Rep. Jared Polis (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: May 12, 1975, Boulder .
Education: Princeton U., B.A. 1996..
Family: Partner (Marlon Reis).
Military career: ROTC, 1992-96.
Elected office: CO Bd. of Education, 2001-07; Chmn., 2004; Vice chmn., 2005-06.
Professional Career: Entrepreneur, 1996-2008.
Jared Polis doesn’t do traditional. The freshman Democrat from Colorado painted his House office suite bright yellow, and during his 2008 campaign, he financed his own trip to Iraq to gather information about the U.S. occupation. Polis started college at age 16, and by his sophomore year, he had launched the first of three successful Internet ventures. In his first year in Congress, Polis has emerged as an influential voice in the health care debate and is quickly becoming a leader among junior lawmakers.
|Jared Polis (D)||215,571||(63%)||($7,323,502)|
|Scott Starin (R)||116,591||(34%)||($90,252)|
|J. A. Calhoun (Green)||10,026||(3%)|
|Jared Polis (D)||20,493||(42%)|
|Joan Fitz-Gerald (D)||18,599||(38%)|
|Will Shafroth (D)||10,075||(20%)|
Polis was born in Boulder, but grew up in San Diego, returning to Colorado with his family during the summers. His mother, a poet, and his father, an artist, were both politically active during the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Polis and his younger brother and sister frequently accompanied their parents to demonstrations and rallies. Their activism spurred Polis’s interest in politics and liberal ideas. He graduated from high school in three years, and headed off to Princeton University to study political science. Also fascinated by technology and business, Polis and two friends banded together in their sophomore year to launch an Internet start-up called American Information Systems, an Internet access provider. Soon afterward, he founded bluemountainarts.com, an electronic greeting card site that at its height was the eighth most popular site on the Internet. His next venture was Proflowers.com, a service enabling customers to order fresh flowers directly from growers. All three were successful, and Polis sold them for profits of upwards of $300 million.
Financial security from his business ventures allowed Polis to focus on his other passions. “I was always interested in public service. Education is an issue I feel very passionately about, providing an opportunity to all Americans,” he said in a recent interview. In 2000, he was elected to the Colorado state board of education, serving for six years and as chairman for one year. During his tenure, Polis says he was most proud of his advancement of school choice through the establishment of charter schools and his work improving accountability standards for schools. In part with his own money, he founded two innovative charter schools in Colorado, which were geared toward helping new immigrants assimilate. One of the schools, the New America School, targeted 16- to 21-year-old immigrants with flexible day or evening programs, daycare reimbursement and teachers trained to help students learn English. “We really needed a school to cater to their unique needs,” Polis said
When Democratic Rep. Mark Udall in Colorado’s 2nd District decided to run for an open Senate seat in 2008, the time was ripe for Polis to make a foray into politics. He said he was “becoming frustrated with the direction of the country,” citing concerns about the direction of the Iraq war, federal education policy and health care. “I felt I could have more impact by focusing at the federal level and serving in Congress,” Polis said.
In the Democratic primary, he faced former state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and conservationist Will Shafroth. Most of the state’s Democratic establishment backed Fitz-Gerald, based on her political seasoning. Polis largely funded the campaign with his own money, and through the primary, he outspent his opponents 4-to-1. Fitz-Gerald accused Polis of attempting to buy the race, but Polis credited his ultimate victory to his grassroots effort. In the August 2008 primary, he got 42% of the vote, followed by Fitz-Gerald with 38% and Shafroth with 20%. In the general election, Republican nominee Scott Starin, an engineer, provided little serious opposition. Starin focused on energy production and claimed that Polis would not appeal to blue-collar workers. But he did not get much traction. Raising less than $100,000, Starin also could not compete financially. Polis won 63% to 34%. All in all, he spent $7 million, $6 million of it his own. The nonpartisan watchdog, Center for Responsive Politics, ranked Polis in 2009 as the third wealthiest member of the House, pegging his wealth in the range of $97 million to $254 million, based on his financial disclosure reports.
Once in Washington, Polis jumped into the health care debate, taking a leading role in opposing a proposal by his own party that would pay for elements of the overhauled health care system with a tax on wealthy Americans. Polis maintained that the tax would hurt small business owners who aren’t large enough to organize as corporations. “The objection was with small business, not taxing wealthy individuals,” he said. “I think we need to be very careful not to do a tax that would harm our economy during a recession, and certainly a tax on small business would do that.” He was chided by many in the liberal blogosphere, but he succeeded in corralling 21 other freshmen Democrats to sign a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling on her to purge the surtax from the bill. It was not included as part of the sweeping overhaul of health care that passed the House on November 7, 2009.
Polis also has been a leader in gay and lesbian rights. He is the first openly gay man elected to Congress (Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is also openly gay but came out after he was elected to the House. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is the first openly gay woman elected to Congress.) Polis is a co-sponsor of a proposed repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law establishing a federal definition of marriage. The act also permits states to refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. President Barack Obama has said he will sign the repeal if it passes, and Polis says the measure has thus far attracted more than 100 co-sponsors. “It becomes more and more of an issue, the more states that allow same-sex couples to marry,” he said.
Polis describes his legislative style as “collaborative” and “creative.” In the coming months, he hopes to broaden his focus into immigration and education and to continue to be involved in the health care debate. Democratic leaders have taken note of Polis’s contributions. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement. “I appreciate his work to make sure health care is paid for, and I admire his commitment to advocating for those who are too often overlooked, particularly the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community.” Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette, the dean of the Colorado delegation, called Polis “a creative thinker in his approach to public policy for Colorado and the entire nation.”
Using new media has also been a central element of Polis’s first few months in office. He has nearly 1,500 “friends” on Facebook and more than 3,800 followers on Twitter, half of whom Polis says are constituents. “It’s a very tech-savvy district, a very wired district,” he says. But his outreach hasn’t been limited to the Boulder area. Along with Utah Republican freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Polis has been featured on CNN.com this year as part of a series called “Freshman Year,” which chronicles the behind-the-scenes lives of newly elected lawmakers. Episodes go up on the website every two to four weeks.
Polis also has displayed an impressive fundraising ability. His own campaign fund has donated to other, more politically vulnerable Democrats, and in May, he also established the Jared Polis Victory Fund to help other Democratic campaigns. In less than two months, the committee raised more than $230,000, with much of it coming from Polis’s family and business associates. He has donated to junior Democrats who are likely to face competitive races in 2010, including Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil, and Ohio Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy.
Another signal that Polis may have already made an impression on party leaders is his appointment to the influential Rules Committee, which controls the rules of debate for major bills that reach the floor of the House. “It gives me the opportunity to really learn about what’s going on in the House, how the House works, as well as have an imprint on legislation through the amendment process,” Polis said.