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|June 26-July 2, 2008
Polis on politics
From Iraq to education to campaign-finance reform, Jared Polis explains how Congress can help restore America’s faith in itself
by Pamela White
Jared Polis, 33, isn’t easily perturbed. One of three candidates vying to run for Mark Udall’s 2nd Congressional District seat, he smiles when confronted with the day’s political gossip — that he’s trying to buy the race, that he doesn’t have the political experience necessary to handle the job, that he’s too wealthy to identify with the average working-class Coloradan.
Polis points out that both of his opponents, Joan Fitz-Gerald, a state senator from Jefferson County, and Will Shafroth, a Boulder conservationist, are also wealthy and far beyond feeling the average person’s pain when it comes to dealing with the current economic downturn.
“They shouldn’t claim to be holier than thou, ‘Oh, I feel the price of $4-per-gallon gasoline,’” he says. “It’s absurd.”
Polis has drawn criticism from his opponents for putting $3.7 million of his own money into the race while simultaneously speaking out for campaign-finance reform. But Polis, who is not accepting donations from PACs or special-interest groups, sees no contradiction between his words and his actions.
“In our race, while all three candidates have comparably large small-donor bases, none of us can raise the money we need from small donors alone,” he says. “One candidate [Shafroth] happens to know a lot of wealthy people from across the country from his work raising money professionally for a nonprofit. Another candidate [Fitz-Gerald] has raised a lot from special-interest groups she has done favors for over the years, and a third — me — is self-financing.”
Polis says that, although it would be difficult to argue for the moral superiority or inferiority of any of those three flawed methods of campaign financing, he’d probably say that turning to special interests for money is the least savory because of the relationship it forges between special interests and lawmakers, who are supposed to represent the people.
“I believe that all three ways to fund campaigns are flawed for several reasons,” he says. “It seems you either need to have wealthy friends, be tied into special interests, or be wealthy yourself in order to run for Congress.”
This places Congress off-limits to most Americans, who can’t afford to run for Congress, if for no other reason than that they can’t leave their jobs for the year required to put momentum into a campaign, he says.
“All of us had to quit our day jobs a year ago,” he says. “But Congress should be accessible to ordinary Americans. That’s why I support public financing of campaigns, and specifically the Clean Money Clean Elections model posted at www.publicampaign.org.”
An entrepreneur and philanthropist, Polis earned his money in his 20s by launching, running and then selling successful Internet companies, successes that he believes demonstrate initiative, creative problem-solving and business acumen.
But lost amid the gossipy news stories and talk of money are deeper questions about Polis’ positions on the issues. Who is Jared Polis? And why would a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist choose to wade into the troubled and dirty waters of politics?
Polis was born on May 12, 1975, at Boulder Community Hospital. His parents, Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz, both artists, had moved to Boulder in 1970 and founded Blue Mountain Arts, a greeting card company that highlighted poetry written by his mother, also an accomplished author and filmmaker.
When Polis was 5, his family moved to San Diego, but maintained a home in Boulder, where Polis returned every summer.
His first taste of politics came at age 11 when a developer wanted to begin construction in a canyon near his family’s home. He told his parents that he wanted to go to a public hearing and speak against the planned development.
“I went to testify, and I told them, ‘We like the raccoons, and we like the foxes, and otherwise we wouldn’t get to see wildlife.’”
The developer was turned away, and the canyon and its wildlife were preserved.
“That really demonstrated to me the ability we have to make change in our society,” he says.
But it’s likely that some of Polis’ early idealism was genetic, as both of his parents were politically active. Both had been members of the famed Students for a Democratic Society, and his father had his jaw broken at an anti-Vietnam protest outside the Pentagon.
“They were idealistic, and they shared a legacy of taking action for what’s right,” he says. “It’s not enough to believe in doing what’s right. You have to do something about it.”
He left high school at age 16 when he was accepted — without a high school diploma — into Princeton, where he majored in political science. It wasn’t just grades or essays that drew Princeton’s attention, but Polis’ activities, which were unusual for a teenager to say the least.
At age 13, he volunteered for Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign, making phone calls, his voice cracking as he asked for donations. At age 15, he volunteered for Josie Heath’s 1990 campaign for U.S. Senate.
“He just called and wanted to know if he could volunteer,” says Heath, a former Boulder County Commissioner. “I thought he could be a runner and make copies.”
But very quickly, Polis proved to Heath that he wasn’t just another teenager. He ended up doing research for her campaign and even made phone calls for her to important people.
“He exhibited extraordinary maturity well beyond just a high school kid,” Heath says.
While still in high school, he traded scrap metal. Then, as the Soviet Union unraveled, he traveled alone to Russia, where he took a first-hand look at the country’s transition from a socialist economy to a privatized economy. While there, he worked to learn some Russian and traded privatization vouchers on the Russian Commodities Exchange. He recalls it as a fun and somewhat crazy time when people from around the world were attempting to launch industries in Russia — not just cottage industries, but sometimes bathroom industries.
“I met a lot of great characters over there,” Polis says. “I actually met a DNC delegate of [former California governor and presidential candidate] Jerry Brown’s… who was growing sprouts in bathtubs in Moscow.”
While still a student at Princeton at age 19, Polis started a business venture with some college friends and named it American Information Systems (AIS), betting money on this new thing called “the Internet.”
Together with his parents, he also started Bluemountain.com, selling electronic greeting cards.
He sold AIS at age 23 for $21 million, reinvested most of that money in a new Internet-based business, Proflowers.com, which allowed people to order flowers straight from the grower. A year later, he sold Bluemountain.com for $780 million.
A successful entrepreneur before he graduated from college, he sold Proflowers.com in 2006 for $400 million.
“So, basically, I’ve earned my money in flowers and greeting cards,” he says.
Rather than being something voters should feel suspicious about, Polis says his lucrative entrepreneurial career proves that he has a history of original thinking and of real-world success, qualities Washington needs.
“I earned [my money] doing things that help me qualify for Congress,” he says.
‘Education is key’
If Polis is passionate about any single issue — and he’s passionate about many — it’s education.
In 2000, Polis, then 25, founded the Jared Polis Foundation, a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit that focuses on educational initiatives. In its early years, the Foundation featured a bus that visited local schools loaded with the latest computer technology for kids to sample and explore. It currently focuses on funding two charter schools and two other programs — the annual Teacher Recognition Awards and the Community Computer Connection, or C3, which refurbishes about 3,500 used computers each year and donates them to schools and nonprofits.
The same year he launched the Foundation, he was elected to the State Board of Education.
“I wanted a way to get involved with our society and government, and I was ready to do it,” he says. “Education is what I feel most passionate about. Education is key if we want to prosper in our country.”
In 2004, he served as chairman of the board, becoming the first Democrat to occupy the position in 30 years. His term of office was completed in January 2007.
Also in 2004, he founded the New America School, a charter school that gives students ages 16 to 21 — many of them the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, documented and undocumented — the high school education and fluency in English they would otherwise never receive.
“The staff and teachers are passionate about helping new immigrants live the American dream,” says Polis, who supported the DREAM Act, which would have permitted young people who grew up in the United States to obtain in-state tuition in the state where they live, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
In 2005, he joined forces with Urban Peak, a nonprofit that works with homeless youth, to create another charter school, the Academy of Urban Learning, to provide a flexible and supportive educational environment for homeless and struggling teens.
Both schools offer unique programs designed to meet the specific challenges of their students.
The New America School, for example, has both day and night programs so that students can continue to work. It also offers reimbursement for daycare costs, without which many young women wouldn’t be able to attend. With campuses in Lakewood, Aurora, Northglenn and Gypsum, it’s now serving 1,000 students.
A handful of New America School graduates go on to college, but even students who don’t graduate from the program achieve proficiency in English.
“It’s the only way they can rise in this country,” Polis says.
Those who graduate are more likely to raise children who do go to college. And those who don’t graduate but are proficient in English are more likely to raise children who do graduate from high school.
“You have to take a generational view of the issue and think of the long-term benefits to their families,” says Polis, who speaks fluent Spanish. “That’s really the way you have to look at it. It’s a grassroots solution. Congress at its best should encourage grassroots solutions [like this one].”
Heath, who recently attended graduation ceremonies at one of the New America Schools says she was deeply moved.
“There were proud families and graduates who had been working two jobs and going to school at night and were thrilled that they were graduating,” she says.
Heath says she recalls when Polis mentioned the idea of starting a charter school.
“It was just an idea he had. He sort of mentioned it to me and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah,’” she says in that tone of voice wise adults use when youngsters come up with interesting but impractical ideas. “And then he did it.”
Heath says the New America Schools are an example of the creative, entrepreneurial approach Polis takes to problem-solving.
“These times call for an out-of-the-box thinker, and he is one. He absolutely is,” she says. “So many people talk a good game; he takes action.”
Polis himself credits his parents and his upbringing for his unique approach to business and problem-solving.
“Both of my parents were artists,” he says. “I think I have their creativity. I just apply it in a different sphere — business and politics.”
Pushing the envelope
“Here’s the problem with Washington,” Polis says. “Both conservatives and liberals become apathetic when they see politics as usual. They send their representatives to Congress full of fresh ideas, and in no time at all, [their Congressional representatives] are hooked on lobbyists and big special interests that encourage them to sell out on their reform agendas for a promise of large campaign contributions from big corporate Political Action Committees (PACs).”
Polis says he’s dismayed by the degree to which Democrats seek special-interest money, pointing out that it’s not only Republicans who feed at the PAC trough or who peddle their influence to lobbyists.
“It’s not simply a partisan issue, but an issue of relationships between lobbyists and our elected officials in Washington,” he says.
The result is the death of political ethics and disgust among voters, who then abandon political involvement. If the voice of special interests is stronger than the voice of the people, why bother voting?
Polis says he can understand this attitude.
“[Voters] look to their elected officials for solutions to the nation’s serious problems and aren’t getting solutions,” he says. “They thought they were voting for an end to the Iraq war and for changes in our health-care system in 2006. All that really came out of that were modifications to SCHIP. It’s such a small piece of the whole issue.”
(SCHIP, also known as Title XXI, was originally passed as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 in an attempt to offer health insurance to uninsured children of parents who earn too much for Medicaid but not enough to afford health care.)
The only way to get money out of politics is to switch to public financing of campaigns so that elections are open to more than the nation’s wealthiest citizens and so that citizens, not special interests, hold sway over Congress.
Polis has addressed this issue on the state level. Together with Colorado Common Cause, he advanced Amendment 41 onto the state ballot in 2006. Approved by voters but loathed by lobbyists, the controversial amendment prohibits Colorado public officials, government employees and their immediate family members from receiving gifts with value exceeding $50. It also prohibits gifts from lobbyists regardless of the amount. An exception is made for gifts given between personal friends and relatives on special occasions.
Amendment 41 also attempts to halt the revolving door between lobbying and the State Legislature by prohibiting statewide elected officials from lobbying certain elected state officials for pay for two years after leaving office. It further creates an independent ethics commission, the members of which have investigative and subpoena power in cases of suspected corruption.
Ethics is an issue Polis believes needs to be addressed in Washington, D.C., as well, if Congress is to restore its credibility with voters.
Although holding similar positions on the issues, Polis believes he is the most progressive of the three candidates.
“I am the only candidate who talks about systemic reform,” he says. “I am the only candidate calling for stronger ethics laws, public financing of campaigns, and banning Political Action Committees. I am also the only candidate who supports ending the earmarking process in which federal resources are allocated based on the granting of political favors rather than the merits of the project.”
Polis says that, although he and his two opponents all meet the traditional litmus tests necessary to win an election in this congressional district — they are pro-choice, anti-war and favor expanding health-care coverage — he is more likely to “push the envelope.”
“A true progressive asks questions others aren’t asking,” he says. “Whether that means bringing up the role of corporations and reforming the abused concept of a corporate charter, re-evaluating our drug war, or cutting our military expenditures by 15 percent below pre-Iraq-war levels, I will ask the tough questions that aren’t being asked and challenge the establishment to bring about real change.”
On the Iraq war, for example, he’s calling not only for an end to war and the beginnings of true diplomacy, but also for a ban on the use of privatized militias in warfare and accountability for contractors who may have abused taxpayer trust during the war by failing to deliver on their contracts or by overcharging for their goods and services. He also supports an end to U.S. attempts to control the oil in Iraq or to use Iraq and its people to manipulate events in the Middle East.
He took these positions after a self-financed investigative trip to Iraq in November 2007 that opened his eyes to the role that private corporations were playing in this conflict. When he arrived he found that the perimeters of U.S. strongholds were being guarded not by the best U.S. troops, but by professional mercenaries from nations around the world, such as Zimbabwe, that aren’t officially involved in the war and aren’t even democracies.
“We went through a security checkpoint where I was screened by men from Triple Canopy,” he says. “They looked like troops, but instead of flags on their uniforms, they have corporate logos. It’s like some post-apocalyptic nightmare.”
These men are armed with the best weapons and are trained to fight, a situation he believes will lead to problems in the future.
“What are we going to do when the war is over? Send them home. What are they going to do? You’re exporting instability to places in the world that aren’t stable,” he says. “That’s something we’re going to have to deal with in the future. Nation states should have a monopoly on the use of force.”
In addition, the presence of mercenaries is upsetting for U.S. troops.
“Mercenaries demoralize our troops because they’re often paid more for doing the same kinds of work as our troops,” he says.
“They’re often offered better working conditions and additional perks that troops don’t receive.”
Perks like drinking alcohol while not on duty, for example.
Polis’ experience in Iraq are detailed in his online diaries and blog, which are still available online at www.polisforcongress.com/iraqdiaries. (Included on the blog is a particularly interesting and angry letter from Halliburton, in which the company tries to refute Polis’ critcisms.) His time there led him to consider the issues in Iraq in depth and how he, if elected, could influence the nation’s policies on Iraq as a freshman congressman. And that led to conversations with other Democratic congressional candidates and a document titled, “A Responsible Plan to End the War In Iraq.”
“I got to know Darcy Burner, a terrific Democrat running for Congress in Washington State, through some mutual friends,” Polis says. “She mentioned the idea to me, and I encouraged her to work on it. She led in assembling several retired military officers who helped us put it together, as did several progressive bloggers. We circulated drafts between us, and we agreed on a final version. We then invited all Democrats running for Congress to sign on, and announced the plan at the Take Back America Conference in Washington, D.C.”
More than 50 candidates for U.S. Congress have signed on to the document. By working together they hope to arrive in Washington as a block that can’t be ignored by more senior members of Congress.
“However many of us win, we as freshman as a block will have a specific and clear mandate to end the war,” he says. “The Democrats have had no backbone on the Iraq war.”
Healing our democracy
Polis says he’s running for Congress because he felt it was time for him to do his part and that Congress is where he feels he can make the greatest difference.
“We’re really here for a limited period of time. Giving back is an important part of the meaning of life,” he says. “So many of the issues we need to move forward on need to be addressed in Washington.”
And not only does Polis have an opinion on each of the issues — rhetoric doesn’t mean much because it can be co-opted, he says — he has a plan with specific steps he thinks ought to be taken.
There’s health care, for which Polis sees a single-payer solution and host of other reforms. There’s student loan debt, credit card debt and the foreclosure crisis, which Polis hopes to address through, among other things, lowering interest rates on student loans and putting an end to credit card and lending abuses. There’s the hypocrisy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the U.S. military, which he, an openly gay man, would end outright. There’s poverty, which could be addressed by a host of innovative programs, including a low-interest “micro-credit” program, such as those that have been so successful in elevating the poor in developing countries. There’s immigration policy, which he believes ought to be enforced on the employer level and ought to offer some way for hard-working immigrants to become citizens.
“Our current immigration law is a law that’s set up to be broken,” he says. “We need to acknowledge that our immigrant population brings us so much culturally and economically and create a pathway to citizenship so that they can come out of the shadows and into the full light of day.”
He knows not all of his ideas are popular with the political establishment, and that’s OK with him. Doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily make one’s colleagues happy, he says. The fact that he’ not taking PAC money and not necessarily playing the political game the way others expect him to play it unnerves some.
“That scares the special interests,” he says. “They would rather have another candidate in the mold of what they’ve come to expect, whether a Democrat or a Republican.”
Heath, who has already endorsed Polis, thinks it’s Polis’ creative way of approaching issues that makes him stand out in this race.
“This was an easy choice for me in a race where there are three really strong candidates,” she says. “There’s just no question that there’s lots of talent in this race. I have lots of respect for all three [candidates], but what I admire about Jared is that is that he never ceases to surprise me by what he has accomplished. There’s no question that he’s a brilliant guy, and he sees a much bigger picture, and he sees a road map on how to get there.”
Heath says his experience on the state board of education shows that he can work within the system, but with an “entrepreneurial eye.”
Polis has been taking his ideas door to door, meeting the people whose votes he hopes to win next month when voting for the primary begins.
“It really is a very grassroots campaign,” he says. “Most of the people who vote for me will be people who’ve met me.”
Although Polis hopes to create real change in Washington, he’s not looking to create conflict. He said he takes for granted that members of Congress are there because they’re motivated by the same desire that motivates him — they want to make a difference.
“They get up every day wanting to make the world a better place,” he says. “Some of them are wrong in how they want to go about it. My job would be to explain to them why they’re wrong.”
But that doesn’t mean playing politics as usual.
“Congress has too much ‘go along, get a long,’” he says. “It needs people who are willing to rock the boat, and I will do that every day. That’s what gets me excited every day — the thought of going to Washington and doing this and helping with the process of healing our democracy.”
For more on the candidates for Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, go to:
www.polisforcongress.com, www.shafrothforcongress.com and www.joanfitz-gerald.com.
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