Minority Report

So What If He’s Gay? Jared Polis Avoids the Drama

Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:43pm

Jared Polis knows that he stands out from most of the rest of his freshman class.

“I’m one of the wealthiest, gayest and youngest,” the Colorado Democrat says.

For the openly gay, Jewish 33-year-old who was able to sink millions of his personal fortune into his campaign, being a Democrat might be the only majority that he will be part of in Congress.

When he takes office next month, Polis will be one of three openly gay Members of Congress, and the first out gay man elected as a nonincumbent.

While he knows his election is a long-awaited milestone for the lesbian and gay community, Polis is at once mindful of the significance of his sexual orientation and convinced that it shouldn’t matter.

Polis says being gay shouldn’t affect any candidate, and although that sentiment might come off as naive, Polis is anything but. “I don’t think there’s a district where a gay or lesbian candidate couldn’t be successful, as long as they were doing the job and supporting the values of their constituents,” he insists.

Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, says Polis will play a dual role in Congress. “I think he understands that he carries the weight of not only representing the people of his district, but also having a national LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] constituency,” he says.

Although he’s a freshman — one of a group with notoriously little influence — Polis hopes to make education reform a signature issue. It’s something that he knows a lot about: He was elected in 2000 to the Colorado State Board of Education and served as its chairman. He founded and served as the superintendent of the New America School, an institution serving immigrants, a group often left behind in public schools.

Polis may be freer to focus on his own legislative agenda, in part because many of the fights that gay legislators have had to take on were over long before Polis was elected. He credits Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the two other openly gay Members serving in Congress, for blazing the trail for him. Baldwin, for example, fought to have her partner be given the same treatment as other Congressional spouses.

“Marlon has been welcomed in, and he’ll be getting full spousal privileges, and that’s thanks to Tammy,” Polis says, referring to his partner, writer Marlon Reis.

Polis has sought the advice of Frank and Baldwin, whom he calls friends, about life in Washington, D.C., and what it’s like to be gay in Congress.

Polis has relied on other gay legislators for advice, too. Jennifer Viega, a Colorado state Senator who has known Polis for about a decade, says she shared her own experiences with Polis about coming out, advising him to do it early in his public career.

Vega says that she came out after she had been elected to the state House and that it didn’t affect her subsequent re-elections. Still, it was a huge relief personally, she says. “It was a very freeing experience — I thought, ‘This is not something I have to worry about again.’”

Polis says that he never hid his sexuality and that his partner joined him onstage when he celebrated his primary win last August. “It wasn’t a big deal because it was something people always knew about me,” he says.

And he says the issue doesn’t come up much in his district, but not just because people are so enlightened. Discussion of sexual orientation “is not considered to be polite conversation,” he says.

And if there’s a subject more taboo than sex, it’s money. Polis’ wealth, too, sets him apart.

In 1999, when he was barely out of college, Polis sold the online greeting card business that he founded from his parents’ cards and calendar business for $780 million. He sold a second business, ProFlowers, for $470 million in 1996.

He won’t, like some cash-strapped Members in his freshman class, sleep on a cot in his Congressional office. He and his partner plan to rent lodgings on the Hill before buying more permanent digs.

Polis, a staunch opponent of the Iraq War, ventured on his own to Iraq to see the situation there firsthand, a trip that entails more expenses than your average overseas jaunt. “They have commercial flights,” he says offhandedly, as if he’s talking about traveling to Europe.

And Polis’ checkbook generated a lot of goodwill in Colorado, where his contributions to other candidates and the Democratic Party blunted the edge of any grumblings, felt by many self-funders, that he bought his way to national office.

“There is resentment, especially from his opponents, but there are others in Colorado who have self-funded and they have not been successful,” Viega says. “Money doesn’t buy an election — Jared had money, but he also had a record and good ideas.”

Polis seems suited for the role of Congressman — he has the polish of a seasoned politician: a firm handshake and an ability to navigate his way smoothly out of a brief conversation. He speaks in complete sentences, and he is careful that they parse or don’t reveal more than he wants to say. On a recent day in D.C., he’s wearing a politician’s uniform of a slightly rumpled dark suit (after being in a long day of meetings around the Capitol), nondescript tie and blue shirt.

Underneath the uniform, Polis, it turns out, is a bit of a hippie. He grew up in Colorado and Southern California with an artist mother and a poet dad, and his childhood activities were as likely to include attending an anti-nuclear weapons protest as they were baseball practice. A rarity for a thirty- something guy, he still likes the folk music that he grew up with: Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; and Bob Dylan. He still enjoys a good street-corner anti-war protest.

His partner is a vegan, and although he eats meat, the couple keeps a vegan household. It’s harder than keeping kosher, he says, and involves a lot of soy and nuts. His shoes and belt are “cruelty free” — meaning no animals were involved, he says. The shoes — he pops one off casually to check the brand when asked — are a brand called “Bourgeois Boheme.”

Granola sensibilities aside, there’s a bit of Everydude in Polis. He plays Xbox and computer games (one called “Sins of a Solar Empire” is a current favorite of his and Reis). He’s excited about playing on the Congressional baseball team (first and third base and pitcher are his specialties). He and his partner are thinking about getting a dog.

And although former President Harry Truman probably didn’t have anyone like Polis in mind when he uttered his advice about politicians and dogs, Polis might find that, in Washington, that’s not a bad idea.