If Jared Polis wins the race for governor of Colorado, he would become the first openly gay person to win a gubernatorial race in the United States — but breaking through the pink ceiling isn’t a distinction that’s a priority for his campaign.
During an interview with the Washington Blade last week, the five-term member of the U.S. House identified renewable energy and education as marquee issues for his candidacy, downplaying the significance of achieving a potential first.
“I think it shows that my state of Colorado and the country is ready to select the best person to move our state forward and not pick somebody based on who they love, but rather based on what they can do for the state and how they can make the economy work for everybody,” Polis said.
Other politicians have paved the way for Polis to become the first openly gay person elected governor. In 2004, then-New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevy declared he was gay after he was elected and shortly before he resigned amid scandal in which he was having an affair with a male staffer. Last year, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who’s bisexual and married to a man, earned the distinction of becoming the first openly LGBT person elected governor after her appointment to the role following the resignation of her predecessor.
But no one who has identifies as openly gay has won a governor’s race.
Polis, the first gay parent in Congress, could face competition for that place in history. In Maryland, State Sen. Rich Madaleno has declared his bid to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan in the 2018 elections. In Connecticut, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo has launched an exploratory committee to determine whether to pursue a gubernatorial campaign.
Polis has to best a crowded field of candidates in the Democratic primary before the general election in 2018.
Meanwhile, he’s focusing on the future of the state that he’s served for 10 years in Congress since the beginning of the Obama administration and for one last term in the U.S. House.
“People are focused more on my 100 percent renewable energy goal, my efforts to improve the schools and my experience in public education showing that I can do it and my plan to help make our economy work for everybody,” Polis said.
Read the full interview between the Blade and Polis here:
Washington Blade: Why are you running for governor of Colorado at this time?
Jared Polis: I think our state needs a bold leader to take us into the future, and I’ve represented a new generation of leadership for our state with a vision for where our state needs to go in terms of reaching 100 percent renewable energy, establishing universal preschool and kindergarten and creating an economy that works for everybody — not just investors and CEOs.
And I don’t see much progress on any of those issues coming from Washington in the age of Trump, and it’s time to go home and make our state a shining example of what the future looks like for America.
Blade: But, of course, your candidacy represents something a little bit different because if you are elected, you could be the first openly gay person elected as governor in the United States. What do you think the significance of that would be?
Polis: Well, we certainly have examples, as you know, like Kate Brown and Jim McGreevey, but I guess I would be the first — how did you phrase it?
Blade: The first openly gay person elected governor in the United States.
Polis: Yeah, I guess that’s right. Well, you know, I think it shows that my state of Colorado and the country is ready to select the best person to move our state forward and not pick somebody based on who they love, but rather based on what they can do for the state and how they can make the economy work for everybody.
Blade: Colorado has seen a lot of advancements on LGBT rights thanks to the courts and a non-discrimination law. Assuming that stays in place, which we’ll talk about later, how would you further advance LGBT rights as governor of Colorado?
Polis: Well, I would say that my state and my hometown is the birthplace of same-sex marriage the very same year I was born, 1975. The town I was born in, Boulder, Colo., had the first same-sex marriages in the entire country. Our then-Clerk Clela Rorex married several couples within months of when I was born until she was stopped by the state.
Now 42 years later, Clela Rorex is back in Boulder County and supporting my efforts to become governor and it’s exciting to see the progress that we’ve made across the country on equality issues.
Blade: One issue I thought you might mention is the legislation that would ban widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. That has moved through the legislature, but it hasn’t quite made it to passage.
Polis: Right. It has not yet passed in Colorado. Absolutely. So, there certainly remains work to be done. Many other states have already passed similar laws.
Blade: And that’s something that you would support?
Polis: Yes. I think our current governor does as well. It hasn’t been able to pass the legislature yet, the bill that would prevent parents from forcing their kids into conversion therapy. That’s unfortunately still legal in Colorado.
Blade: Let’s talk a little bit about the Supreme Court because just this week it decided to take up a case in which a Colorado baker is challenging the state’s non-discrimination law on the basis that they feel like they should be able to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Why do you think the Supreme Court decided to take up this case and how do you predict they will rule?
Polis: Well, first I’m glad that the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the lower court that public businesses cannot discriminate and I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will swiftly agree.
Blade: Can you talk a little bit more about why it’s important to have the non-discrimination law in Colorado in effect for the purposes of public accommodations and wedding services?
Polis: Any business that is open to the public shouldn’t discriminate, and I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree with the Colorado Supreme Court and the lower courts who have all found that our inclusive non-discrimination statute protects people from discrimination in a business that presents itself in a form of public accommodation.
Blade: To what extent do you think the case before the Supreme Court is going to animate the gubernatorial campaign — either in the primary or general election?
Polis: I haven’t heard much about it, Chris, in Colorado. I think it’s being followed more nationally, but I have not heard much about it from my constituents.
People are more focused on my 100 percent renewable energy goal, my efforts to improve the schools and my experience in public education showing that I can do it and my plan to help make our economy work for everybody, so I have a very specific plan in each of those areas — both a bold progressive vision for our state as well as the proven results in my private and public sector work to turn ideas into reality.
Blade: What’s your assessment of the Trump administration and the way it’s handled LGBT rights?
Polis: Well, I think it’s been a very mediocre to poor record so far. There’s been symbolic missteps like failing to issue a Pride proclamation, which should have been a routine feel-good moment for the Trump administration to lend support. And, of course, we continue to be worried with their efforts that could be underway to undermine anti-discrimination efforts, so while I feel that they have at least been willing to talk to the community at times, so far I’ve been disappointed by their track record.
Blade: Another issue that’s been in the news quite prominently is the GOP effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Senate just yanked that vote that was supposed to take place tomorrow. What do you predict will be the outcome of their efforts?
Polis: It’s safe to say the Senate has delayed action until after the recess, but the bill is far from dead, and it’s important to show solidarity with the efforts to protect the health care that billions of Americans enjoy, including people with pre-existing conditions.
In my home state of Colorado alone, 500,000 Coloradans have benefited from the Affordable Care Act and we cut the rate of people without insurance in half from 13 percent to about six-and-a-half percent.
Blade: Why do you think Republicans are so eager to move forward with a bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimated could result in the loss of coverage for 22 million Americans?
Polis: Republicans have been champing at the bit and running on repealing Obamacare ever since it passed. And it’s a little bit like the dog that catches the tail pipe of the car. It doesn’t know what to do. So, in the meantime, they don’t have a very good plan to replace what they were against, and by all objective measures, their plan is far worse.
It covers less people, it costs people more, it fails to adequately protect people with pre-existing conditions. Anybody looking at it from the health services [angle], even if they didn’t like Obamacare, would like the Republican plan even less.
Blade: Let’s talk about your time as a congressman in the past 10 years. How fulfilling has your tenure in Congress been for you?
Polis: It’ll be coming up on 10 years. Amazing honor to be able to serve the last nine years when I came in being able to serve alongside legends like Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin and now to see the number of LGBT members of Congress expand to six members. [Editor’s Note: There are seven openly LGB members of Congress, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and six openly LGB members of the U.S. House.]
It’s been exciting to see legislative victories like the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which I was a strong supporter of doing, the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act. So to be able to be part of making history in expanding protections for the LGBT community has been a great honor.
Blade: To what extent were you able to accomplish all the things you wanted to accomplish?
Polis: I think that’s the nature of a democracy. I don’t think any member of Congress should run for office expecting they’re going to accomplish everything they want to because there happen to be 434 others in the House, not to mention 100 senators and a president.
So, there’s a long list of things to do, including with regard to equality. I’ve worked closely with David Cicilline to help bring together a coalition, which pulls in our work around ENDA — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which I led for a number of years — and adds in other areas of protections from discrimination for LGBT Americans.
Blade: What’s your assessment of Washington, D.C., the city that’s been hosting you for the past 10 years?
Polis: The city itself has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years. Neighborhoods that used to be low-cost and dangerous are rapidly being gentrified. There are communities that have become vibrant culturally across the city. The economy’s doing better than it was 10 years ago.
I also worry about the partisanship. It seems to grip our government. It seems to have gotten worse over the last decade, and I hope that we can turn the corner on that and return to both parties working together to make our country better.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length.