Polis taps outgoing statehouse speaker Alec Garnett as new chief of staff

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis and House Speaker Alec Garnett at a signing ceremony for SB21-260 on Thursday, June 17, 2021, underneath Interstate 70 at the bottom of Floyd Hill, beside Clear Creek. The transportation funding bill passed this legislative session is projected to raise $5.4 billion by the 2031-32 fiscal year.

Colorado’s outgoing Speaker of the House, Democrat Alec Garnett, is slated to become Gov. Jared Polis’ next chief of staff Jan. 1, replacing long-time advisor Lisa Kaufmann. 

Garnett is term-limited in the House, but the move keeps him at the center of Colorado politics.

Kaufmann is Polis’ longest-serving employee and the governor’s most trusted political confidant. At age 39, she was the youngest woman to serve as chief of staff to a Colorado governor and only the third woman to hold the job. 

Kaufmann said her departure was expected, and told the governor when she took the position she planned to serve only one term as chief of staff. It’s Kaufmann’s 15th year working for Polis.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Oliveto in the governor's office.
Lisa Kaufmann and daughter Ani with Gov. Polis in his office in 2019 on Take Your Child To Work Day. He set up activities for children in his office to mark the occasion.

“I think about the duration of which I've been working at this level. It’s obviously very challenging,” Kaufmann said. “But as chief of staff, all of the crises and tragedies and challenges arise on your desk at some point. And you can only do that for so long and be good at it.”

Kaufmann was a key player in Colorado’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and helped Polis deliver on his campaign promise of free full-day kindergarten. While she advised Polis on issues big and small, Kaufmann kept a low profile and viewed her job as a behind the scenes role. She was rarely quoted in the media.

She will take a new position as a strategic advisor with the Department of Personnel and Administration to work on public-private partnerships on redeveloping underused state owned properties. But Kaufmann said she would continue to advise Polis throughout the month of January as the administration works through the process of re-submitting the state budget, the inauguration, the state of the state address and the start of the legislative session.

Kaufmann said she’d been in conversation with Garnett about the move since summer, and their discussions ramped up in the fall. She said Garnett and Polis built a good report over the last few years.

“He has certainly proven his ability to handle complex challenges,” Kaufmann said. “His strength is really bringing people together. I think he naturally is a collaborator, and I think that is going to be really important for a second term.”

Garnett spent the last two years leading a large and diverse Democratic caucus as House Speaker. Prior to that he served as House Majority Leader for two years. 

Photo courtesy of Danielle Oliveto in the governor's office.
Lisa Kaufmann and then-Congressman Jared Polis with Hillary Clinton during her presidential run in 2015.

Garnett is well liked by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and known for trying to work on thorny issues to find common ground. Last session, he spearheaded a bill to increase penalties for possessing and distributing fentanyl. During his time at the capitol, he also worked on construction defects reform, led negotiations on Colorado’s red flag gun law and sponsored a bill aimed at preventing teens from getting access to highly potent cannabis products.

The governor’s 22-member cabinet will report to Garnett, as will the 10 members of the senior staff. 

Polis is entering his second term in office from a position of strength after winning reelection with 58 percent of the vote and winning support in Republican strongholds like Douglas county. 

The state Democratic Party made gains up and down the ballot. They picked up seven seats in the state legislature, stunning a GOP that expected to make inroads in what they thought was favorable midterm election environment. 

Democrats now hold their largest legislative majority in state history.

This is a developing story and will be updated