A bus and a bucket of cash: No one in Colorado politics saw Jared Polis coming
Jared Polis (Screenshot)

This is the second in a four-part series about Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor. Part 1 examined Jared Polis’s early years. We’ll cover his congressional career in Part 3 tomorrow.

Ben Alexander made his living renting out apartments and mobile homes around the Western Slope town of Montrose.

Alexander, a Republican, was also a state senator, during which time he chaired the education committee and developed a keen interest in the subject. Those chops earned him an appointment to the Colorado State Board of Education in 1999 to fill a vacancy. In early 2000, at the age of 52, he decided he’d seek proper election to an at-large seat when his abbreviated term expired.

He had a modest campaign plan: He’d raise a few thousand dollars where he could, and make one campaign stop in the San Luis Valley.

Members of the State Board of Education aren’t paid, and board races historically get almost zero media attention, so Alexander was justified in figuring he could win with a tiny budget and no real campaign schedule. Plenty of others had.

Then one day in mid-2000, the board met in Denver and, as Alexander recalls, Gully Stanford, at the time the only Democrat on the board, told him to watch out because another Democrat was coming for his seat and was prepared to spend 100 times more money than Alexander was.

“I laughed,” Alexander, now 70, says from the offices of the property management company he still runs. “I thought, who in the world is going to spend a million dollars for a State Board of Education seat?”

The answer was Jared Polis, a 25-year old Princeton grad who’d spent the bulk of his life in San Diego. Polis had been plotting to enter politics since fifth grade, and by the time he entered the state education board race he’d developed a reputation as man who let little stand in his path. When he announced his run, he had more than smarts and stamina; he was a dot-com multimillionaire who would later go on to drop buckets of his own cash running for Congress and, now, governor of Colorado.

But at the time, Alexander, like most in Colorado politics, was unfamiliar with the name.

“So we find out that here’s this guy, he’s young, nobody knows who he is, and he’s gonna use the money he has for unlimited funding to make sure he can win the race,” Alexander says. “We decided we’d do what we could do and just let him do what he’d do.”

Here’s what Polis did: He bought a yellow school bus and criss-crossed Colorado, making stops in all corners of the state in the weeks that led up to the November election. He campaigned on a platform of attracting and retaining better teachers, updating classroom materials and devoting more resources to struggling public schools.

In the process, he spent $1.2 million of his own money.

“We all thought it was stupid,” says Lakewood’s Norma Anderson, a state legislator from 1987 to 2006. Laughing incredulously, she adds, “Who spends a million dollars that way? It wasn’t normal.”

Alexander, meanwhile, responded by doing what he’d planned to do all along: He made that appearance in the San Luis Valley, and when the occasional checks for $250 or $500 rolled in, he’d call up his advisor and they’d debate how best to spend the money. His campaign spent $10,000 in total.

“What else could I do?” Alexander says. “He essentially was using his money to buy the seat. He had his bus and he drove it all over and he did all these mailings. There was no way in the world I could compete.”

The incumbent rural property manager was as surprised as anyone when, the night of the election, he and the mega-rich 20-something insurgent were neck-and-neck. The race was too close to call.

Alexander says that when Polis was slightly ahead, but with the final, official tally still pending, he called to say he’d be declaring victory.

“I said, OK, but you might want to be careful before there’s an official count,” Alexander says. “There was a bit of arrogance on that side, like, ‘I’m ahead and I’m just gonna say I won before it’s over.’ ”

Three weeks after the election, state officials announced after a recount that Polis won by 90 votes. He’d spent $1.56 for every vote he won. Alexander had spent one penny per vote.

In debriefs over the next few weeks, Alexander says, his allies were in general consensus about Polis: “He’d used his money to buy a spot on the State Board of Education and get his foot in the door of politics. He wasn’t there just to serve on the board. He was there to establish a base to run for something else.”

A ‘real liberal’?

It is true that all along Polis aspired to something higher than serving on the education board, which is arguably the lowest-profile statewide office one can hold in Colorado.

But he didn’t choose that first political step at random.

His mother, Susan, tells a story about his 8th grade class at La Jolla Country Day School taking a field trip across the border to a orphanage in Mexico. The young Polis noticed the children there had no books or pencils or paper, which, Susan says, made a strong impression.

“That changed him,” Susan says. “We were talking about the importance of education and he was saying these kids don’t have a chance if they don’t have an education.”

Polis took that early interest to scale in 2004 when, midway through his first term on the state board, he founded New America Schools for young immigrants and undocumented students. New America Schools now has three charter campuses in Colorado and two in New Mexico. One year later, he founded the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver. The charter high school serves homeless and unstably housed people between the ages of 14 and 21, and graduates about 20 a year.

Both Democrats and Republicans who worked with Polis on the state board said he demonstrated a genuine commitment to education, and did not carry himself like someone biding time before his next big move.

“I was surprised someone would spend that much money on a campaign for a job that doesn’t pay anything, but it didn’t bother me that he was young. I thought it was great that a young man with a lot of resources was that interested in education,” says Pat Chlouber, a Republican who served with Polis on the board and was later appointed by George W. Bush to be a regional director for the U.S. Department of Education.

Several former state officials used the word “thoughtful” when asked what Polis was like early in his political career. It’s a word people across the political spectrum use today, too, to describe him. In conversation, he comes across as curious and engaged, but can be brisk to the point of brusque.

During the single six-year term Polis served on the board, he made his mark as a strong supporter of  school reform and for improving educational opportunity for the underprivileged. He regularly advocated for the boosting and protection of school funding.

Chlouber recalls that Polis was “unpredictable,” and just as likely to make alliances with Republican colleagues as he was to side against them. Polis has supported school choice and charter schools, which are generally popular with Republicans and opposed by left-wing Democrats.

“I never thought of him as being a real liberal,” she says.

His hard-to-pin-down politics were complemented by behavior his colleagues — mostly Republican and all much older than he — say they had never seen from a board member.

In a protest of religiosity in state business, Polis followed the lead of fellow Democratic board member Evie Hudak by standing outside the boardroom while other members kicked meetings off in prayer. He’d display his now notoriously unsensible fashion sense, pairing Armani suits with sneakers. And he sometimes dressed up in judge’s robes when the board would hold quasi-judicial hearings on charter schools.

“I wanted to reflect that mindset, remove political considerations, and fulfill (the) role in an unbiased way — and dressed accordingly,” he says.

Chlouber recalls a day that her secretary phoned to say Polis wanted to wear a robe. “It wasn’t for me,” she says, “but I thought he should wear whatever he wanted to.”

“Money, money, money, money”

A few years after bursting onto the political scene with his bus and million-dollar campaign, Polis began to make a name for himself as a fundraiser for the Democratic Party.

It was a role that, like so many things in Polis’s life, he’d been preparing for since he was a kid.

Boulder’s Josie Heath, a former Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, remembers Polis, while in high school, volunteering to help her while he was in Colorado over the summer. He was assigned to package brochures and lick envelopes.

“After a little while, he said, ‘I’d like to do more. I’d like to help with fundraising,’” Heath says, laughing at the memory. “He was 15. I was like, ‘Really?’ Well, he was just remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. He would call people and talk with them. He didn’t say he was 15. He was just very professional. I was overwhelmed to think that this kid really knew how to do it.”

“He was well beyond his years in experience and savvy and having the sense of what needed to be done.”

In 2003, Polis teamed with other wealthy Democratic donors who together became known as the Gang of Four. It included Pat Stryker, a billionaire whose family owned the Fortune-500 medical supply company Stryker Corporation; Tim Gill, who made half a billion dollars selling his stake in the software company he founded, and who has donated more money to LGBTQ causes than any other individual in U.S. history; and Rutt Bridges, a software developer and venture capitalist with centrist politics and — at the time, anyway — his eyes on the governorship. (Foundations founded by Stryker and Gill are both longtime funders of The Colorado Independent.)

Polis, at 29, was the baby of the group. The Gang of Four is credited with flipping Colorado’s state legislature blue in 2004 by pouring more than $3 million — a huge sum at the time — into its effort to oust Republicans, and specifically those who opposed gay marriage. They bankrolled ads, targeted vulnerable opponents and recruited promising young Democrats to run for office.

As has been widely reported, that election was seen as a turning point for Democrats in Colorado – the year the state party, long known for internal conflicts and lack of organization, became coordinated, strategic and virtually unbeatable.

Several Democrats interviewed for this story said that 2004 was the first time they felt supported by real financial muscle in state races, and most agreed that the Gang of Four is the biggest reason the Democratic Party started winning in Colorado. In 2004, Republicans controlled both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, a 5-2 majority of its congressional seats, the governor’s mansion, both chambers of the state legislature, and the offices of the secretary of state and treasurer. By 2008, the exact opposite was true.

In an interview about the Gang of Four and the 2004 election, Polis told author Robert Frank, “It was more about what the Republicans didn’t do. They weren’t dealing with any of the problems the state faced, like the huge budget deficit.”

Democrat and Republican party leaders who recall the Gang’s spending know better than to understate what all that money meant to the election.

“Money, money, money, money,” Anderson, who was the Senate majority leader at the time, says when asked what she remembers about the Gang of Four’s impact. “They buried the Republicans in money.”

Says Heath: “Even though I’m really a populist about politics and would like to think that anyone can get in the race, there’s a reality in American politics and all the dark money out there.”

The Gang bought the legislature, alleges former Republican state Sen. Bruce Cairns, of Aurora, in a call. Cairns was among the GOP incumbents ousted in 2004, and he remembers walking into the state Capitol building after the election, and feeling like “a tornado had hit.”

“Colorado politics has never been the same since,” he says, adding that the Gang kicked off “a lurch to the left, a lurch to something much more socialistic, a lurch to groupthink, a lurch to the Democratic Party being in control.”

The success of the Gang of Four raised Polis’s profile, upping his stock, and it became a springboard into his next move: the jump from the back rows of statewide office to Washington, D.C. and a seat in Congress.