Jared Polis, the 43rd governor of Colorado, former congressman, and entrepreneur who has made hundreds of millions of dollars by starting and selling various tech-related companies, is seeking a second and final term as the state’s chief executive.
He faces Republican Heidi Ganahl, a regent at the University of Colorado and a businesswoman.
Polis, a 47-year-old Democrat, was first elected in 2018. He came into office with an ambitious policy agenda, but in many ways the pandemic dominated his first term. He became one of the most visible governors in state history, appearing regularly on television to explain new government health orders while urging the public to get vaccinated and, earlier on, to wear masks.
“You know, somebody has to be governor, and I happened to be here at this time, so I was just going to do my best to make the most informed decisions I can,” he said of his leadership during the early days of the pandemic.
But his handling of the pandemic has not been a focus of his re-election campaign. For the last year, Polis has locked onto the idea that his administration is “saving people money” on everything from health care to property taxes, and that his ambitious policy agenda is already taking on the state’s biggest challenges.
“We as a state can't address every issue you face. Some are a result of international or national issues,” he said in an interview with CPR News earlier this year. “But what can we do? We can reduce your costs, save you money and protect our amazing quality of life in Colorado.”
During a recent interview with CPR News, Polis was asked what was on his current agenda “besides saving people money.” He proceeded to name five ways that he believes the state is saving people money.
In contrast, Republicans say Polis has done the opposite of that. They argue his administration has grown the size of government, raised the cost of living and of doing business, and forced new fees on voters — all while failing to address other critical issues, such as rising crime.
The GOP has also focused their criticism on criminal justice reform legislation Polis signed, including a law that reduced penalties for possessing smaller amounts of drugs, including fentanyl. Lawmakers, urged on by Polis, partially reversed course this year and reinstated felony charges for possessing one to four grams of fentanyl.
“He created the problems he now wants to fix,” Ganahl said. “He's fighting for his own political career, for his own American Dream to be president.” Although he’s been named by some as a potential presidential candidate, Polis has brushed aside the idea of a run, saying in January that he wants to return to private life in Colorado when his time as governor is finished.
On the campaign trail, Polis has made relatively few promises about his agenda for a second term. Instead, he’s argued that the government interventions and programs he’s already created will help Coloradans survive higher prices and economic disruptions in the years ahead.
“We can choose to solve problems rather than just talk about them, with proven leadership working with Republicans and Democrats to get it done,” he said.
During a recent debate, Polis portrayed himself as a realist who can make progress within Colorado’s strict fiscal limits, while also protecting legal abortion and other rights.
He signed the Reproductive Health Equity Act this year to codify existing abortion protections into state law, and in July he issued an executive order to give legal protection to people who come to Colorado for abortions, or to anyone who helps another person cross state lines to get the procedure.
But he has declined to say whether he would support the use of state tax funds to pay for abortions. Calling it a “hypothetical,” Polis also evaded answering whether he would support a state constitutional amendment to preserve a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.
What Polis has done in office
As governor, Polis has succeeded in passing legislation on his biggest priorities. He has often done it while avoiding the restrictions on state spending imposed by TABOR, the fiscal law that limits the growth of Colorado's government and has restrained Democrats’ largest ambitions for decades.
For some of Polis’ biggest priorities, Democrats worked around the limits of TABOR by relying on fees, rather than taxes. Unlike taxes, fees don’t have to be approved by voters.
Most notably, to pay for roads and transit, Democrats instituted new fees on deliveries, gas purchases and more — allowing lawmakers to collect billions in new revenue without going to the ballot. Voters had previously rejected multiple tax-based proposals for transportation.
Democrats’ use of fees has been upheld as legal by Colorado’s courts, which have found that they don’t require voter input. And supporters have held up the changes as bold, well-planned ways to break the logjams that have held back the state government.
“Crazy idea — to actually have priorities and actually pay for them, rather than just squeeze out other things in the budget,” said Carol Hedges, an advocate for progressive tax reform, in an interview last year.
But Republicans like Ganahl say these moves are costing Coloradans and undermining TABOR.
Under the Democratic transportation plan, Coloradans will soon pay two extra cents per gallon of gas, plus 27 cents extra on e-commerce deliveries and 30 cents on rides from companies like Uber and Lyft. (Polis signed a law to postpone the new gas fees until April, after which they’ll ramp up over several years, ending at eight cents per gallon in 2028.)
Polis counters that his agenda will ultimately make living in Colorado easier and more sustainable. For example, he argues that universal kindergarten and partial free pre-K will save families hundreds or thousands of dollars in child care costs.
“That's real money, helping families where they need it,” he said.
Polis also oversaw major reforms to criminal justice during his term. In 2019, he signed a bipartisan law reducing drug possession penalties and eliminating cash bail for minor offenses. In 2020, he signed a law abolishing the death penalty — a change Ganahl has also criticized. Bipartisan police reforms were passed in Colorado in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Despite passing legislation long-desired from the left, Polis has at times drawn criticism from Democrats and bucked the party. He’s known for being hands-on with the legislature, driving hard in negotiations with lawmakers — and sometimes leaving bruised egos.
Using threats of vetoes, he crushed reformers’ hopes of creating a rent stabilization law for mobile home residents and forced supporters of paid family leave to take their idea to voters instead of going through the legislature. And his opposition to a proposal to ban flavored tobacco helped seal the bill’s doom in the legislature earlier this year.
Republican critics argue that Polis oversaw enormous growth in Colorado's government. Over the last four years, the state government has added nearly 4,000 full-time employees, an increase of about 6 percent, according to data from the Common Sense Institute. The largest numbers of those new employees went to the state’s veterans affairs agency, higher education and public health. In that same time, the state’s total full-time workforce — including private employers — has grown at about 3.6 percent.
The state’s budget has also grown by about 9 percent, accounting for inflation, during Polis’ term. Some of the largest spending increases have been on health care and education.
The pandemic governor
Like governors across the country, Polis used extraordinary powers during the public health emergency. Starting in the first days after the coronavirus’ arrival in Colorado, he issued hundreds of executive orders that closed businesses, mandated masks, protected renters and activated the national guard, among many other things.
Lawmakers in both parties said they didn’t envy the position he was in and the difficult decisions he had to make.
But protesters opposed to lockdowns and other public health measures gathered at the state capitol and other venues, and some businesses openly defied his orders. Opponents launched an unsuccessful drive to recall him over his handling of the pandemic. Despite the anger and uncertainty in Colorado and across the country, Polis’ approval ratings remained relatively high.
While his critics slammed actions like a vaccine mandate for health care workers, Polis argues that in some ways he tried to take a lighter touch, relying more on persuasion than mandates.
“The policies matter a bit, and people focus so much on those,” Polis told CPR News. “Do you tell people they have to wear masks? Do you close down? What capacity do you have at restaurants? But what really matters is, are people wearing masks?”
The Polis Administration’s decisions often had a profound ripple effect for the local public health response.
At times, the Polis approach came to loggerheads with some local public health leaders, who pushed for more stringent and protective measures.
In the fall of 2020, as cases and hospitalizations rose rapidly, local public health directors implored Polis to enact tougher measures. That included requiring county-by-county lockdowns where warranted. But the governor’s office took a different tack, leaving it to counties to make their own choices.
The state's system for testing for the virus in nursing homes collapsed as the state lab became overwhelmed toward the end of that year. At one point, Colorado’s death rate for nursing home patients was the highest in the nation.
That pre-vaccine surge ended up being the state’s biggest and most lethal to date, according to the state dashboard. In the next few months, COVID-19 took thousands of lives in Colorado, with more than 450 people dying a week at its peak.
Polis has been the state’s most prominent vaccination cheerleader, on hand for the delivery of the first vaccine doses and rolling up his sleeve for the latest booster. To date, 72 percent of all Coloradans have gotten the first two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine; a little more than half have also gotten at least one booster dose, according to the state dashboard. Colorado’s vaccination rate is among the top 15, according to The New York Times.
The governor and his now-husband Marlon Reis caught COVID in December 2020, and Reis was hospitalized for a few days.
Promises for a second term
Polis has offered few major new policy proposals should he win reelection. Instead, he talks mostly about the changes he has already set in motion.
But he has pointed to housing and development as a top priority for the next four years.
In an interview with CPR News, he said the state would play a greater role in encouraging dense, transit-oriented development. He said Colorado has to increase its housing supply, especially through private development, and implied that the state government would exert more influence over local planning and zoning.
Just as health care costs were a focus for his first term, Polis said, housing costs would be for a second term.
“For a second term, there's a lot of work ahead,” he told CPR News’ Ryan Warner. “Simply put, it costs too much to live close to where jobs are in our state. We have so many people I hear from where their 26-year-old is living in their basement and will never be able to afford that down payment to get out.”
Otherwise, he’s outlined broad priorities, such as making Colorado one of the “10 safest states” in the country.
“We're currently 21st in violent crime. That's not good enough for the residents of Colorado. We're not a middle-of-the-pack state,” Polis said, pointing to more financial bonuses for law enforcement as one answer.
But Polis also may face new difficulties enacting priorities in a second term as a changing economy limits government expansion.
The state’s revenues have grown quickly during the pandemic recovery, but with inflation high and the threat of a recession looming, there may be little room for new spending initiatives in next year’s budget, according to Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen, the vice chair of the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee, which crafts the state budget.
Polis was born in Boulder and grew up in California. He has two siblings.
His parents, Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz, were the founders of Blue Mountain Arts, a publisher and greeting card company. After graduating from high school in San Diego, Calif., Polis completed a bachelor’s degree in politics at Princeton University.
While in college, he began an entrepreneurial run that would see him start several companies and sell them for hundreds of millions of dollars. Those included an internet service provider, American Information Services, he co-founded while in college and eventually sold for more than $20 million. He also transformed Blue Mountain Arts into an electronic greeting card company that sold in 1999 for $780 million in cash and stock.
Along the way, he used his profits to rewrite the political book in Colorado. Polis first ran for the state Board of Education in 2000, winning the race while spending unheard-of amounts. In the years to follow, Polis — who was still in his 20s — joined with three other wealthy Democratic donors to finance a Democratic renaissance in Colorado, dealing a shocking defeat to Republicans statewide in 2004.
In 2008, Polis spent nearly $6 million to win the nomination and the general election for the 2nd Congressional seat, which he held for 10 years. He put his focus on gay rights, marijuana legalization and the Affordable Care Act. (Along the way, he was also dubbed worst-dressed congressman by GQ magazine)
In his first run for governor four years ago, Polis spent $23 million of his own money. He won, as did Democrats across the state — beginning a period of blue dominance that has continued through the current elections. His election was historic; Polis was the first openly gay man to be elected governor of any U.S. state.
Polis and his longtime partner, Marlon Reis, married in September 2021. They have two children.
Polis is seen as a particularly strong incumbent, especially since he is putting millions of dollars into his own campaign. (Unlike with outside donations, there are no limits on how much of their own money candidates can put into their campaigns.)
As of mid-September, Polis had contributed more than $9.7 million to his campaign and had collected about another $400,000 in donations from others. That’s actually behind the pace of his 2018 campaign, but he could quickly transfer more money as the final weeks of the election approach.
Ganahl lags far behind in funding, with her campaign having collected about $1.8 million, of which about $400,000 came from the candidate herself. But she also is getting support from a Weld County conservative who is spending millions on her behalf.
CPR News health reporter John Daley contributed to this article.
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