How Gov.-Elect Jared Polis Rose From A Dorm Room Coder To Colorado’s Top Executive

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<p>Meredith Turk/CPR News</p>
<p>Jared Polis speaks at the Democratic election night party, with his family behind him on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.</p>
Photo: Election Night 2018 9 | Democratic Party Jared Polis Kids MT
Jared Polis speaks at the Democratic election night party, with his family behind him on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

In the early 1990s, Jared Polis lived in the dorms at Princeton University.

Before many people even knew what the internet was, he made a move online. “With like 10 modems and a server,” a then 19-year-old Jared Polis and his college buddies gave people dial up access to the internet.

That company, American Information Systems, sold for more than $20 million and sparked a run of big money tech startup deals.

In a nod to his future prospects, Polis graduated with a political science degree. But first, he helped take his family’s sleepy greeting card company, Blue Mountain, online. It was a heady time, before the first dot-com bubble burst, and e-greeting cards were all the rage. “actually grew into the sixth most popular site on the internet” during the 1999 holiday season, Polis said.

Timing is everything. Polis and his family sold the company at the height of the dot-com bubble for $780 million. That gave Polis the freedom and money to pursue politics.

He didn’t waste any time.

Cash As Political Advocacy

In 2000, a 25-year-old Jared Polis jumped into the usually low-profile race for state Board of Education. His Republican opponent, Ben Alexander, said he couldn’t believe the rumors that his opponent had vowed to spend more than $1 million on the race.

“I jokingly said I ought to write a letter and just give a check for half a million dollars and you'll save half a million dollars and I'll step out,” Alexander recalled.

All that money indeed helped Polis win a close race — the margin of victory was just 90 votes. Alexander realized that Polis and his allies don’t just want a school board seat, they want to remake Colorado politics.

“In many respects, they have been successful,” Alexander said.

On the night that George W. Bush won re-election and Republicans swept state houses across the country, something different happened in Colorado. For the first time in a generation, Democrats managed to take control of both the Colorado state House and Senate. Back in 2004, Republicans had a commanding voter registration advantage, of 150,000 to 200,000 voters — and yet the tide turned against them.

“To say that Colorado Republicans were stunned the morning after election day is a gross understatement,” said Rob Witwer, a former Republican lawmaker and co-author of “The Blueprint,” a book that details how the state went blue.

Polis was a member of the so-called Gang of Four, a group of wealthy liberal activists that employed money and tactics never seen before in the state.

“There's no question that Jared Polis with his tech background and as a funder of this coordinated effort really saw the synergies between financial resources and the application of data,” Witwer said.

From Colorado To Congress And Back Again

Through the years, Polis continued to use his vast personal fortune to support a wide range of issues and candidates. According to an analysis of two decades of campaign finance records, Polis donated to more than 400 different political groups throughout Colorado. He supported causes including ethics reform and the campaigns for politicians running for offices both big and small.

Polis the candidate would soon jump from the state Board of Education to Congress. In 2008, he again spent nearly $6 million of his own money on the race. Most of the cash was used to defeat Joan Fitz-Gerald in the Democratic primary.

Polis held the 2nd Congressional seat, which stretches from Fort Collins to Vail to Boulder, for 10 years. He championed gay rights and was an early supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

“One of the great benefits of the Obama health care plan,” Polis argued from the House floor. “Is that we will allow people to pursue their potential, to create jobs.”

Congressman Polis defied easy categorization. On most things he’s a liberal Democrat, but he has a libertarian bent. Polis once advocated for privatizing the postal service. He also famously financed a series of state voter initiatives that unnerved the state’s oil and gas industry and the Democratic establishment.

Tom Cronin, a professor emeritus of political science at Colorado College, said Polis established himself as a tech and education expert.

“He has a reputation, having been a collaborator on a lot of legislation, very active on education committees, and his staff liked him a lot, I know former students who have worked for him, that liked him a lot,” he said.

Being likeable will only get Polis so far as governor. The Hickenlooper years were successful in most respects, but the previous governor leaves daunting challenges from education to transportation to health care.

True to form, Polis spent $24 million of his own money to win Colorado’s chief executive seat. Along with the blue wave that swept the statehouse in the midterms, he’ll have more control than he’s ever had to shape the state of Colorado.

The question is, as he is sworn in, where will the state go during his tenure?