Jared Schutz Polis (1975– ) is the forty-third governor of Colorado, elected in 2018. A member of the Democratic Party, Polis formerly represented Colorado’s Second Congressional District and served on the State Board of Education.
Polis is a progressive and the state’s first openly gay governor,.}with signature policies including stricter regulation of oil and gas activity in the state, expanded access to early childhood education, and investments in renewable energy. He is also leading the state through the novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.
Jared Polis was born Jared Schutz on May 12, 1975, in Boulder, the oldest of three siblings. In 1980 his parents Steve and Susan moved the family to La Jolla, an upscale San Diego neighborhood. The family often went on road trips back to Colorado and throughout the Southwest. As an eleven-year-old, Polis successfully lobbied the San Diego City Council to oppose a development proposal near his neighborhood. He attended private K–12 schools and left high school after his junior year to study at Princeton University.
The young Polis thrived in the college environment, taking on more classes than most of his peers and participating in a fraternity, juggling club, and Jewish life on campus. He ran for student body president at age nineteen, though he lost and settled for the post of student government communications director.
In college, Polis was especially interested in the new technology of the internet. In 1995, his senior year at Princeton, he claimed to have organized the first online election. That year, he established American Information Systems, the first of some twenty companies he would found or cofound throughout his life. The company was an internet service provider in Chicago that Polis and his friends ran from servers in their dorm rooms.
In 1998, at age twenty-three, Polis became a millionaire when a California company bought American Information Systems for $23 million. Polis was admitted to Harvard Law School but decided not to attend. At age twenty-five he changed his name to “Jared Schutz Polis” in honor of his grandmother.
Polis’s ahead-of-the-curve thinking and sharp business instincts allowed him to amass a fortune during the dot-com boom. In 1999 he helped sell his parents’ greeting card business to the e-card company Excite@Home for a whopping $780 million. Polis followed that up by working with German entrepreneur Bernd Luntz to develop the flower-delivery outfit ProFlowers, which sold for $477 million in 2006. By that time, Polis was back in Colorado and already a veteran member of the state school board.
His financial life secure at age twenty-five, Polis decided to make his long-planned entry into politics. He stormed onto the Colorado political stage in 2001, touring the state in a bright yellow school bus and spending more than a million dollars of his own money on his way to being elected to the state school board. Polis’s mother credits her son’s interest in public education to an experience he had while growing up in San Diego: his eighth-grade class went on a field trip to a Mexican orphanage, where the young Polis saw that the children lacked books and other supplies. He began to understand why some students never had a chance to excel.
In his six years on the Colorado School Board, Polis launched New America Schools, a charter school system for immigrant and undocumented students, and he advocated for increased public-school funding. His support of private and public schools made him somewhat of a political maverick on education, as most Democrats typically did not support private or charter schools.
While on the school board, Polis joined forces with a group of other wealthy Democratic donors—including Pat Stryker, Tim Gill, and Rutt Bridges—to fund progressive causes throughout the state, including LGBTQ rights, which were then a target of Republic lawmakers. Known as the “Gang of Four,” the group became a political powerhouse that spent a total of $3 million to defeat Republicans and win a Democratic majority in the state legislature in 2004. That election is seen by many Democrats as the beginning of the party’s dominance in state elections throughout the aughts and 2010s.
In 2008 Democrat Mark Udall announced he would not run again to represent Colorado’s Second Congressional District, which included Polis’s hometown of Boulder. Polis jumped at the chance to win the seat, irking some Democrats who thought another candidate, Joan Fitz-Gerald, was a better fit to replace Udall. Polis spent $7.3 million of his own money on a successful campaign, defeating Republican Scott Starin in the general election. It was during his congressional campaign that Polis first publicly identified as gay.
Polis served in the House of Representatives from 2009 to 2018. His voting record in Congress reflected liberal social attitudes, with Polis earning a rating of 93 percent from the American Civil Liberties Union and a 97 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign. By contrast, he held a rating of just 12 percent with the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. True to his school board roots, 37 percent of the bills Polis sponsored in the House were related to education.
Polis also made a name for himself taking on oil and gas interests. In 2013 he learned that an oil and gas company was going to drill next to his second home in Weld County. After promising to be the “face” of Colorado’s antifracking movement, he helped collect more than 300,000 signatures in 2014 for two ballot measures that would require wells to be set back farther from homes as well as create a new “bill of rights” that would give local governments more control over industry operations. This put him at odds with then-Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who resisted various antifracking measures. In 2014 Polis agreed to withdraw the ballot initiatives, earning him a degree of enmity among fracking opponents.
Governor of Colorado
In 2018 Polis defeated Republican Walker Stapleton in Colorado’s gubernatorial election. When he took office in January 2019, Polis became Colorado’s first openly gay governor and the second openly gay governor elected in the United States (the other being Kate Brown of Oregon). His election, combined with the Democratic capture of the state legislature, signaled a new wave of progressive influence in a state that had a reputation for being a “purple” battleground between Democrats and Republicans.
Shortly after his election, Polis became the first Colorado governor since 1959 not to move into the governor’s mansion in Denver; he chose instead to remain at his Boulder residence, saying that it reflected his desire to be a “statewide governor.”
In April 2019, following up on a campaign promise to regulate the state’s oil and gas industry more strictly, Polis signed a bill that the Colorado Sun called “a major shift in regulatory authority over drilling in Colorado.” It directed state regulators to prioritize health and safety over “fostering” industry growth. The new law also achieved what Polis could not accomplish in 2014 by giving local communities more power over the location of oil and gas operations. Still, Polis has come under scrutiny from environmental activists who do not believe he has gone far enough to rein in the risks posed by oil and gas activity in the state.
Meanwhile, Polis’ support of gun control, public education, and environmental regulations has drawn the ire of Colorado conservatives, even as the governor has attempted to engage conservative audiences. On July 12, 2019, Polis became the first Democrat to address a Denver conservative conference when he spoke at the Western Conservative Summit. He pled to the audience, “[let’s not] close ourselves off from discussion and debate” or “reject the possibility of hearing, understanding other perspectives” earning Polis warm applause from an ideologically opposed audience.
In early March 2020, state officials announced the first case of COVID-19, the disease produced by the novel coronavirus, in Colorado. On March 10, Polis declared a state of emergency; a week later, he ordered all bars and restaurants to stop in-house service; on March 25, as the number of cases steadily increased, he issued a stay-at-home order for the entire state to help curb the spread of the virus. As infections leveled off in May, Polis issued guidelines for the gradual reopening of Colorado businesses and other public places.
On March 23, 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Polis signed a bill abolishing the state’s death penalty, making Colorado the twenty-second state to ban capital punishment and capping decades-long reform efforts by activists and former politicians.
Polis met his partner, writer Marlon Reis, when he moved to Boulder after college. The pair have two children, Caspian and Cora, and the family lives in a condo on Pearl Street in Boulder.