Polis dives in to massive town halls, plays reporter, counselor, party host

Colorado 2nd District Congressman Jared Polis works the crowd at a town Hall in Broomfield, March 12, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

Colorado 2nd District Congressman Jared Polis works a Broomfield town hall crowd, March 12, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis on Sunday worked a 20 foot stretch of the line of people that snaked around Broomfield High School. It was a perfect Colorado springtime afternoon yet more than a 1,000 people showed up for his congressional town hall. The same amount turned out hours later 55 miles north at the town hall he held in Fort Collins.

In Broomfield, the people in line were overwhelmingly Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters deeply concerned with news of “the Trump administration troubles,” as one man put it. As became clear over the course of the meeting, he was talking about what the crowd views as Trump administration executive oder overreaches, potential business conflicts of interest, the inexperience of his staffers and appointees, reports of unofficial contacts with the Russian government officials and advisers, and retrograde policy positions on health care, immigration, civil rights, the environment and national security.

It was the same energized demographic that has been packing Republican and Democratic town halls across the country, fueling a major jump in ratings at liberal-leaning news outlets and boosting subscriptions at the mainstream national newspapers that are engaged in an hourly watchdog tug of war with the administration.

Polis came decked in a casual black suit and sneakers. He shook hands and made jokes. He thanked a mariachi band for coming.

The band was a perfect complement to the crowd in the way it seemed to bring knowing, multicultural defiance to life. Dressed in black — some of them sporting face jewelry, hipster eyeglasses and lopsided hairdos — the band members performed a mix of traditional Latino numbers and mariachi-versions of rock classics: “Guantanamera” came on the heels of “Eleanor Rigby.”

Inside the school gym, staffers organized cards staffers passed out for people to fill with questions. Polis fielded questions three at a time, manning a microphone in the middle of the gym basketball court, turning this way and that way as he spoke, walking in circles. He attempted to ease some concerns and agreed enthusiastically with others. The crowd pushed him to shared his view of what was happening on Capitol Hill.

A woman who described herself as a psychologist said she thought Trump was very likely mentally ill and unfit for office.

The president may or may not be crazy, but members of the cabinet are competent. We’ll have to depend on them to take the measure of his fitness for office, Polis cautioned.

What about the executive orders, which have been stayed by the courts? said another member of the crowd.

“If Trump continues to overreach… we know the Republican leaders in Congress won’t act, but we can rely on the courts,” Polis said.

He told the crowd he planned to fight rollbacks in health care protections brought by the Affordable Care Act and that Democrats are looking forward to battling the effort to defund Planned Parenthood, which would close rural clinics across the country.

“Planned Parenthood frankly does an excellent job reducing abortions,” he said and suggested that some Republicans might be turned against the proposed cuts.

He also said that, in order to deal with any potential Trump administration conflicts of interest and to get to the bottom of communications with Russia, the American people deserve “a full investigation.”

“We need Congress to do its job and act as a full co-equal branch of the government and provide checks and balance,” he said.

“There’s a lot of smoke right now. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire… but we need an objective fair-minded independent investigation to find where those fires are. We need something solid.”

Polis played down fears that the Trump Department of Education could do too much to alter the education system in Colorado. “They can’t force vouchers on a school system… but they could use a carrot and give more financial support for vouchers,” he said. He added that the administration and the Republican Congress could shift resources away from programs that help close achievement gaps. “These proposals could leave minority students behind.”

He said Democrats on Capitol Hill were pushing the “Presidential Accountability Act” to force the president to release his tax returns.

He touted his work on the bipartisan cannabis caucus and said he was “very concerned” about any plans Attorney General Sessions might be formulating to target Colorado’s legal marijuana industry.

“We’ll do everything we can, with Republican colleagues, to prevent federal interference,” he said. “States rights can’t just be an argument of convenience.”

“Why hasn’t our attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, sued Trump over the Muslim ban like other states attorney have done?” asked a member of the crowd.

“I’ll give a snide response: She was too busy suing Boulder County to lift its fracking ban,” Polis said, drawing cheers. “Hey, she’s up for election next year!”

Attendees were also concerned about the “war on science” being waged in Washington, including proposed steep budget cuts that might result in significant layoffs in Polis’s research-heavy district and the surrounding area.

Polis ticked off the most high-profile of the area research institutions: the flagship campuses of the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, the National Renewable Energy Lab, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“Cutting funds for scientific research is incredibly shortsighted,” Polis said. “They’re looking to put so much money into the military that they have to find money somewhere… but more nefarious is cutting science that they don’t like.”

Polis told the crowd that the most powerful way to push back against such policies was to keep up the public momentum displayed at the town hall.

“I’m motivated the same reasons you guys are. Usually these meetings take place in a small side room in a public library. Contact your representatives. Make calls, send letters. You all have two U.S. Senators. Contact them. You have friends in other districts. Ask them to do the same. Become trusted news sources for your social network. Try to post good information.

“We’re outraged,” said one woman. “Where’s the outrage from the Democrats in Congress?” The crowd erupted in response. But they weren’t angry with Polis.

They thanked Polis several times for “being brave” and coming out in person to meet with them. They dished in particular on Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who many said they tried and failed to get responses from. No response to letters or phone calls or even to live requests made while standing outside his district offices.

john@coloradostatesman.com

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