One of the most powerful women in Colorado, and a key player in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, is temporarily stepping aside. Gov. Jared Polis’ chief of staff Lisa Kaufmann is about to take three months of maternity leave for the birth of her second child.
Kaufmann is Polis’ longest-serving employee and his most trusted political advisor. At age 38 she’s the youngest woman to serve as chief of staff to a Colorado governor, and only the third woman to hold that job.
“I pretty much know how he's going to react to any given situation or think about any problem that arises,” Kaufmann said of her relationship with her boss. “So, that certainly is something that's hard to replace.” But she also said she believes there’s a strong team established in the governor’s office that can be seamlessly effective without her at the helm, including an interim chief she believes has sound judgment and good management skills.
Sixteen hour days and a low profile
Colleagues and friends describe Kaufmann with a laundry list of positive traits: assertive yet calm, detail-oriented, tenacious, and the person who knows the governor better than almost anyone. Each person in the governor’s 20-member cabinet reports to her, as do 12 senior staff.
Kaufmann said on a typical day she wakes up and feeds her three-year-old daughter Ani breakfast before her first meeting of the day, which usually begins at 8 a.m. From that point on, it’s back-to-back meetings, some with Polis, some without. After taking a bit of family time in the evening, she usually logs back on and ends her days at midnight. Those final hours are occupied checking in with senior staff and the governor, responding to emails and providing feedback to the people she supervises.
Kaufmann avoids the spotlight and rarely agrees to be quoted in the media.
“It’s very much behind the scenes,” she said of her job. “Certainly the folks of Colorado elected the governor, not his staff.” Yet people who work with her say her role shouldn’t be understated.
“When Lisa speaks on the governor's behalf, no one has questioned it,” said Alan Salazar, chief of staff to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. He’s worked closely with Kaufmann in recent months as the city and state deal with COVID-19. “That's not only a testament to the trust he has placed in her but also her own reputation.”
Salazar, who also held high-level positions with former governors John Hickenlooper and Roy Romer, said that kind of trust doesn’t always happen between public figures and staff. “You can work for somebody and allege that you speak for them and then find out that that's not the case. And that's not ever been a question in my experience with Lisa.”
She’s worked with Polis for 13 years, almost every step of the way throughout his political career. Their relationship is so second nature now that she describes it as a bit of a “mind meld.”
Polis himself credits Kaufmann with spearheading one of his administration’s first big accomplishments: the effort to deliver on one of his campaign promises of free full-day kindergarten. “It was far from a given that that would occur,” Polis said. “And really Lisa helped build the apparatus to do that.”
“I wouldn’t say Jared wouldn’t have achieved what Jared’s achieved without her, but it would have been much more difficult,” said Wanda James, who ran Polis’ first campaign for Congress. She hired Kaufmann, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder to be Polis’ ‘body person’ -- essentially a non-stop personal assistant.
James, who now owns a marijuana dispensary in Denver, remembers the three of them spent a lot of time together driving through Colorado’s expansive 2nd congressional district, “And in places that you wouldn't normally see, you know, a brand new college graduate, a gay guy running for office and a black woman.”
Baby boom in the governor’s office
Political consultant and former head of the Colorado Democratic Party Rick Palacio will step in to serve as interim chief of staff while Kaufmann’s away. He’s also known Polis for a long time and has already had a chance to get familiar with the inner workings of the team. He’s currently filling in part-time for another high-level staff member who is on maternity leave.
“Lisa leaves big shoes to fill in the interim chief of staff position,” said Polis. “Rick has my full confidence to be able to hold things together, but, you know, we value a family-friendly office. So we want to make sure that everybody in our office is able to spend those first few precious weeks or months of life with their newborn child.”
Kaufmann’s first child also arrived at a key political moment. She recalled telling Polis she was pregnant that first time while driving with the then-Congressman on his way to give a speech in Colorado Springs. “He said, ‘you know, I'm really giving the governor a lot of thought. I'm leaning that way. I think I'm going to run.’ And I said, ‘Oh great, I'm six weeks pregnant.’”
Kaufmann said Polis was extremely excited for her and her husband Ryan, who is a farmer but is staying at home right now, while immediately reassuring her she would still lead his campaign.
Expanding paid family leave for state employees has been a priority for Polis; he pushed earlier this year to try to give state workers 8 weeks of paid leave. But that effort never really got off the ground. The powerful joint budget committee unanimously rejected his proposal. Budget writers worried about the cost and said he didn’t have the authority to do it. At the same time, other Democratic state lawmakers thought it didn’t go far enough and were angling for a broader bill to mandate paid family leave for all Colorado workers, in both the public and private sectors.
Kaufmann will use a combination of paid and unpaid leave and accrued time off for her maternity leave and acknowledged she’s one of the lucky ones because she has a supportive boss and a husband who can take care of their family. “I think a lot of families are feeling really stressed right now with COVID-19 and working from home and the anxiety around whether schools open or not in the fall and daycare accessibility. We’ve just got to do better.”
Eight of Polis’ senior staff will have had babies in the last year. His office recently held a virtual baby shower for four of them, including Kaufmann.
“So many folks in our staff have kids,” said Polis, who has two young children himself. “I'm almost more surprised when I find somebody who's not pregnant and not having a kid.”
Roxane White was former Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff during his first term in office and the first woman in the state to hold that position for a long period of time. She also had to juggle the complexities of the job with the demands of motherhood but notes that it was much different than what Kaufmann is dealing with because White’s children were in college. White said she’s glad Kaufmann is taking the full three months of leave offered under federal law.
“It's a really wonderful opportunity for our highest executive in Colorado to model that this can be done. It should be done. And we are capable of supporting people to be fabulous in the workplace and fabulous parents,” White said.
Like many offices across the state, the governor’s staff has switched to remote work. These days, Kaufmann mostly works from her home in Lyons, and during a video call for this story her daughter briefly appeared on the screen. “I think she wants to say hi,” her mother said.
Polis said even if there is a coronavirus vaccine, he hopes working from home becomes a permanent change, one of the positive things to come out of the pandemic.
“I think that the whole economy is learning from this and hopefully we can reduce traffic and air pollution by the new normal.”
He said not having his staff together at the state capitol every day hasn’t slowed anyone down.
“We found that they're just as productive if not more, and able to get a lot of good work done without having to deal with commutes and the risk of getting the virus.”
Leading through the pandemic
When Kaufmann got pregnant, COVID-19 hadn’t yet appeared in China. No one could have anticipated the pandemic, or the extraordinary powers the governor would come to exercise in an effort to control it. She said Polis tries to take a data-driven approach in his decisions. But Kaufmann acknowledges they always wish they had more information on how the virus is changing and spreading.
She said the stay-at-home order the governor issued in late March, essentially shutting down the state, was especially challenging.
“That was a really hard decision that weighed really heavily on the team and the governor on making sure that we didn't do it too early, we didn't do it too late, and getting that right because every day that we were in a ‘stay at home,’ the hit to the state's economy is enormous. You know, a day or two here is a huge, really kind of a weighty thing.”
People involved in the pandemic response say Kaufmann has been visible in the emergency response center throughout the crisis.
Back in March, when only three people had died of the virus in Colorado, and just before that stay-at-home order went into effect, she and Polis held all-day meetings on the actions he planned to take, exchanged updates on testing capacity, hospital preparedness and discussed possible emergency medical equipment and how to deal with surging interest in an untested possible coronavirus treatment.
On a day when CPR was able to observe Polis behind the scenes, the pair joined a conference call with the President on the federal response, before jumping off to walk down the hall to her office for an update from the state’s coronavirus response team.
Kaufmann said she still begins her day with a virtual meeting with the COVID response team, and her final meeting in the evening is another check-in to see how things are going.
“So the same team that I start my morning with, I end my day with on COVID response. I mean, it sometimes feels like Groundhog Day for the last five months.”
A long history together
From her start as his congressional campaign’s “body person” in that first 2008 race, Kaufmann quickly rose up the ranks in Polis’ office to become his chief of staff. She also has close ties to his successor in Congress, first-year Rep. Joe Neguse. They met during their freshman year at Boulder and Neguse said hit it off. The two helped found New Era Colorado, a youth civic engagement organization, and Neguse selected her to help run his own unsuccessful campaign for Secretary of State in 2014 when she was working as a consultant for Polis and others. He said they still text “all the time.”
“It's a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job,” Neguse said of Kaufmann’s current role. “Which I think was the case when she was a congressional chief of staff, but obviously the volume of crises that one deals with as a staff to a governor is just very different.” But he said her skill set translates well to both jobs. “Bar none with respect to any political campaign, inside, outside government, she just is relentless when she is committed to a cause.”
Kaufmann said it was an adjustment coming from Congress to get used to the scope of concerns and pace of change inherent in governing a state.
“Every day, every half hour,” the focus changes, Kaufmann said. “We could be discussing the wildfire in Evergreen, or COVID response.”
That ability to pivot quickly and juggle multiple unfolding crises is critical to the job of running a governor’s office, say those who’ve been there.
“Every chief of staff works with the governor to choose the places where they have a public role, but the chief of staff's role is, a lot of it is the blocking and tackling of the day-to-day management of the government,” said White, Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff. The work, White said, never stops. “A governor and his chief of staff are already pretty used to, in the middle of the night, texting back and forth.”
“I can’t even begin to fathom how hard the job is this year,” said Doug Friednash, a government relations consultant with Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck who served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff for most of his second term.“I really can’t even imagine the demands of it and the stress that’s created. There’s people’s lives at stake and decisions that will impact those.”
Friednash said he thinks Kaufmann is closer to Polis than he was to Hickenlooper, who like a lot of governors had a kitchen cabinet of external people to provide advice and feedback. Friednash said Polis relies on his internal team and trusts them deeply. “At the top of that pyramid is Lisa. She’s smart, she’s adept, she’s able to balance a lot of different challenges. She’s fiercely loyal.”
Plenty of people plan to keep Kaufmann on speed dial for the duration of her leave. Palacio said he is honored to get ready to step into her shoes temporarily to help lead the state through whatever comes next. That starts with spending the final two weeks in July shadowing her.
Kaufmann said she’ll likely check in daily with both Polis and Palacio, but wants to strike the right balance to not overstep and allow Palacio to do his job.
Those who know her say, even on leave, she is not the type of person to drop out of touch with her boss. “With Lisa and governor Polis, there's a bond there that you don't duplicate. It's special and it's enduring and it will probably endure well beyond the time he's in public life and she's in public life,” said Salazar.
You are one of the CPR readers who wants to know what is really going on these days. We can help you keep up - The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!