Colorado’s Got a Gay Governor. Who Cares?

Jared Polis, the incoming governor of Colorado, at left, with his partner, Marlon Reis.CreditCreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

Colorado’s Got a Gay Governor. Who Cares?

Colorado elected a rich, gay, Jewish governor. It’s either a historic moment or progress-with-a-shrug — or both.

Jared Polis, the incoming governor of Colorado, at left, with his partner, Marlon Reis.CreditCreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

BOULDER, COLO. — On Tuesday, the first openly gay man elected governor in American history was sworn in, his partner at his side. It was a vision of progress captured in its unfurling: a milestone celebrated by those who saw themselves represented, even as it was also accepted by others as a matter of unremarkable course.

In November, Jared Polis beat his Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton (a second cousin to Jeb and George W. Bush), in a self-funded campaign that helped make the race the most expensive in Colorado history. Constituents voted for him by a more-than-10-point margin, in a state whose swing on gay rights in the last three decades can be described as a complete about-face. Even in Colorado, once known as the “Hate State” for its anti-gay policies, Mr. Polis's gayness was “interestingly uninteresting to voters,” as the conservative columnist George F. Will wrote.

“What we found,” Mr. Polis said, “was that the voters don’t really care. This has been a much bigger deal nationally.”

The national press trumpeted his win as part of a “Rainbow Wave” that carried more than 150 L.G.B.T. candidates into office nationwide. Here in Colorado, Mr. Polis, 43, a five-term congressman from a district that includes Boulder and Fort Collins as well as rural and mountain communities, has been shruggingly, who-cares gay for years. He does not conform to the clichéd gay stereotypes: He’s a techie nerd with thinning hair and an ungymmed physique, in ever-present blue sneakers and a western belt. (Mr. Polis’s inaugural ball is the Blue Sneaker Ball; the dress code is easy to infer.) In 2014, GQ called him the worst-dressed congressman ever, though he’s improved his style a bit since then.

Jared Polis, with his family and supporters, at his election night party in November.CreditEvan Semon/Reuters

When Mr. Polis was first elected to Congress in 2008, though, the usual preconceptions about gay men preceded him. “The things people assume but don’t know about the L.G.B.T. community,” said his partner, Marlon Reis, 37. “All gay men are stylish, they dance well, they yada yada yada.” When they arrived in Washington, Mr. Reis continued, “Barney Frank actually said to Jared one day, ‘Your suit looks like you crumpled it up in your pocket for the whole day.’”

Annise Parker, the chief executive of LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports L.G.B.T. candidates and endorsed Mr. Polis, stumped with him during the last month of his campaign. “I have great respect and affection for him but he’s not the most exciting guy in the world,” she said. “He’s very low key; he’s a policy wonk. He just wants to work for the citizens of Colorado. And that clearly came through.”

A candidate’s sexual orientation, she said, was “not a reason for people to vote for you."

“Someday,” she added, “it won’t be a reason for people to vote against you.”

His recent campaign for governor focused on education (Mr. Polis proposed to fund full-day preschool and kindergarten for the entire state), affordable health insurance and renewable energy, and he neither played up nor played down his sexual orientation and his family. Mr. Reis, who has generally shied away from interviews and public appearances, campaigned with him, but sparingly.

Barack Obama endorsed him. President Trump endorsed Mr. Stapleton and tweeted that Mr. Polis was “weak on crime and weak on borders.” (Mr. Polis responded: Did you “mean Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arizona? Those are the only borders Colorado has.”) Attack ads warned that Mr. Polis — branded by conservatives a “Boulder liberal” — wanted to turn Colorado into an progressive paradise imaginatively called “Radicalifornia.”

It is true that Mr. Polis and his family will remain in Boulder, where he and Mr. Reis were both born, rather than move to the traditional governor’s residence in Denver. But in Congress, Mr. Polis voted with Democrats slightly less often than the median House democrat, according to Voteview.


CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

Other openly L.G.B.T. officials have served in Congress, but not many. The last gay governor, Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, stepped down after announcing both his gayness and the affair that led to his resignation. Mr. Polis said that his election — which is similar only to that of Kate Brown, the openly bisexual governor of Oregon who was re-elected last year — “can show L.G.B.T. youth that their orientation or gender identity shouldn’t stand in the way of whatever they want to achieve in life, including public service.”

But in his own political lifetime there was good reason to think that it could.

“How would it be when we arrived in Washington? Would we be treated differently?” Mr. Reis wondered when Mr. Polis was first elected to federal office in 2008. Politics has always required its practitioners to negotiate deals and deal-breakers, the spoken and the unspeakable. When Mr. Polis was elected to the House, he and Mr. Reis — before kids, before dog — road-tripped to Washington through the American South, stopping in Amarillo, Tex., and swinging up through Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to see Dollywood.

They recalled stopping at a steakhouse in Amarillo for dinner one night. “We might be the only Jewish people in town but they probably understand that,” Mr. Polis told Mr. Reis at the time. “There’s not a lot of gay people but they probably understand that. But no matter what you do in this town, don’t say you’re a vegan.”

Mr. Reis, a vegan, is slim and baby-faced, with an abiding love of animals and Halloween. He and Mr. Polis met in Boulder in 2002, when Mr. Reis was finishing college. He taught Mr. Polis about Romantic literature; Mr. Polis taught him about baseball. He worked as a freelance writer, volunteered for L.G.B.T. organizations and advocated for animal welfare.

Mr. Reis plans to make animal welfare one of his signature causes as First Gentleman of Colorado — his new title — and proceeds from the inaugural ball will support, among other organizations, the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg.

“When I first arrived with Jared in Washington I had zero sense of what I was supposed to be, if there was even a definition of what a congressional spouse would be,” he said. “I was completely terrified in the beginning to talk to anyone.”

Mr. Polis had been interested in politics for years, but Mr. Reis endured what he called a “steep learning curve.” He devoted himself to raising their two children, Caspian, now seven, and Cora, now four — “the kids are better at working a room than I am,” Mr. Reis joked — and slowly grew more comfortable in his place among the congressional spouses, even as something of an odd man out.

“I always likened it to being the toy at the bottom of the cereal box,” he said. “Everyone wanted to come up and they all wanted to be friends. They made hilarious comparisons. They said, ‘My hairdresser of 30 years is gay.’”

When Mr. Polis made his first congressional run, he came out publicly in a local newspaper article. By then, he and Mr. Reis had been together for years, but because of his political aspirations, Mr. Reis remembered, “we went out to restaurants and held hands under the table.”


Jared Polis, the incoming governor of Colorado, at right, and his partner, Marlon Reis.CreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

“The reality I think is that 10 years ago this was an issue that detractors could bring up to harm a candidate,” Mr. Reis said. And Mr. Polis has been subjected to slurs and threats; in his first campaign, he received so many pieces of hate mail that he began to tack them up. “It filled up a whole wall,” he said.

More of the attacks were anti-Semitic rather than homophobic, Mr. Polis said — he is also Colorado’s first Jewish governor — and the vitriol diminished over time. But it is not gone. Mr. Polis mentioned the anti-gay sentiment he faced during last year’s campaign: sign defacings in Eagle County, letters to the editor in Walsenburg, homophobic slurs written in shaving cream on his car.

He shrugged it off. “It just looked out of touch and weird and it didn’t cost any votes,” he said. “People have said far worse in politics.”

If anything, Mr. Polis added, his orientation may have actually mobilized voters who saw in him a fellow traveler outside the status quo, persecuted or maligned: “I wasn’t just another straight white guy who didn’t get it.”

His victory is all the more notable for taking place in Colorado, which offers, at the moment, a certain, if largely white, glimpse of the country in miniature, split between Democrats, Republicans and independents. It is historically red but, thanks to an influx of the young and urbane, it’s turning purple, if not blue. In the 2018 elections, Coloradans elected not only Mr. Polis; they voted in Joe Neguse, the son of Eritrean immigrants, to Mr. Polis’s vacated congressional seat as Colorado’s first African-American congressman, and Brianna Titone as the first openly transgender state representative.

The state is not a gay mecca in the way New York, California or Florida are perceived to be — “The district I represent, most of the time I represented it, didn’t have a single gay bar,” Mr. Polis said — but Colorado holds a central and complicated place in the history of L.G.B.T. rights in the United States. It carries, Mr. Polis said, “a lot of baggage.”

The first major Supreme Court victory for the gay-rights movement, Romer v. Evans, came in 1996 in response to Amendment 2, a Colorado constitutional amendment that prohibited the passage of laws specifically protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. The Supreme Court struck down the amendment as unconstitutional, a decision that served as a precedent for later milestones, including Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which decriminalized sodomy nationwide, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which made marriage equality the law of the land.

Colorado also happens to be where the first unchallenged gay marriage license was granted, in 1975, by a Boulder County clerk named Clela Rorex, thanks to the vague wording of the Colorado legal code. It may be the base of Focus on the Family, which preaches family values that do not include homosexuality, headquartered in Colorado Springs, but it also home to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, in Denver.

It was in Lakewood — just west of Denver — that Jack Phillips refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple at his Masterpiece Cakeshop, leading to another Supreme Court case; the court ruled in Mr. Phillips’s favor against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission last year.

“We won’t be ordering cake from them,” Mr. Polis said.

Colorado’s progress on gay rights was coaxed into motion by the concerted effort of a number of wealthy and committed Coloradans — including Jared Polis.

In 1994, Tim Gill, 65, the multimillionaire software developer, established a foundation and poured hundreds of millions into advocacy after being stunned by the victory at the polls of the anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1992. At the time, Mr. Gill said, two-thirds of Coloradans said they didn’t know anyone who was gay or lesbian.

Mr. Gill eventually extended himself and his donations into the political arena, and with a like-minded group of megadonors known as the Gang of Four, helped to swing Colorado’s General Assembly from Republican to Democratic in 2004 — the same year that 11 states adopted a ballot measure banning gay marriage.

The Gang of Four included Mr. Polis, who was one of the richest members of Congress during his tenure. Before taking office, Mr. Polis was an entrepreneur; he digitized his parents’ greeting-card business into the e-card behemoth, and founded, an online flower-delivery service.

“I think he saw an opportunity when the state was changing for him to become a more active participant,” said Scott Miller, 39, who is Mr. Gill’s husband and with him, the co-chair of the Gill Foundation.

Mr. Gill and Mr. Miller have since supported Mr. Polis’s congressional campaigns and his run for governor, although they initially backed one of Mr. Polis’s opponents in his first congressional primary. “My mission in life is to protect as many people as I possibly can in the shortest amount of time,” Mr. Gill said. “Essentially, in every case where legislation was passed, there was an L.G.B.T. elected official who helped it.”

Mr. Gill said that while he long believed there would be a gay governor in the U.S., he “wouldn’t have thought it would happen this soon.”


Selfies, one and all!CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

“Jared is particularly interesting because it shows where America has come to,” he said, “and that America is a much, much more tolerant place than it was.”

That shift may resonate most strongly with those who have known the country as it was.

For Mr. Miller, who grew up in Colorado’s more conservative, red-leaning Western Slope, the election of a gay governor was all the more satisfying for being in his own state. “For me, on election night, seeing Jared and Marlon up on that stage and him giving his victory speech — I so much would have loved to have known what that would have felt like back when I was in high school,” he said.

This rang true even for young local voters, who in the week leading up to the inauguration described feeling elated. Jean Peterson, a paralegal in Denver who turns 26 this week, described watching Mr. Polis’s November victory speech with her girlfriend, tears in her eyes.

“It was really moving,” she said, “to see him point to his partner and all the support that his partner gave him, to have someone acknowledge their partner … We were both kind of crying.”

At his inauguration on Tuesday, the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus warmed up with “True Colors” (Cyndi Lauper, who first recorded it, was booked for the inaugural ball that night) before remarks from local grandees and faith leaders and the new officials were sworn in. Mr. Polis sat with Mr. Reis and their children behind a pane of bulletproof glass, a precaution one veteran Colorado reporter noted he hadn’t seen in five previous inaugurations. But when Mr. Polis got up to speak — after a quick selfie with the crowd — he addressed divisiveness and diversity only briefly.

“We complement one other, learn from each other, make each other better, and in that work, we respect each other's rights,” he said.

Then he turned to economics, the environment and health care, and, like the start-up guru he is, declared himself ready to get to work.


An earlier version of this article, using information from Jared Polis's campaign, misidentified the county where signs were defaced. It is Eagle County, not Summit County.


Published at Wed, 09 Jan 2019 17:27:41 +0000