Polis thinks big thoughts, bides his time

Congressman-elect dreams up programs, waits for January

By Jake Harkins
SPECIAL TO THE COLORADO STATESMAN

BOULDER — Jared Polis’ Pearl Street campaign headquarters was nothing if not sprawling, taking up the entirety of a shuttered Boulder community grocer.


Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Jared Polis, who easily won election to the open seat in CD 2 on Tuesday, is surrounded by his sister and mother on the left and his partner and campaign manager on the right.

The victor in the race to serve Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District also has one of those high-demand tony offices just down the street, where he runs the various business ventures that have made him a millionaire a hundred times over. Next week, however, he will begin the transition into an office befitting an assistant professor at a community college.

Orientation for Polis and 49 other rookie members of the United States House of Representatives begins Nov. 15. A lottery for office space is on the agenda, and it’s a safe bet the big offices close to where Congress meets will go to the senior members.

“We’ll have to choose from the dregs the senior members leave us,” Polis said during a phone interview two days after his nearly 2-to-1 win over Republican rival Scott Starin to take over the seat vacated by Senator-elect Mark Udall. “It’s kind of like the freshman room lottery at every college.”

Not that this worries Polis. Unlike many others who just won election in bitterly contested races, Polis has had ample time to dream realistically dream of days in office —from the size of his office to the policies he’ll push and the committees he’ll try to serve on.

After eking out a narrow victory over former State Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald and conservationist Will Shafroth in the August Democratic primary, Polis shifted into cruise control. In this left-leaning district that serves Boulder and Adams counties as well as a smattering of mountain town communities to the west, a Democrat is as safe a bet as traffic during rush hour.

The day after his primary victory, most of the “Polis for Congress” campaign signs were pulled from the storefront windows of his campaign headquarters, replaced by signs touting Barack Obama and Udall.

This is not to say the Internet entrepreneur kicked up his feet and waited for Nov. 4 to roll around. Instead, he traveled to Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami and Seattle, helping other Democrats in highly contested districts while crafting and honing ideas for legislations he hopes will gain traction during his first term.

Sure, like every other newly elected Democrat, Polis wants to change the nation’s health care system and bring our troops home from Iraq, but strategies for those probably will emerge from the Oval Office, not from his meager new office.

“I’m going to focus on a few particulars, while making a stamp on the larger debates,” Polis said.

Meaning he wants his voice heard on those mega issues, but he will try to make his mark in the two areas of his expertise: money and education.

During his campaign, Polis, who made his fortune selling off his Internet ventures, announced plans to push for an expanded version of the country’s EB-5 visa program. Under EB-5, foreign business owners are able to move to the United States if they have about $1 million in start-up cash and guarantee to create 10 jobs. The program expedites green-card treatment for the business owners and their families, and, in return, the U.S. economy gets a boost.

Polis wants to create a private-sector version of this to help solve the massive home foreclosure problems plaguing virtually every community in the country. Basically, upper-class foreign nationals who want to move to the United States would move to the head of the green card express line if they can offer a $200,000 down payment on a foreclosed home and have proof they can make the monthly mortgage payment.

“This is the time. I think we will be able to implement bold policies,” Polis said in an obvious reference to the commanding power lead Democrats now hold in both the House and the Senate.

Besides entrepreneurship, Polis’ other love is education. He served on Colorado’s State Board of Education for six years and has built two Denver metro-area charter schools (Academy of Urban Learning and the New America School) that cater to the impoverished and children from non-English-speaking homes. He sees the timing of his meteoric rise to Congress as a nearly perfect coincidence expiration of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

“The main problems is it penalizes schools that serve the people who need help the most,” Polis said of No Child Left Behind. “I would like to see more emphasis in the arts, history, the vocations… funds to schools that serve at-risk kids.”

It should be no surprise, then, that serving on education and finance committees are at the top of his wish list. But his final destination will be up to senior leadership.

Polis is eagerly awaiting his assignments and orientation as he focuses on hiring a staff and figuring out how to decorate a tiny office and how to be an effective freshmen member of Congress who plays well with Republicans.

“All the logistical things that go into to being a congressmen; it’s a lot,” Polis said.

As for next week, he has one big goal that mirrors that of numerous others from this election season: start building relations with members of both sides of the aisle.