Jewish tech millionaire turned lawmaker could be first openly gay governor of Colorado


(JTA) — Jared Polis is already on to the next thing. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has looked at his resume.

By the age of 25, he had founded three companies, which would shortly make him a multimillionaire. He then turned his focus to education, establishing two charter school systems to cater to immigrant and homeless youth and serving on the Colorado State Board of Education.

At 33, he entered national politics, when he was elected to represent Colorado in Congress.

Less than 10 years after his Washington debut, Polis now has his sights set on a new goal: to serve as governor of Colorado.

The Jewish Democrat announced earlier this month that he was joining the already crowded race with an ambitious three-pronged platform: to ensure Colorado uses only renewable energy by 2040, provide free preschool and kindergarten across the state, and fight income inequality.

If he wins, the 42-year-old would make history in more ways than one — by becoming both the first Jewish governor in Colorado and its first openly gay person to serve in the post.

Polis’ candidacy has upset the gubernatorial race, where Rep. Ed Perlmutter, also a Democrat, was previously seen as the front-runner, said David Flaherty, a political consultant who runs the Colorado-based firm Magellan Strategies.

“Perlmutter was the odds-on favorite for the Dem primary, and I also think he was the odds-on favorite to win the general election, but that’s not the case now,” Flaherty told JTA. “And some discussions I’ve had with Democratic political insiders have really felt that Jared has a good shot of winning the primary — but the general is more of a debatable issue.”

Perlmutter, 64, a Christian with Jewish ancestry on his father’s side, served in the Colorado state Senate for eight years prior to being elected to Congress. He appeals to the “established Democrat crowd,” including those who voted for Hillary Clinton in November, said Flaherty.

Meanwhile, Flaherty said Polis, with his focus on renewable energy, appeals to younger voters and Bernie Sanders backers. Sanders won nearly 60 percent of the vote in Colorado’s Democratic caucuses last year.

“Right now it’s an even fight between Ed Perlmutter and Jared,” said Flaherty, adding that some of the other Democratic candidates also should not be discounted.

Polis was exposed to civic involvement from an early age, growing up in a Reform Jewish family in Boulder.

“My parents were active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, so I grew up with a tradition of civic activism around our dinner table and going to different marches for different causes,” such as civil rights and anti-nuclear proliferation, he told JTA.

His family moved to San Diego, where he attended La Jolla Country Day School. As a 19-year-old student at Princeton University, he founded his first company, the internet access provider American Information Systems, which he later sold for $23 million.

In 1996, Polis founded the online greeting card company Blue Mountain, a spinoff of a firm started by his parents. He later sold the dot-com startup for $780 million. In 1998, Polis launched the online flower retailer ProFlowers, which he later sold for $470 million.

Polis, who is among the top five wealthiest members of Congress — his net worth is estimated at $90 million to $390 million — sees his business background as an asset to his political career.

“One, voters trust somebody who has a background creating jobs instead of just talking about it, who knows how to balance a checkbook, who knows how to build a business,” he said. “And second of all, the experience has been very helpful to me in creating policies that allow businesses to grow and flourish in our state and country.”

Polis dismisses accusations that he used his wealth to buy his way into office. He spent $1 million on his campaign to serve on the State Board of Education compared to his opponent’s $100,000, and $6 million on his 2008 congressional campaign, defeating Democratic establishment candidate Joan Fitz-Gerald in the primary.

“When people run campaigns they have to raise a lot of money, and I’ve been one of the top fundraisers nationally for the Democrats, and people do appreciate it when you’re able to say no to special interests and PACs, like I have. I’ve never accepted any PAC money,” Polis said.

His Jewish background has a large influence on his political beliefs.

“I derive a lot of the values that I try to bring into the public sphere from my private faith,” Polis said. “Certainly for me I focus a lot on education, and I’m running for governor to bring [free] preschool and kindergarten to our state and improve our schools, and that’s an important Jewish value.”

Polis, whose great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Poland and Ukraine in the early 20th century, added: “And also being so close to the immigrant experience, I’m a strong defender of immigrant rights and refugees, of course with the experience that Jews had prior to World War II, that few countries wanted to accept Jewish refugees.”

Judaism also plays a big role at home for Polis, who with his partner Marlon Reis has two young children, 6-year-old son Caspian Julius and 2-year-old daughter Cora Barucha (named after Polis’ great-great-aunt Kasha Barucha). He is the first openly gay parent to serve in Congress.

Polis, left, with his partner, Marlon Reis, and their son, Caspian Julian, attending the 2013 Green Inaugural Ball at Newseum in Washington, D.C, Jan. 20, 2013. (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

The family attends three synagogues in Boulder: the Conservative Bonai Shalom, the Reform Har HaShem and the Renewal Nevei HaKodesh.

Polis, who defines himself as “in between Conservative and Reform,” won’t pick favorites.

“They’re all great. I like to support Jewish life in our community, and they’re all doing great things,” he said.

He also recently joined his cousin Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., for Shabbat dinner.

The lawmaker also has another way of connecting to the Jewish tradition — through food. When not cooking his way through his grandmother’s collection of recipes of traditional dishes, he and Reis, who also is Jewish, have been trying to re-create the cheese blintzes of Reis’ great-grandmother Dora.

Polis said they’ve tried “a few dozen times” but haven’t quite gotten it right yet. They aren’t giving up anytime soon.

“We’ll know when we get there if they taste the same as he remembers,” Polis said.

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