Democrat Jared Polis was sworn into office Tuesday on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol. The former five-term Congressman from Boulder and entrepreneur ran on the pursuit of full-day kindergarten and preschool and ambitious policy to address renewable energy and climate change.
Now the 43rd Governor of the state of Colorado, Polis is also the country’s first openly gay man to be elected as any state’s top executive.
New Jersey's former Gov. Jim McGreevey came out while in office but was not out when he was elected. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is bisexual, became the first openly LGBT governor elected when she won in 2016. Polis is also Colorado's first-ever Jewish governor.
A crowd gathered under the brilliant sunshine on a brisk day to watch the proceedings. While Polis’ sexual orientation wasn’t a topic that he or his opponent mentioned during the gubernatorial campaign, the historic nature of Polis’ election was on display during the inauguration ceremony.
Buttons with a picture of Polis, his partner, Marlon Reis, and their two young children with the tag Colorado’s first family were passed out to the crowd. Another button showed a picture of Polis in front of the capitol with a colored rainbow and stars behind him. As the ceremony began the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus performed.
After the oath of office, the first thing Polis did was thank all of the “brave people” who paved the way to make it possible for someone like him to become governor.
“I’m grateful and forever indebted to those who came before me – who struggled for equal rights, who stepped up for public service in all its forms, who made difficult sacrifices and worked faithfully toward a brighter future for our state, nation and our world,” he said.
Many members of the public watched the ceremony just across the street.
Sarah Britton, a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder said being at the inauguration felt “like a win. It’s very redeeming.” Britton grew up in Texas with two lesbian moms and sees Polis’ election as a symbol of how far the country has come on embracing gay and transgender rights. Growing up, she said she tried to hide the fact that she had two moms.
“I mean, I was bullied,” she said. “There were people that were awful. But now, it’s just so liberating.”
It won’t be unfamiliar territory for Polis. He was an early advocate for marijuana legalization.
During his time in Congress he was a member of the House Cannabis Caucus and pushed a bill on a few occasions to regulate marijuana in the same way alcohol is managed. The caucus supported legalization and the industry’s normalization and access to services like banking.
Polis acknowledged the work of his predecessor in his inaugural speech. Tabbing Hickenlooper as “extraordinary,” he celebrated the state’s economic strength as the “envy of the nation.” But Polis also painted a picture of Colorado’s challenges.
“The rising cost of living has made it impossible for some folks to pay for quality health care, provide their kids with a good education, find a home in the communities they love, or save for retirement. Our mission now is to make Colorado a place where all families have the chance to thrive: today, tomorrow, and for generations to come,” Polis said.
Lakewood resident Paula Reid plans to hold the new governor to that mission.
“Everyone gives promises, but I want to see what happens once they get in office,” she said.
Reid attended the inauguration to support a friend who was performing. She’s a Democrat but didn’t vote in the midterm election or for Polis. She said she was too busy working, and even then, can barely afford her home.
“I’m not buying a house, I’m renting,” Reid said. “And it’s a two-bedroom, two-bathroom [at] $1,630. It started off at $1,095 when I moved here back in 2014. People shouldn’t have to work so hard just to put all their money into rent.”
Polis’ address was long on imagery, but short on policy. He is expected to have more details on what his administration will try to accomplish in his state of the state speech to the legislature on Thursday. Instead, he told the crowd how his governorship will approach Colorado’s toughest issues — that his administration will not be outworked.
“We will always view problems as solutions waiting to happen,” he said. “There will always, always be seats at the table for those with constructive input.”
CPR News’ Jim Hill contributed to this report.
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Bente is an award-winning journalist who joined Colorado Public Radio in August 2018 after a decade of reporting on the Colorado state capitol for the Rocky Mountain Community Radio collaborative and KUNC. In 2017, Bente was named Colorado Journalist of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and she was awarded with a National Investigative Reporting Award by SPJ a year later.