Polis win highlights Boulder influence in state politics
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to correct Josie Heath’s name.
A commonly accepted wisdom has long held that a “Boulder liberal” can’t win statewide office, but in an election year that saw a number of electoral firsts from coast to coast, Jared Polis just likely put that canard to permanent rest with an emphatic win Tuesday to claim the distinction of becoming the nation’s first openly gay governor-elect.
Colorado has had governors who hailed from Rosita, (now classified as a Custer County ghost town), Rocky Ford and Ouray -— plus five born in Illinois — but none from Boulder before Polis, based on data from the National Governor’s Association. Colorado History also could not find any record of a Boulder native occupying the governor’s office
Polis, riding his record of five consecutive terms representing Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, spending freely of his millions and buoyed also by a tide of progressive pushback against the Trump administration, ensures that Boulder’s interests are unlikely to be overlooked at the state capital for the next four years.
Polis was not available for comment, but in a statement, Polis spokesperson Mara Sheldon said, “As Jared has said, it has been the honor of his life to represent Boulder, Larimer and northern Colorado in Congress.
“Boulder has always had an innovative spirit and Jared knows his community well. His experience working with Republicans and Democrats to improve our schools, expand access to health care, and support local businesses will help him hit the ground running on Day One as governor.”
Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones is among those who believe Polis might have tossed the old saw about what a progressive from Boulder can and can’t do in Colorado on the junk pile of dated political wisdoms once and for all.
“By definition, it puts it to rest,” Jones said. “I also think that we don’t always need to look through the partisan lens. We should look to through the competent, committed lens. And I think people will see him as a good leader, with a lot of great ideas, and with a good track record that can move Colorado forward. And I think that’s what Colorado voted for.”
But Polis is just one of several from the Boulder area who would seem to signal an ascent of Boulder influence on politics at the state level, and potentially, beyond.
Dianne Primavera, the lieutenant-governor-elect, is from Broomfield. State Rep. KC Becker of Boulder on Thursday was voted in as Colorado Speaker of the House, while Boulder’s Steve Fenberg was elected majority leader in the state Senate.
Alec Garnett, a Fairview High School graduate and son of former Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, just claimed his third consecutive term in the state Legislature representing Colorado’s House District 2 in Denver and on Thursday he was elected as House majority leader.
It goes on: Louisville resident Jena Griswold was elected secretary of state. Lesley Smith of Boulder on Tuesday came out on top in a four person race for the at-large seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents. Attorney-general elect Phil Weiser is a Denver resident but led the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder as its dean from 20111 to 2016.
Tuesday marked the first constitutional sweep in Colorado for Democrats since 1936, according to Eric Walker, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party.
“I think Boulder will have its day in the sun here, in terms of prominence in state government,” said Eric Sondermann, an independent Denver-based political analyst. “The old line, this is not your father’s Oldsmobile? This is not your father’s Democratic Party. It’s not the Democratic of Roy Romer or Bill Ritter — or, John Hickenlooper.”
Sondermann offered the opinion that “Polis, in particular, represents a significant shift to the left, which is in keeping with the shift of the Democratic Party, both in Colorado and across the country.
“The epicenter of the Democratic Party these days is on its activist fringe. It’s not the 17th Street (Denver) party that it used to be. This is a party that’s as likely to hold its meetings at the local environmental group’s headquarters as it is to hold them at the local union hall. I think Polis certainly signifies that.”
‘Can’t have two from Boulder’
It is not, of course, unprecedented in the modern era for Boulder to send progressive politicians to positions of prominence. Tim Wirth, after two terms in the House of Representatives, served one term in the U.S. Senate, starting in 1986. Mark Udall, commonly identified as a Boulderite although he claimed Eldorado Springs as his residence, also spent one term in the U.S. Senate, from 2009 to 2015.
Former Boulder County Commissioner Josie Heath tried to join Wirth in the Senate in 1990 when she was the Democratic Party’s nominee but lost to Hank Brown. She unsuccessfully sought the nomination again in 1992 — Ben Nighthorse Campbell claimed it — and never reached the Senate.
“When I ran, they said we can’t have two from Boulder,” she recalled. She said she sees the current Flatirons flavor to state politics as “an interesting story; of course, we always have to be humble, because people statewide always think Boulder is puffing up too much.”
However, she added, “We have led not only with individuals, but with ideas,” citing outgoing Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall and her advocacy for mail-in ballots and election integrity, which she said has been an influencing factor statewide and beyond.
“There have been extraordinary leaders in Boulder for a long time, in excess of our numbers,” Heath said. “Good ideas have come out of Boulder for a long time, and will continue to.”
Stan Garnett, who stepped down as district attorney in February to go back into private practice in Denver, and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2010, applauded Polis and other local Democrats’ success at the state level.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Boulder County is producing leaders statewide, and I think that Jared is a great example of the kind of leader that comes out of Boulder County,” Garnett said.
“He’s very smart, he’s very in tune with the tech economy, with the realities of the internet and with 21st century communication systems.”
And, possibly violating Heath’s “puffing up” cautionary note, Garnett added, “Boulder has a lot of very smart people. Take it from a guy who spent 17 years of his life talking to constituents in Boulder County, where there are a lot of smart, opinionated and sophisticated people who are good at understanding political problems and coming up with political solutions.”
Ellen Burnes, a Longmont resident and chair of the Boulder County Democratic Party, placed significance on Polis’ status as “an out, gay governor,” but first mentioned qualities such as his being “strong, intelligent and generous.”
“People keep asking me, how is he going to follow through on paying for health care?” she said. Giving Polis strong points on his background in running foundations and his advocacy on education, she said health care “is another place that I have great trust in him.”
Still a great divide
Patty Limerick, faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, unlike Sondermann, is not prepared to say Tuesday’s results signal a seismic shift in Colorado politics, although she noted, “It would be hard to say it doesn’t mean anything.
“I think it does mean that anyone who is inclined to say we’ve turned a corner, and it’s a whole different state should probably think harder about that level of confidence.”
She stressed that the state’s leaders in 2018 and going forward should be thinking hard about policies that are mindful of divisions — and common goals — of people west to east, as well as north to south.
“It would be very important for those figures to assume office and take up agendas, and work carefully, with conservatives who might or might not be immediately on board with those agendas,” Limerick said.
Limerick said she had not had time to study how returns varied across the state, but a quick review shows that support for Polis skewed wildly from the urban Front Range corridor to the more rural areas.
While he carried his home county with about 76 percent, he mustered only 17 percent in northeast Colorado’s Yuma County, to Walker Stapleton’s 79.5 percent. In Montrose County on the Western Slope he posted just 31 percent to Stapleton’s 66 percent.
The stark divisions also can be seen dramatically in immediately adjacent counties east of the Continental Divide. Largely suburban Adams County gave Polis about 53.5 percent of the vote to Stapleton’s 41.5 percent. But in adjoining Washington County on the eastern plains, Polis was shellacked by Stapleton’s 84 percent to just over 12 percent.
Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant and former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, does not see evidence of a blue wave in Colorado, so much as an anti-Trump wave — despite the Democratic wins “up and down the ticket.”
“I do think there is such a thing as Boulder liberalism. I think people across the state see Boulder and they say, ‘liberal.’ And they see it as pretty well leftist,” Wadhams said. “I think that’s the reputation. That kind of leads to the question, was this an affirmation of a Boulder liberal view of the world? And I don’t think it was.”
The reason, Wadhams cited, is the decisive defeats of Proposition 112, opposed by the oil and gas industry, Proposition 110, to boost the state sales tax to pay for Colorado road projects, and Amendment 73, the tax measure which would have raised $1.6 billion annually for Colorado schools.
“I think voters knew exactly what they were doing,” Wadhams said. “They were voting against massive state taxes. If the liberal point of view was prevalent in Colorado, they would have not only won all these (candidates’) races, but those big-ticket items would have also passed.
“But they voted against Republicans because the don’t like Trump, and they were sending a message.”
‘We send good people’
Louisville resident Alice Madden, the House majority leader at the state Legislature from 2004 to 2008, sees the current Boulder wave in leadership at the state Capitol not so much as a spike, but a continuation of something that has been in evidence for some time, citing Boulder’s Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, House majority leader in 2015 and 2016, and others.
“We’ve always had strong leadership at the Legislature,” Madden said. “We send good people down there, and our colleagues recognize that and elect them into leadership.
She believes Polis “defies” the stereotype many would associate with a Boulder progressive.
“On every topic, he forms an educated opinion and listens to people and thinks about ‘How can we solve this problem?’ And in many cases, people in this area would agree with him. And in some cases, maybe not. I think he always brings a unique perspective, and he takes that it where it should go,” Madden said.
Jones, Boulder’s mayor, sounded the same theme, saying, “I think he’s strong on credentials and expertise on a lot of important issues, from education to environmental protections, to climate leadership and of course economic vitality.
“He has expertise in key areas, and he’s also both pragmatic and collaborative, and will bring those skills to bear. He’s also about getting things done, and I look forward to having an active governor who is going to roll up his sleeves and move forward and isn’t going to shy away from crafting solutions and implementing them.”
Becker, fresh off her election as Speaker of the House on Thursday, mentioned that she, Fenberg and Polis all live within about a 2-mile radius in Boulder.
” I think Steve and I are both hoping to represent our own districts, but we are also responsible for leading our caucuses and listening to representatives who come from all over Colorado,” Becker said.
As for Polis, she said, “People kept trying to paint him as a Boulder liberal. But really, I think this election overall is about voters making a statement that they want Democrats to lead. And we’re going to move forward with an agenda that works for all Coloradans.”
And in 2020, voters get to go through this exercise again.
One of the next races that will be watched closely across Colorado will be the battle to unseat U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican who was identified Wednesday by Roll Call as one of the two most vulnerable Republican senators in 2020. In some people’s eyes, the race is already on.
One of the names that has surfaced as a possible contender on the Democratic side is Boulder’s Stan Garnett. But there are others.
“I respect Stan, and I think he has certain political ambitions, but I think he is in line behind other names — Hickenlooper, if the presidential thing doesn’t work out,” said Sondermann, who also named longtime 7th CD Rep. Ed Perlmutter, former state legislator Mike Johnston and Boulder native Crisanta Duran — Becker’s immediate predecessor as speaker of the house — as possible contenders. “A few shoes are going to have to drop before that comes to pass.”
Stan Garnett, asked after Tuesday’s election directly if he is eyeing another bid for statewide office in 2020, kept his answer brief.
“I’m enjoying practicing law and doing the work I’m doing right now,” he said.
Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, email@example.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan
Photo Credit: Governor-elect Jared Polis and his lieutenant governor Dianne Primavera triumphantly greet the crowd Tuesday night after defeating Republican Walker Stapleton. (Rick T. Wilking / Getty Images North America)