates. If kids get preschool and kindergarten it reduces the grade repetition rate. I'm the father of a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old. We can afford preschool and kindergarten. Why should my kids start out at an advantage over families that can't? It's completely unfair. It perpetuates the social, economic and racial divide.

Three ways to pay for it: First of all, of course, we want to find room in the general fund to pay for it. Second of all, public-private partnerships through social impact bonding. This is how Westminster, Adams 50 School District, has gotten to universal kindergarten for every kid for free. They have half their kids in full-day preschool. And third, if there's any left to fund, we're willing to roll up our sleeves and go to the ballot to do it. I think if we show we've done the most with what we have, voters will be willing to make that basic guarantee to all parents that, yes, your kids can go to preschool and kindergarten.

One more thing, unless you have a kid who is young, you might not realize, all you get in this state now is half-day kindergarten. That's it. Parents have to pay for full-day, unless you're very low income. And parents have to pay for preschool, again, absent a few slots for very low income families. So middle class gets the short end of the stick.

RW: You might go to the ballot, but you hope that there's money in the general fund for this. So often the two priorities that are pitted against each other, in the general fund (are) transportation and education. Why don't we talk about transportation, it's always part of the conversation when you talk about the money that the state has. What is your plan to ease the congestion that is driving a lot of people, certainly on the Front Range, crazy and that is leading to roads that are not of high quality according to those in rural areas.

JP: You know what? When people are stuck in traffic, whether it's during their commute or during their leisure time, it doesn't matter whether they're Republican or independent or Democrat, they are frustrated. They want a governor that's going to do something about it. We have a bold transportation plan at polisforcolorado.com. I encourage you to check it out. 

One of the highlights includes Front Range rail, from Pueblo to Fort Collins, which can compete on being time- effective and cost-effective for people to get to work and commute from the suburban communities. We've got to get probably more alternatives through freedom of transportation to take more than just the single occupancy vehicle. It's not that lane widening doesn't have role, but you will never widen your way out of this traffic and growth dilemma that we are in. You've got to look at rail. You've got to look at bike commuting. You've gotta to look at transit-planned communities, and yes, you've got to look at affordable housing, so people can live closer to where they work rather than forcing taxpayers to pay for it on the back end through roads to the only places where people can afford to live. 

RW: Likely headed for the ballot this year is a potential sales tax increase that the business community has tried to get support for. You've said that if that doesn't pass, you would lead an effort to go to the ballot and ask people for more money for roads, etcetera.

JP: I think that's a critical role of the next governor. Again, there's a compromise with this current governor, and the current legislature. We'll see what happens in November, but if it remains to be done I think the people of this state absolutely want a governor that will step up and lead on addressing the growth and the traffic and the congestion that we all experience. We have an exciting plan to do it. 

RW: Okay. I'm not getting out the adding machine, at least literally, but if we look at the cost for instance of full-day preschool, full-day kindergarten, potentially the cost of a sales tax increase to pay for transportation, you add that all up and I wonder what you would tell a fiscally conservative voter who might be taking part in the Democratic primary in less than a month, who thinks, well this is the definition of a tax-and-spend Boulder liberal here. The price tag is adding up. 

JP: Well, I certainly hope that fiscally conservative voters participate in our Democratic Party. We are the party of fiscal responsibility. I think we've demonstrated that at the national level. I've always sponsored a balanced budget amendment but in addition, this ridiculous Republican tax giveaway coupled with record increases in spending in defense are creating trillion-dollar deficits at the national level. 

RW: But speaking to your –

JP: Yeah, I bring that same fiscal responsibility at the state level. I think if you're ever going to go to taxpayers for more money the challenge that you have to show is that you're doing the most you can with what you have. You also have to make sure that if you're asking for more money around something like education that it's not going to some slush fund carved up by Denver politicians. That people and voters know exactly where it's going to go, and that it will reach the classroom. Meaning smaller class size. Meaning better teacher pay. It won't be eaten up by administrators or districts or carved up in Denver. You really have to show people that they're going to get value for anything else that they're going to pay. It's the same with roads. You have to show, hey what does this mean in your community? What does this mean for your quality of life because again, when you're stuck in traffic it doesn't matter what your party is. You want to do something about it. 

RW: But on one hand you're talking about people's ability to scrape by, especially when housing is so expensive. And you're saying, I may want to raise your taxes if I'm elected governor. How do you balance those?

JP: Well, we want to have a vibrant economy. It's certainly part of the legacy of John Hickenlooper that we want to continue is a growing economy. But the challenge is, our economy, the economic growth just hasn't worked for everybody. For a lot of Coloradans they're not better off than they were before the great recession. In fact, they're struggling to keep up with bills, whether it's college loans, whether it's rent, or mortgage, or whether it's car payments. So what we need to do is of course continue our economic growth, but do a better job making sure it works for everyone geographically and regionally. I mean the cost of being stuck in traffic for your average Coloradan is $600 a year, so that's a tax you're already paying in lost productivity. I think that we can save Coloradans money by saving them time. 

RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner. Our conversations with the gubernatorial candidates wrap up with Jared Polis, the Democrat vying for the Democratic nomination. To energy now. Currently, state law requires that drill rigs for oil and gas be a minimum of 500 feet from homes, and 1,000 feet from public buildings like schools, hospitals. A lot of local governments say those limits are insufficient. They're fighting for the right to make their own rules. Should they have that power to create stricter setbacks, that is to put drilling farther away?

JP: So, one of the reasons I'm running for governor is we have to act on climate, on clean air, in the absence of national leadership. We have a plan to get our state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 or sooner. Now, I know we're not there now, and so absolutely we need to make sure that neighborhoods and communities have a say in what happens in their own backyard.

RW: They do have a say already. Do you want them to have more of a say?

JP: I do look forward to formalizing the say that local communities have. Part of the problem now, Ryan, is communities get sued over exercising that say. So, it's not exactly a say. There's lawsuits flying around over exactly what they can and can't do. For smaller communities, they often get bullied and can't afford the cost of seeing something through litigation even if it's a right they have. So, yes.

RW: Should they be able to set stricter setbacks specifically?

JP: Yeah, absolutely. I've always supported the rights of local communities to be able to have a say in siting oil and gas activities in and around their communities. Absolutely.

RW: Does that lead to a difficult patchwork for the industry?

JP: No. It's the same thing we do with cannabis. It's the same thing I proposed doing with minimum wage. We need to empower problem solvers closest to the ground, closest to our local communities. The city council people are the people that you know are responsive to you. These decisions shouldn't all be made by Denver politicians. They should be made in your community to reflect your neighborhood values and your community values around siting and zoning. 

RW: Let's talk about the 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2040. You cite climate change as a major threat and a motivator in that goal. Here is what one of your Democratic primary opponents, this is the current Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne. Here's what she said at a candidate forum about your goal a few months ago.

Donna Lynne: If I'm your governor, I'm your governor between 2019 and 2027, and I'm going to work really hard on long range plans that are in place and that we can achieve during my term. I don't think it's responsible to talk about so far in the future that we can't really even understand where we're going to go. So my promise to you with respect to any transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is it's going to be realistic.

RW: When you hear a candidate say I'm promising something for 2040 when I'm not in office, is that a promise that you just can't keep?

JP: Not only is it responsible, it's imperative to talk about the big, bold goal of getting to 100 percent renewable energy. When John F. Kennedy talked about going to the Moon within a decade, he said that in 1961. He didn't live nor serve to see that out, but you know what, America did it. We in Colorado need to reach a hundred percent renewable energy by 2040 or sooner for our air, for our climate, and also to create good green jobs.
So, I think people are excited about this bold goal. That's why Sierra Club has endorsed me. That's why I have support, strong support from those who care about the health of our kids and clean air. We're going to get it done right here in Colorado. It starts somewhere, and we're going to start the process in place to make that conversion complete by 2040 or sooner.

RW: Obstacles that people point to are cost; also, the idea that there is just not the battery technology that exists today to store that energy for when the sun isn't shinning and the wind isn't blowing. How do you make a promise like that without the technology, perhaps, in place to make that a reality?

JP: Well, again, it's a lot easier to foresee the route to that than it might have been to foresee the route to putting a person on the Moon in 1961. We're there today. The cost of new wind generation is already 15 percent less than new coal. We have a comprehensive plan to get to a hundred percent renewable energy on my website at polisforcolorado.com. It includes raising the cap on community-scale solar, lowering the financing costs for home solar, working through the public utilities commission with our investor in utilities, and working alongside our co-ops and our municipal utilities to help them reach that goal.

RW: What do you say to someone who works in oil and gas right now?

JP: Well, you know, again, I think that's a cyclical economy. People know that. There's good times and there's bad times. What I'm excited about, is, in Mesa County today, Grand Junction area, traditionally an oil and gas county, there's actually more jobs today in the outdoor tourism and recreation industry. I'm proud to be supported by the pipefitters and many of the men and women that work in oil and gas in other areas, and you know what? We want to make sure they're first in line for good, green, renewable energy jobs. There's going to be as many, if not more, jobs in energy in 10 years and in 20 years than there are today, and we want to make sure the people that work in fossil fuels are able to have that transition, to have good-paying jobs in renewable energy. 

RW: To health care, you've endorsed a plan called Medicare for All. You've sponsored that legislation in Congress. It's gone nowhere. How do you make it happen as governor?

JP: It's time for the states to lead. Again, that's why I'm running for governor. It's not going to happen nationally until, I think, a number of states have stepped up. Every other industrialized nation has some form of universal health care. Of course we can get it done. When people say, "We can't," I say, "How can you say we can't, when everybody else does it?" Americans are getting ripped off and we're paying too much for prescription drugs and for health care coverage. One large risk pool, negotiating for prescription drug rates, taking that burden off of small businesses for providing health care. This will be a boon to our economy, as well as finally recognizing that health care is a human right. And we have the policies to get that done in Colorado.

RW: But doesn't health care also benefit from economies of scale? In other words, does it make sense for a state to lead on something like that?

JP: So, our top priority would be to do it through a multi-state consortium, and I think that's possible, indeed, even likely that a number of states will feel this frustration with Washington, that it won't be Colorado alone. It might Colorado, Washington, Oregon. Who knows what other states might join? You're absolutely right. The larger the risk pool, the greater leverage you have in negotiating better prescription drug rates. Can Colorado do it alone? Yes. Is it better to do it together with several states? It is, and the savings will be even more profound for you in paying for your health care.

RW: In 2013, there was a proposal in Congress to ban a variety of military-style weapons. At the time, the Denver Post said you opposed the measure. The Post quoted you as saying, "I believe it would make it harder for Colorado families to defend themselves, and also interfere with the recreational use of guns by law-abiding Coloradans." Earlier this year, you sponsored a bill in Congress to ban assault-style weapons. Just briefly, what changed?

JP: I've always taken on the NRA from my first days in office, and I supported universal background checks, co-authored a bipartisan bill to ban bump stocks. You know, we haven't even gotten that done at the national level, which is why, again, I'm running for governor. We need to move forward on gun safety right here in Colorado. I think we've all seen just the terrible tragedies, and no parent should have to get that call from their school, and as the father of a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, I get that.
And it's not like the military-grade weapons are part of that, we have a plan to help get them off of our streets, but it's also got to be a broader discussion around the red flag laws proposed in the legislature, around holds on people with temporary restraining orders for domestic abuse, school safety, and mental health counseling, so absolutely it's about gun – 

RW: But did you have a change of heart?

JP: Well, I think like a lot of folks, I think that we need to fight this on all fronts. You know, I just stood up to the NRA from my very first days in Congress. They've rated me an F, and we were focused on things that haven't even been done yet. But, yes. Specifically reinstating the ban on the sale of assault weapons that we already had in this country from 1994 to 2004, would absolutely help save lives in our country, and I'm proud to support it.

RW: And was there a change there? Was it perhaps the school shootings?

JP: Well, I think what we saw is that when there's a difference between what type of gun you're using, and when people are using these semiautomatic weapons with very high rates of fire, they can cause a lot more damage. Again, it's not the only issue with regard to gun safety. It might not even be the biggest issue with regard to gun safety, but I do think it's important to make that statement, that we should reimpose that ban, of course, at the federal level and, of course, in running for Governor, we would look at those policies at the state level.

RW: At the state level. Let's talk about the AR-15, specifically. This is an answer that I've had trouble getting out of your Democratic opponents in this race. What would you do with people who have an AR-15 right now?

JP: Well, again, what I support is reimposing the ban on the sale of weapons that meet a certain firing rate categorization or that have magazines that meet a certain, that are banned now in Colorado. 

RW: Would it be retroactive to those who have those now?

JP: Well, the ban that was in place federally was going forward. I'm not exactly sure how someone would implement something that was retroactive, but, again, I think the goal is to get weapons of war off the streets, but your focus on this one gun issue should not be to the detriment of so many other gun safety issues that actually can save even more lives. And when we look at the nexus between domestic violence and gun abuse, we need to find a way where somebody's under a temporary restraining order in a domestic case to temporarily lose access to their weapons. The Red Flag Law around mental health, and a mental health hold on access to guns …

RW: You'd pursue that as governor.

JP: Absolutely. These will save even more lives. Again, these are all important parts of the discussion around gun safety, and what you'll find in me as governor is a governor who's willing to have all of those discussions in a fact-based way to try to save lives so that no parent has to get the unthinkable call.

RW: Before we go, I want to talk just briefly about the campaign and, specifically, campaign finance. You have $8 million in contributions, and $7.8 million of that is your own money. Why, for all intents and purposes, bankroll your own campaign?

JP: Well, when I got into this, I said, "You know what? I'm not going to run to be the candidate of the special interests or outside backers. I want to be only beholden to the people of Colorado," and our campaign finance system is broken. I have long supported public financing of campaigns, matching funds for small donations, banning PACs, transparency on the dark money, and I'll work to get that done as governor. 

RW: Are you saying –

JP: Where we are today, we need to make sure that we can show that we're able to compete and have the resources to compete with the outside dark money and that I'll work for no one but the people who put me there.

RW: Are you saying that you'd like a world someday where you wouldn't have to or wouldn't even be able to bankroll to that degree?

JP: Yeah, exactly. It's a horrible choice that candidates have today, and I would much rather, I've had over 200 grassroots meet and greets across the state. If you'd like to host one, you can sign up at PolisForColorado.com.

RW: You've heard that website a few times this interview.

JP: That, to me, is a more important way to campaign than having dinner with 10 millionaires in a Denver steakhouse every night. And I think that's what some of the other candidates have been forced to do. And I'm excited to be out there having these community discussions.

RW: Thank you for being with us.

JP: It's a pleasure. Thank you Ryan.

RW: Jared Polis, congressman from Boulder and running for governor in the Democratic primary. This is the last of our interviews with the major party candidates before the primaries. You can hear the conversations we've already aired, read transcripts at cpr.org and next week we launch a podcast of all these gubernatorial interviews.