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Jared Polis:
Post-Gay Candidate?

Jared Polis:
Post-Gay Candidate?


This is the third article in The Advocate's continuing coverage of four battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Virginia, and Ohio. Entrepreneur and philanthropist Jared Polis is set to make history by becoming the first openly gay non-incumbent male elected to the U.S. Congress, but the milestone has failed to send shock waves through his Colorado district. Some think that could represent the greatest progress of all.

* This is the third article in The Advocate's continuing coverage of four battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Virginia, and Ohio. Click here to read the previous installment.

By now you've probably heard the news: Out candidate Jared Polis prevailed over two opponents in the Democratic primary for an open seat in Colorado's second federal congressional district, garnering 42% of the vote on August 12. It was an epic contest that pitted the progressive up-and-comer against his party's establishment and, given the heavy Democratic leanings of the area that includes the city of Boulder, he is expected to trounce the competition in November, which would make him the first-ever openly gay man elected to Congress as a freshman.

With all the media coverage and hype, it's all the more significant to note that throughout the intense primary election, and even after his historic victory, the gay identity of Polis, 33, was hardly discussed.

"His sexual orientation was really not an issue at all," says Sandra Fish, an instructor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder who followed the race closely.

"The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News and the Daily Camera virtually never mentioned it," she says, citing the major mainstream newspapers for Boulder, located 25 miles northwest of Denver in north-central Colorado. "It wasn't mentioned by the media, and it wasn't mentioned by his opponents."

Of course, after the groundbreaking win, all three publications ran some form of acknowledgment, the most high-profile being a photograph in the Post that showed a triumphant Polis clasping the hand of his partner, writer and board game inventor Marlon Reis, at the Election Night celebration. The latter had already been appearing at campaign events once or twice a week, without prompting the scrutiny of reporters.

"I think it was an afterthought among media," Fish says, also noting that constituents in the very liberal district were not fazed by coverage of the achievement. "The response among readers was 'Who cares?' "

Deborah Goeken, managing editor of the Rocky Mountain News, largely agrees with that assessment. "We never ignored it," she says, "but when he announced his candidacy, it was not a big deal. It was just part of who he is." She adds that when Polis first came out publicly in 2006, while a member of the Colorado State Board of Education, her publication debated whether the announcement was news before deciding on a small story.

Goeken says that coverage of Polis in the 2008 primary was driven by his stances on issues as well as readers' interest in his immense wealth. Polis, the founder of websites such as greeting card company, has a personal fortune estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We didn't hear from any readers," concludes Goeken. "No one complained about the way we covered it."

Still, others suggest the low-key coverage was determined most by Polis's own philosophy of how he wanted to present his sexual orientation during the campaign.

"I think that wasn't his issue so much," says Matt Kailey, managing editor of the gay newsmagazine Out Front Colorado. "As far as he was concerned, that wasn't how he was promoting himself. He was running as a candidate, not a gay candidate."

Polis describes his own position as one of forthrightness but not necessarily fanfare.

"I think it's important to live one's life openly and honestly, and I certainly do that. I treat it as I would my religion," says the Boulder native, who is Jewish. "If people ask, I'm happy to tell them about it.

"I think it's fair for the media to cover it when it's relevant, like marriage or serving in the military," he continues. "On the vast majority of issues, it's not relevant."

Accordingly, then, in a heated primary dominated by conversation about Iraq, the environment, and the economy, journalists seem not to have made the gay question a high priority.

"I didn't find that reporters were very interested in his sexual orientation," says Dayna Morain, communications director for Polis. "I can remember a handful of times when the point about making history was mentioned. If a reporter was interested, they might ask 'How is that possible?' and mention Barney Frank."

Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who is one of two openly gay members of the House (along with Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin), came out in 1987, after he had already served three terms in the chamber. Baldwin, who was elected in 1998, is the first openly gay non-incumbent, man or woman.

As he ascends, in some ways it is difficult to draw general conclusions from the Polis primary, which by all accounts was an exceptional contest. The election was hard-fought, at times bitter and, ultimately, one of the country's most expensive House races, in which Polis contributed over $5 million of his money.

Even the gay power brokers were split among the Democratic candidates, all of whom brought strong records on LGBT rights. Reclusive philanthropist Tim Gill, who in 2004 teamed up with Polis to help fund the campaign that resulted in the Democratic takeover of the state legislature, backed the establishment candidate, 60-year-old Joan Fitz-Gerald The first woman to serve as president of the state senate, she also secured the support of Scott Coors, the openly gay scion of the famous beer family.

"There were segments of the community that supported each of the candidates," says Kailey of Out Front Colorado. "The entire LGBT community was not behind Jared Polis."

In addition, the second U.S. district, anchored by Boulder, is exceedingly gay-friendly compared to many other places in Colorado; in fact, in 1992 voters statewide passed the notorious Amendment 2, which made discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutional in Colorado until the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated it. Since Polis was already a very well-known philanthropist and civic figure, one wonders what lessons can be learned in terms of whether voters will accept gay rights.

At the very least, state senator Jennifer Veiga, the first openly gay member of the Colorado legislature, finds affirmation deep within the Colorado character.

Veiga came out in 2002 while serving in the state house, after opponents planned on outing her during her reelection bid. Although most of her colleagues and media at the capitol already knew she was a lesbian, she had never announced it publicly. She says the result was very positive.

"The press here is pretty darn good. I thought they treated it pretty well," she says. "I think Jared's coverage was pretty similar to what I experienced. Coloradans are kind of 'live and let live,' and the media reflects that."

Others continue to process what the primary coverage and the response to a historic victory might mean for gay candidates in Colorado and elsewhere.

"It's not a good thing. It's not a bad thing," says Morain, Polis's communications director. "It's just interesting."

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