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Exclusive interview: Out philanthropist, businessman, Congressional hopeful Jared Polis

by Nick Langewis

In a recent Q&A with the Boulder Daily Camera's John Aguilar, Democratic Congressional hopeful Jared Polis was asked what three things he would take with him if he were stranded on a desert island.

His response: "My computer with a universal wireless card so I could blog about my experiences, a solar panel for my computer, and a boat to get back home with."

The same question was asked of state Senate president Joan Fitz-Gerald and Colorado Conservation Trust Executive Director Will Shafroth, his two opponents for Mark Udall's soon-to-be-vacated seat representing Colorado's Congressional District 2. Their answers, and thereby their thought processes, were then graded by SquareState contributor David Thielen. Polis received an "A--," while Shafroth got a "C" and Fitz-Gerald an "F."

Thielen bluntly criticized all three. He liked Polis' planning, but deducted points for the wireless card, which he said would be useless on the island. With Shafroth, he said, "You'll live, but you won't get home." With Fitz-Gerald, he simply said, "Sorry."

Judging by my interactions with him, were the people of Colorado's District 2 to send Jared Polis to Washington, he'd surely hit the ground running. He's already got the parachute packed.

It's close to impossible not to have seen Polis' face or heard his name at least once if you have lived for any amount of time along the Front Range and own a television or read the news. From young adulthood on he has made headlines as a businessman, politician and philanthropist. By the time he graduated from Princeton he'd co-founded American Information Systems, which would be sold for $22 million. He'd also ridden the favorable tides of the Internet boom in founding companies like and turning the family business, Blue Mountain Arts, into a payout worth $780 million in a 1999 sale to Excite.

By the age of 30, Polis had started the Jared Polis Foundation, chaired the State Board of Education--during which time he was instrumental in passing Colorado's Amendment 23, which guarantees periodic increases to funding for K-12 schools--and co-founded two charter schools: The New America School and the Academy of Urban Learning.

Today, at 33, he'd like to fill an open Congressional seat.

I first met Jared in 2000 as a friend-of-a-friend, around the time he was running for the State Board of Education. Eight years later, I found myself shaking hands with him once again at Denver PrideFest, where he'd set up a booth. Amid the usual campaign swag and a few helpers, the sun-baked but nonetheless energetic candidate shook hands and conversed with passersby. Nobody went unacknowledged. Though he's reserved and strategic in his body language, there is little doubt that you are a welcome participant in a conversation with Jared Polis when you've got his attention. The way he addressed me and his visitors was not only as a person seeking support at the polls, but as a fellow citizen, an equal on that basic level.

Polis, whose net worth has been estimated as approaching $200 million, has been able to run his campaign through donations and self-funding. He has also had considerable pull in state politics as part of Colorado's "Gang of Four," along with tech moguls Tim Gill and Rutt Bridges and heiress Pat Stryker. So far, Polis' wealth, time and energy have helped counter Republican gerrymandering, build schools for disadvantaged youth, and garner a personal mention from would-be anti-gay superstar, Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern. Also, as he extensively blogged, Polis visited Iraq and Jordan to personally survey conditions on the ground and talk to servicemembers and refugees of the occupation alike.

To say the least, Polis came prepared when he arrived at his Adams County field office. Once more I felt that nervous energy he channeled into his enthusiasm and speedy, but clear and understandable, speech. He seemed just as pleased to be giving me the answers to my questions on topics like marriage equality, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and access to health care (some even before I asked them) as I was to be hearing them.

NL: So, among your endorsements is Congresswoman and ENDA co-sponsor Tammy Baldwin...

JP: She was on the right side of [ENDA], you know. I was disappointed, along with many progressive members of our community, that we seemed to be cutting political deals and leaving part of our community behind.

NL: I felt it on a personal level, too, one of my best friends being a transwoman. We were being very pointedly pitted against each other politically, especially in the blogosphere.

JP: I do think there was a good grassroots response from gays and lesbians nationally, to push back against our political leadership in Washington. I know that HRC and others got a lot of negative letters from gays and lesbians. I have a lot of transgender friends as well, and I think the best thing I saw was some protesters at one of the HRC dinners saying, "You can't spell 'Equality' without the 'T'."

An inclusive ENDA is all we should really be talking about. I don't think that we should talk about a piecemeal version that pits part of our community against one another.

NL: What are your thoughts on California's recent marriage ruling?

JP: It was very exciting. I have a number of gay and lesbian friends who have gone, and are going, to California to get married. Obviously the next step is here in Colorado, we need to make sure those marriages are legally recognized -- and nationally, by overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, which, unfortunately, was signed by President Clinton.

I'm hopeful that now that we have a state that is granting full marriages to out-of-state people, there will be a renewed push for overturning DOMA. I think as people married in California return to their home states, there will be a renewed push for federal recognition.

NL: As Coloradans it's at this point symbolic, but are you and your partner planning on heading out to California?

JP: We haven't discussed it. We've been together about 4 1/2 years and I think, like most people, I certainly want to get married at some point, but we haven't made any specific plans.

It needs to be real, obviously. It means nothing in Colorado right now. It's great that some people are doing it, but you're right, it is largely symbolic, and even in California, where they're recognized on the state level, they're still not recognized on the federal level.

For immigration purposes they're not recognized. For federal tax purposes they're not recognized. One of our friends in Boulder has been dating a British guy for nine years. They've tried every legal route to get him a green card, and still they're only able to spend about three months together here when he's on a tourist visa. If they had been a heterosexual couple they could have gotten married several years ago and he would have had a green card and been eligible for American citizenship. So the federal rights are also critical. The state doesn't even have the power to confer all the rights of marriage.

NL: I assume that you're behind repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

JP: I was in the Army ROTC in college, and that was right after "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" went in. In fact, when I joined, one of the forms I filled out defined "homosexual," then asked, "Are you a homosexual? Homosexuality is not compatible with military service." The person said "you don't have to fill that out anymore" and crossed it out.

There's a number of reasons I didn't wind up going full-time into the military. One was that I was starting my own business, but certainly another one was the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

I think it's a critical issue. It becomes a national defense issue when we're kicking perfectly capable men and women out of our armed forces and discouraging others from even entering at a time when we're understaffed and we're hurting for good men and women to serve in Afghanistan as we wind down the conflict in Iraq.

NL: Pro-LGBT candidate Joan Fitz-Gerald has the backing of the Gill Foundation, but along with Tammy Baldwin you've got the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. How would your constituents be at an advantage being represented by you as opposed to Fitz-Gerald, as far as LGBT issues go?

JP: I have a long record of advocacy in the LGBT community. I was one of the major donors to [Colorado's 2006 domestic partnership initiative] Referendum I. We gave them free office space in Boulder, we loaned them some staff, and threw fundraisers for them. My partner's on the board of Boulder Pride. We've been longtime activists in the community.

There are only two openly gay members of Congress. One of the big things that makes a difference in the attitudes of people towards gays and lesbians is if they know one personally. By serving in Congress and building those personal relationships with Republicans and also some Democrats that aren't as good on our issues as we'd like, you know, I think that I can change some minds and hearts and help lead people towards doing the right thing.

It can also demonstrate to gays and lesbians, not only in Colorado but nationally, that they don't have to forgo participation in the public sphere and running for public office -- that they can live life openly and still participate in politics and our government process.

NL: What is your drive as a public servant?

JP: I really enjoy the work I've done at the community level--running several schools and being involved with the various non-profits in the community. But I really feel that a lot of issues that affect the survival of humanity and the future of our planet need to be dealt with at the national level in Washington and at the international level. That's why I decided to run for Congress.

I'm really focused on ending the war in Iraq, reducing our carbon emissions and creating a sustainable path of development, full marriage equality, and preventing discrimination of all forms and moving towards a more fair and just society.

NL: Now, what's your take on the recent FISA legislation that passed?

JP: I am against the telecom immunity component that would let the telephone companies off the hook for participating in illegal wiretapping. I was disappointed that many of the Democrats caved to what the Bush administration wanted.

NL: Senator Obama voted for the failed amendment to pull the immunity but he ended up ultimately voting for the final bill with the immunity provision intact. Does that affect your support for him at all?

JP: I think when you're deciding who to support for public office, you're never going to find a candidate you agree with on 100% of the issues. You really have to jump in and run yourself if you're going to do that. Barack Obama doesn't support full marriage equality either; he supports civil unions.

I'm sure that there are a number of differences that I would point to, but there's no doubt in my mind that he would make a far better President of the United States than John McCain. I'm enthusiastic in my support of Barack Obama.

NL: What did you take back from your trip to Iraq?

JP: It was really interesting and very educational for me. I spent several days in Baghdad and several days in Amman, Jordan. In addition to meeting with many different Iraqis and members of our military off-duty and NGO relief workers, I also got the opportunity to talk to several gay and lesbian Iraqis, too, who have a particular plight.

Under the administration of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was one of the more tolerant Arab countries. It's a relatively low bar, but certainly gays and lesbians weren't openly hunted or killed. It was much like it was in Jordan today, where there is a somewhat thriving underground gay and lesbian community that was officially tolerated. But now, really, every gay and lesbian that could flee Iraq has fled Iraq. Anybody who's known, or even suspected, to be gay or lesbian is hunted down and frequently killed by some of the fundamentalist militias there. Most Iraqi gays and lesbians have fled to Jordan. There are a few remaining in Iraq, and a few safehouses do exist, but that only really reemphasized the need, including in this country, to include gender identity protections, because the first to be hunted down in Iraq are those who defy the gender stereotypes--men who are effeminate, or women who are masculine or otherwise suspected of being gay or lesbian.

It's a very real human rights issue that hasn't gotten as much attention as it deserves.

NL: Now, how do you propose handling federal spending?

JP: I think it's critical for our country to have a balanced budget in the long term, and we're seeing the price of not having a balanced budget with the weakening of the dollar, with people losing faith in the dollar as a currency because of our fiscal irresponsibility at the national level.

Specifically, I support ending the war and occupation in Iraq, which costs about $180 billion a year, turning back some of the Bush tax cuts that affect the highest earning groups, and going back to the tax rates we had during the Clinton administration.

I also support reforming the earmarking process in Congress, which leads to pork barrel spending like the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and these fiscally irresponsible projects that can never be justified on their merits but are brokered in political backroom deals.

NL: So you don't take PAC money?

JP: Right. No PAC money.

I'm running as a reform candidate. I support public finance reform on campaigns, stronger ethics laws that break down the insular relationship between the lobbyists and special interests, and I'm not taking any money from political action committees in my campaign. I was particularly thrilled that Barack Obama is also not accepting money from PACs.

NL: So you come no strings attached?

JP: That's right. The people who hire me, those in my congressional district, will be the only ones I work for every day.

NL: Talk to me about your support of universal health care and access to health care, for LGBT families in particular, especially when it comes to things like hospital visitation.

JP: That's certainly one of the reasons we need marriage equality, and to overturn DOMA--certainly, along the way, if there are incremental steps I'll certainly support them--but we should also keep our eye on the goal of marriage equality, because I think we can attain it, hopefully in the next few years.

This country does health care in a very inefficient way. We have close to 50 million uninsured people in this country, and most western European nations and east Asian nations have a universal system that works a lot better than ours.

We're all paying the costs of the uninsured in this country, we're just doing it in a very inefficient way. I do support a universal, single-payer health care system that would have preventive care and catastrophic care for everybody, young or old, in work or out of work--put us all in one risk pool. And, on top of that, people could purchase supplemental gap insurance when they want to, just like today--but at least provide a basic level of coverage for everybody.

NL: Personally, I imagine how many lawsuits we wouldn't have to deal with if we covered each other's medical costs all the time.

JP: Right. The current system kind of encourages all of this administrative overhead, which rewards insurance companies for finding clever ways to deny claims and to exclude coverage, and be rewarded with profits as a result. That's why the system is so broken.

NL: When people air those fears about some bureaucrat in the government saying "you can't get treatment" and so forth... right now we've got some bureaucrat with a spreadsheet, overseen by some guy in a boardroom, effectively saying the exact same thing.

JP: Exactly. What do you do for health care? You're self-employed, or...?

NL: I can attest to the "brokenness" of the health care system in my situation, for sure. I don't have the worst medical history, though I'm not perfect. The riskier you are, even with no pre-existing conditions, the tougher and more expensive it becomes if you have to apply for private coverage.

It's not like working for Corporate America, where the HR department just snaps its fingers and you're instantly on a heavily subsidized group plan. Applying for private coverage is a whole new game: You and your medical history are under a microscope.

One rejection letter I got basically said, "Dear Applicant: Based on your answers, we are unable to offer coverage. But seriously, dude, you might want to get checked out by a doctor."

JP: Right. (laughter) "Gee, thanks!"

NL: The people who write those form letters have to know how ridiculous it is.

So you've talked about incremental steps towards recognition of LGBT families. As far as medical benefits go, right now a heterosexual married partner can be put on their spouse's health plan without a tax penalty, but right now for a domestic partner it's considered taxable income--the portion of the medical premiums that they don't pay out-of-pocket. Would that be one of the incremental steps?

JP: That's another great reason to overturn DOMA. Certainly, if it takes a few years to get to full marriage equality, we could do a fix within the tax system on that particular issue. Certainly the favorable treatment heterosexual couples get in estates and survivorship is another good example: A straight spouse pays no estate taxes when their spouse dies.

NL: It's like, why should I give the government half of my estate because my partner has the same set of chromosomes?

JP: Sometimes people can find fancy ways around it with trusts and lawyers and so forth, but again that doesn't really benefit anybody--the federal government should treat couples the same whether they're gay or straight.

NL: Pundit Fred Barnes recently said in a panel discussion that John McCain was at risk of losing the support of the Right if he didn't step up and bring back marriage as a wedge issue, like the GOP did in 2004. What's your take on that?

JP: I hope that we're moving beyond that. I think people's comfort level with same-sex marriage is increasing. Even when you look at national polls that show that a majority of our country doesn't yet support same-sex marriage, a majority of our country does think it's going to happen. In many ways, some of the opponents are just resigned to it happening. It was very novel when people were first talking about it a decade ago, but it's really become mainstream. When Howard Dean ran for president in 2004 it was considered radical to support civil unions, for example. Now, all of the Democratic presidential candidates supported civil unions--[Ohio Congressman] Dennis Kucinich and [former Alaska senator] Mike Gravel even supported full marriage equality, so the bar is moving.

Our culture is moving in the right direction. Particularly as younger people move into positions of leadership, I think we're in for a real sea change, and I don't think that these petty wedge issues will continue to work.

I think it would backfire on McCain if he does that. It would turn off a lot of independent voters that he needs to win.

--I'd like to talk about education a bit:

When I was on the State Board of Education, I had the opportunity to work on programs to prevent bullying in schools and also to look at making sure that schools have provided a safe and civil learning environment for all students--that's the language we put in our state accreditation standards.

The truth of the matter is that there are still many schools whose gay and lesbian kids are scared to go to school every day. And not just gays and lesbians--in some communities it's Latino kids, in some communities it's kids who might be too large or too small, or for whatever reason they're made fun of--

NL: --For sure. I was the "fat kid."

JP: --exactly, it's not just being the "gay kid". So, every school needs to be a safe school, and we need stronger federal laws to promote a safe, civil learning environment--to have the right kind of tolerance and character education from a young age. I've worked with a number of non-profit organizations as well in trying to create a more positive school environment here at the state level.

We need to make sure that when we redo "No Child Left Behind" in 2009, it also reflects those values, so that kids across the country, regardless of their sexual orientation, feel comfortable going to school every day to learn.

NL: A few months back a story came out about a gender dysphoric second-grade boy in Douglas County who wanted to present as a girl, and there was an uproar among some about the accommodations the school district was making. What are your thoughts?

JP: We have a young transgender child in one of our Boulder schools as well. As one of the few openly gay elected officials, people sometimes come to me for advice. There was a teacher who was transitioning, F to M, and she came to me worried that she might be fired or castigated. Fortunately, it was a very progressive school community there, and he, now, was able to do that. But, of course, in many districts across the country that would likely cost you your job, if you were to transition.

NL: Were you involved at all with SB200? (SB200 is Colorado's recently passed legislation guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations, including on the basis of gender identity.)

JP: Fortunately Gov. Ritter signed it. I'm certainly a strong supporter of it.

Certainly SB200 is a step in the right direction, but I would like to have seen the legislature simply pass domestic partnerships too, instead of putting it to a vote of the people. It created a very difficult dynamic for the public debate. The odds were against us. We came closer than some thought, but in the states that have full domestic partnership, they've just run it through their legal process or their legislative process. There's nothing stopping the Colorado state legislature from simply passing full domestic partnership rights. I think they should.

It's always uncomfortable to put the rights of the minority to a vote of the majority, and that's what we did in this state with Referendum I. These are inalienable rights. Gays and lesbians are entitled to equal treatment under the law, and whether we accomplish that legislatively, judicially or electorally, it doesn't matter at the end of the day. But as a matter of principle, the majority should not need to vote to give the minority the rights that they deserve as Americans.

NL: Any comment on the infamous Senator Larry Craig and DC Madam client Senator David Vitter supporting the latest Federal Marriage Amendment?

JP: It's the height of hypocrisy that those who are somehow seeking a political way to "protect" an institution have completely desecrated and violated it.

You really feel bad for the spouses in those situations. You can't help but feel bad for Larry Craig's spouse. I'm not sure what she believes or doesn't believe about her husband, but she is certainly most likely a victim in all this. And Larry Craig--I wish him well--hopefully he'll come to terms with his own sexual orientation and be able to live his life openly.

NL: Are there any particular sources of energy besides oil that you support developing?

JP: I've been an environmental activist for many years. I'm on the board of Colorado Conservation Voters, and I'm a strong advocate of moving towards a renewable energy economy, focusing on deploying solar and wind energy.

I'm against additional drilling in ANWR and here in Colorado on the Roan Plateau. I see that as, effectively, giving an addict another fix for another day. We're only perpetuating our reliance on oil. I have a global carbon emission reduction plan on my website, where we talk about both conserving energy and putting consumer incentives in place to encourage people to use less energy in their homes and businesses, as well as rapidly deploying solar and wind energy to help meet our energy needs.

NL: How do you feel about biofuels?

JP: Well, when you look at some of the corn-based ethanol, using potential food products for fuel raises the price of corn and food products and really doesn't overall improve our carbon footprint. While there are opportunities for cellulosic and sugar-based ethanol, I don't think that we should continue to subsidize corn-based ethanol.

NL: No doubt your family is proud of you?

JP: I'm very proud of them as well. My mother, Susan Polis Schutz, has been a great supporter. She actually did a documentary about the experience of parents with gay and lesbian kids coming out. It's called "Anyone And Everyone." I came from a pretty progressive family, so there really weren't any issues on that front. Many millions of gays and lesbians across the country, though, don't receive that kind of acceptance in their own families. At our school for homeless youth in Denver, for example, we serve kids that have been kicked out of their homes simply because they're gay or lesbian. That still happens this day and age and everything in between. I think there are some that are maybe not kicked out but shunned or encouraged to go to conversion therapy or even forced to if they're under 18. These things continue to happen in our country every day.

It's really an education process, and I hope that the next generation will understand these kinds of issues and the diversity of humanity and we'll be a little bit better and a little more tolerant in our treatment of all people.

"It's a great experience," Polis closed. "I go door-to-door nearly every day from 5-8:30pm. I've met a lot of tremendous people. It's been very exciting, and one thing that you find when you campaign is that you find gay and lesbian couples everywhere in the district. Census data show that there are gay and lesbian couples in almost every county in the country. My district is a very diverse district, too. While we do have a liberal college in Boulder, where I live, the district has more conservative areas and areas with working families and households--some are Democrats, some Republicans--but while they may be less aware of the prevalence of gays and lesbians, we're certainly in all communities, and I think as the closet door opens, people are becoming more comfortable with knowing their neighbors as people rather than being biased based on sexual orientation."

Colorado's 2nd congressional district includes Eagle, Grand, Summit, Clear Creek, Gilpin and Broomfield Counties and most of Boulder County. It also includes parts of Adams, Weld and Jefferson Counties, including the cities of Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster. The primary election will be held August 12th, 2008.

The interview was edited for clarity.


Originally published on Wednesday July 23, 2008.

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