Jared Polis really doesn't care what anyone else thinks. If you saw the Colorado congressman speaking on the House floor in D.C. last month wearing a clip-on bowtie with a polo shirt under his blazer, you know what I'm talking about. He's been this way since he first emerged on the scene.
About 10 years ago, when he was just 28, Polis was one of four wealthy Colorado Democrats who pooled their considerable personal resources to create a state-of-the-art political machine that was ruthlessly effective in turning this once-red heartland state a stunning shade of blue.
But Polis wouldn't run with that pack for very long.
In 2008, just a few months before Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in Denver, Polis stood in a hotel ballroom near his hometown of Boulder and basked in the glow of his own victory: a difficult primary win over a longtime state lawmaker favored by his former cohorts and the Democratic establishment. It was a win that cost the self-made millionaire some $5 million and all but assured him a safe seat in Congress.
Openly gay and outspoken, Polis came to Congress having made his fortune turning his parents' greeting card company into a couple of e-card websites and an online florist company. He's stood out in Washington from day one, painting his office walls neon yellow and snaring more than the usual share of headlines with his deft use of social media and unexpected policy positions: embracing marijuana legalization, pushing the government to stop printing dollar bills and, just last December, breaking House rules during a floor speech to recognize undocumented immigrants in the gallery above and shouting over the gaveling that Congress was "tearing their families apart."
But none of that's as ballsy — or as consequential — as what he's doing now: Polis is quietly financing a series of statewide ballot measures to allow Colorado cities and counties to regulate, zone and even ban fracking, the commonly used process in which a pressurized mix of water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep below the surface of the earth to loosen natural gas deposits for extraction. As a drilling boom has pushed many wells closer to houses and schools, concerns about possible long- and short-term health effects of air and water contamination and radiation exposure have prompted five Colorado cities to approve municipal bans. But it remains unclear whether the authority to limit oil and gas development resides with the state or with local governments. Polis is pushing to settle that matter once and for all.
His move isn't just an existential threat to what's now a $29 billion annual industry in the state. It's a brazen political power play that's likely to release a torrent of outside spending in swing-state Colorado, jeopardizing the reelection of two fellow Democrats whose names will appear above his own on the November ballot: Gov. John Hickenlooper, an oft-mentioned presidential contender, and Mark Udall, whose reelection bid could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Ted Trimpa, a Denver power lawyer and strategist once dubbed "the Democrats' Karl Rove," was instrumental in helping Polis and the three other millionaires build Colorado's progressive infrastructure and consolidate power over the last decade. Now he finds himself trying to hold it all together.
He worries that the ballot initiative would splinter a progressive coalition in Colorado that's been so successful that it's now seen as a blueprint for Democrats and Republicans in other states — its many successes attributable to an unusual and lasting harmony, an ability to avoid sticky policy fights that distract from the shared goal: winning.
Resolving Colorado's fracking fight quickly may yet provide other states with a blueprint of how to deal with local control issues around oil and gas, a national example of how compromise and consensus can be achieved even in our polarized times. But if Polis' measures move toward the November ballot, the country may find out that Colorado isn't such a model after all, that coalition politics aren't as easy as this state has made them seem.
"We're a state known for the two sides working together," Trimpa tells me, "but if this initiative makes the ballot, the age of that will be gone for a very long time."
The baby in the road
Hickenlooper is Polis' opposite in one important way: He cares what everyone thinks.
I've covered him since he was first elected Denver mayor in 2003 after having worked as a geologist in the oil and gas industry before opening a chain of brewpubs — and I can't count how many times I've heard him frame his political M.O. around his time in the restaurant industry: "There's no margin in making people unhappy," he's fond of saying.
Hickenlooper has made a career of endearing himself to the public by pursuing consensus, imbuing policy positions with a salesman's innate optimism and embracing his personal quirks and natural, affable awkwardness. In a press conference, he once accidentally referred to his lieutenant governor as a "rising sex star." His staffers often hold their breath when the governor's at the mic: "It's like watching a baby cross a highway," one told me once — even though the politically charmed Hickenlooper always manages to get through it unscathed.
He jumped out of an airplane in support of a 2006 ballot measure; running for governor four years later, he disavowed negative ads by taking a shower in an ad of his own to illustrate how dirty he feels after watching them. In 2011, he raised eyebrows when he told Congress that he once drank a glass of Halliburton's finest fracking fluid, trying to underscore how advances in technology have made drilling safer.
That one didn't go over so well.
Hickenlooper's steadfast support for his old industry — insisting that fracking is safe, refusing to demonize big oil and gas to satisfy his party's base and, most of all, suing the northern Colorado city of Longmont last year after voters there approved a municipal fracking ban — has alienated a significant chunk of the electorate, from far-left environmentalist types to Not-In-My-Backyard homeowners suddenly worried about health risks and diminished property values at the sight of drilling derricks popping up at the end of their street or next to their kids' schools.
Drive north out of Denver on Interstate 25 or any smaller state highway and you'll see: The state's drilling boom is impossible to miss, with hulking derricks dotting the arid plains in seemingly every direction.
Had the industry, which employs 50,000 Coloradans, confined its drilling to the less populated northeastern plains, had it stayed away from the cities and suburbs sprawling north out of Denver, this fight wouldn't be taking place.
When Hickenlooper first took office, he wore his support for oil and gas proudly, eager to prove a maverick's willingness to deviate from the party line. But as drilling has moved closer to homes and families, worried suddenly about water contamination or future health problems from unseen pollutants, it's been harder, especially for a Democrat, to be a cheerleader for the industry. On this issue, the pragmatic politician has violated his own rule: He's made a lot of his constituents unhappy.
"These people are angry for a reason," Trimpa tells me. "Ignoring it and calling them crazy — that's not a policy solution."
Hickenlooper has been heckled and shouted down by protesters in Longmont and elsewhere. Even his considerable success this year in convincing the state's three biggest oil and gas operators to join with environmentalists in support of new emissions rules for the industry — making Colorado the first state to regulate methane — hasn't been enough to repair the damage.
"John's had the Midas touch, politically, except on this issue," one Colorado environmentalist and Hickenlooper ally complained to me. "If he hadn't sued Longmont, he'd be in a different place. But he owns this mess as much as Jared does."
Ensnared in all this is Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, the scion of a western political dynasty who's fighting for his political life now that Republicans have lured Rep. Cory Gardner, a young, smooth-talking up-and-comer, into the race.
Already, Gardner's campaign has been pressuring Udall to take a position on what it's calling a "fracking ban."
Udall, whose wife used to run the Sierra Club, may need financial help from California billionaire and climate change advocate Tom Steyer to hold his seat. That's why he'll have a hard time rejecting an initiative that, on its face, lets communities decide whether to allow drilling so close to people's backyards; a concept that polls high, with support for "local control" of oil and gas issues running in the 60s in Colorado.
He'd probably be inclined to support it if doing so wouldn't just give his opponents added firepower.
"Mark's in a no-win position, politically," Trimpa tells me. "But the larger concern is the initiative bringing in these outside companies that'll spend millions, which will indirectly help Republicans."
At least three business- and industry-backed groups have already been formed to fight the ballot measures. The American Petroleum Institute already has $20 million set aside should Polis' initiatives make the November ballot, part of what's likely to be a $40 million to $50 million play by the industry when it's all said and done, one that'll likely help turn out conservative voters in an off-year election where Democrats are already facing a built-in turnout problem, while also driving up the cost of TV air time, making other campaigns even more expensive.
Political consultants and TV station managers may be salivating, but Hickenlooper and Udall are privately steamed at Polis, who, in pushing these initiatives, is throwing them under the bus.
Many Republicans agree. Not that they're losing sleep over it.
"You don't have to be a Svengali to see this is a slow-motion train wreck for Mark Udall and every other Democrat up and down the ballot," says Josh Penry, a former Republican state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate now working in the oil and gas industry.
Colorado Republicans aren't only excited about the prospect of taking out Udall — they're also looking forward to watching Democrats engage in the same destructive brand of intra-party warfare that's stymied the GOP for the last decade.
"You essentially have a small cadre of burned-out Occupy Wall Streeters and an egomaniacal congressman from Boulder with a little money burning a hole in his pocket about to thoroughly jeopardize the re-election of Mark Udall and John Hickenlooper," Penry exults. "In 2004 and 2006, when the Democrats were laser-beam focused on building a governing coalition, the progressive roundtable would've absolutely crushed this kind of idiocy."
Dreams die hard
Polis, who insists he's trying to solve a policy problem rather than create a political one, wasn't so outspoken about fracking until a well got drilled across the street from his second home along a small county road near Loveland, about 30 miles north of Denver. Suddenly, the congressman was the star of his own YouTube video, wandering around his property, looking up at the 50-foot derrick across the street and lamenting, "My Colorado dream is over."
Sure, it may be difficult to sympathize with the seventh-richest member of Congress, a man whose estimated net worth of $72 million can buy him any number of additional homes and dreams. But Polis' personal story has nonetheless resonated with constituents who have been experiencing the same thing.
The first TV ad from Polis' group, Coloradans for Local Control, simply shows hulking steel derricks looming above real homes, parks and schools. "Would you want to live here? Want your kids to play here?" a female narrator asks. "Right now, you and your neighbors can't stop it."
For now, Colorado Democrats are trying to figure out if they can stop Polis, who appears to have Hickenlooper a bit rattled in this high-stakes game of political poker.
Clearly, Polis, who has bucked the party establishment by pushing ballot initiatives twice before, isn't just bluffing, already throwing his money behind a petition push and the TV ad, trying to force the governor's hand: He's ready to go all in and put the initiatives on the November ballot — but he's also intimated that he'd happily fold if Hickenlooper and the Legislature can address the local control issue before the session ends in May.
That's what Trimpa, an experienced fixer, is working on — but time is running short.
"Jared is pointing out a real problem," Trimpa says. "There is an underlying question about local governments and their ability to regulate fracking through zoning and other ordinances, and there's real emotion behind it. And we need to take Jared seriously. We can complain he's using his money to get attention on this issue, but welcome to American politics."
While Polis truly believes the ballot initiatives will help mobilize left-leaning voters, Trimpa, Hickenlooper, Udall and most other Democrats would prefer to head this off now. The question is whether Republicans or an industry that's never regarded Udall as an ally have a good reason to come to the table and negotiate a legislative compromise that, at least politically, would let the Democrats off the hook.
But Americans For Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-aligned outfit that's already planning to pump millions into top Senate races to take out Democrats like Udall, doesn't want the local control issue on the November ballot.
"My concern is that the consequences a policy like this would have on our state far outweigh any perceived political opportunities," AFP's Colorado director, Dustin Zvonek, told me. "The way the proponents are couching it, calling it 'local control,' it scares me. I think they could message it in a way that it passes without voters understanding that it's a fracking ban." (In truth, the local control measures would leave it up to individual cities to pass local bans.)
Hickenlooper might have to lean on both industry and a handful of Democratic legislators from liberal Boulder County to pull together a winning hand.
"Industry and the environmental community have come together in Colorado to pass air emissions and frack-fluid disclosure regulations that are a national model," Hickenlooper told me. "Striking the right balance between local control and private property rights is the next big challenge."
The best argument for both sides to negotiate a legislative solution at this point may be that it's something they can still control.
"We don't know which way the ball will bounce if this goes to the voters," Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper's chief strategist, told me. "It's like setting off a grenade in a closet — you never know if someone's going to get killed."
Reprinted with permission from POLITICO.