Mr. Polis goes to Washington
Chris Johnson, Washington Blade
A quick glance around the Capitol Hill office of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis shows the first-term Democrat from Colorado is still settling into his job.
There’s nothing affixed to the lemon-hued walls in his workspace at the Cannon House Office Building, except for a full-length mirror and a framed copy of the building’s emergency evacuation plan. One hutch is empty; another has only a plush donkey and a book on women lawmakers who have served on Capitol Hill.
But Polis is already collecting memorabilia. Perched on a shelf near his desk is an autographed copy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “Know Thy Power,” a certificate granting Polis honorary membership to the Broomfield Democratic Party in Colorado and a picture of the newest federal lawmakers.
Polis, 33, is part of a new wave of lawmakers elected to this year’s freshman class. After being sworn into office in January, he became the third sitting openly gay member of Congress. He’s also the first non-incumbent openly gay man to be elected to serve on Capitol Hill.
An online entrepreneur, Polis made his money selling greeting cards and flowers over the Internet.
In 2004, Fortune magazine estimated his personal wealth at $160 million.
It’s been an eventful time for Polis in the two months he’s worked as a member of Congress. He was in Denver last month when President Obama signed into law the $787 billion stimulus package. Polis said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who’s served in Congress since 1997, turned to him and fellow freshman lawmaker U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) during the signing and told them, “You know, it’s not always like this.”
“Here we are,” Polis says, “after two months in office, having the president come to our state and sign an $800 billion stimulus bill. It’s been an exciting time to serve and we jumped right into the middle of things.”
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Polis’ office functions with an expertise that belies its sparse décor and young staff. Plans are prepared. Meetings are facilitated. No moment is left unused.
On one recent workday, Polis is expected to attend a Rules Committee hearing, manage bills on the House floor, plus meet with representatives from the National Treasury Employees Union, the American Legion and the Society of American Florists.
“Part of the role as a representative is just to listen to your constituents,” Polis says. “When they come in, they’re looking for somebody who’s willing to listen to them, to spend time with them, understand what their issues are, to see how we can help them.”
He says two or three meetings often take place in his office at one time. His press secretary, Lara Cottingham, says so many groups from Colorado seek his attention that staffers rotate the visitors through different rooms.
With major bills such as the fiscal year 2009 omnibus appropriations bill and President Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget request pending before lawmakers, Cottingham says it’s “March Madness,” with people wanting Polis’ attention to get a piece of the spending.
“When you are going through the appropriations cycle,” she says, “every single group wants to come in and talk with the congressman and make sure they get their voices heard before we start rolling these huge bills, so it’s just a constant meeting marathon.”
Into the excitement, Polis brings an ambitious political agenda for LGBT issues. As co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, he’s in a position to help push pro-gay legislation through Congress, such as the trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is expected to come before lawmakers this year.
Once it’s introduced, ENDA has to win approval from lawmakers in the Rules Committee and the Education & Labor Committee — two committees on which Polis sits — before it reaches the House floor.
It remains to be seen how prominent a role Polis will play in getting Congress to approve ENDA, but his committee assignments mean he’ll have a voice early in the process as lawmakers consider details of the legislation. He says he intends to co-sponsor ENDA and has talked with U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chair of the Education & Labor Committee, about taking an active role in pushing it.
A usual day for U.S. Rep. Jared Polis includes meeting with constituents from Colorado, conducting work by phone and traveling the labyrinthine connecting tunnels underneath Capitol Hill. (Blade photos by Meaghan Gay
“As a member of the House Education & Labor Committee … I can help whip votes to get the bill through committee and to the House floor,” Polis says. “As a member of the House Rules Committee, which determines conditions for a bill’s debate and its amendments, I also can help keep harmful amendments — those that could weaken the bill’s intent or even kill the bill entirely — from being allowed.”
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Polis came to Washington with big plans, but getting adjusted to Congress has been a learning process.
Cottingham says when Polis first came to town, he would walk outside from the Cannon House Office Building to the Capitol building — even when snow was on the ground — to avoid getting lost in the labyrinthine connecting tunnels underneath Capitol Hill. Now, Polis navigates the maze with ease.
And he’s already committed a faux pas that has perplexed some LGBT activists. In recent remarks recorded by the Dallas Voice, Polis indicated that he was unaware Congress had yet to pass federal hate crimes legislation.
When Randy Brown, a Livingston, Texas, resident looking to establish a Stonewall Democrats chapter in his area, told Polis that local law enforcement officials weren’t helpful in prosecuting hate crimes, Polis responded, “We have on the books a law that allows the federal government to prosecute those if your local [district attorney] refuses to.”
In response, Dan Graney, president of the Texas Stonewall Democrats, informed Polis that such legislation had not yet been passed.
Polis said that he “thought we did pass it, so we will try to get that. But that’s exactly why we need it though, because in some of the areas where gays and lesbians do feel terrorized every day, the local authorities are in league with the forces of hate.”
Polis later told the Blade that he “thought it was strange” the Dallas Voice would focus on his gaffe as opposed to the speech he gave beforehand.
“Rather than focus on the content of my speech — which was about how Colorado has turned from red to blue and we have achieved significant gains for our community like ending workplace discrimination, hate crimes laws, and second-parent adoption — they focused on the one mistake I made during the Q&A,” he says. “I had just given a speech about our success in Colorado, where we have a hate crimes law, and my mind hadn’t yet made the transition to the federal arena, where we still lack that important protection.”
The lawmaker also irked some members of the press for comments he made about the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, which ceased publication Feb. 27 after nearly 150 years. His office issued an apology after he told a group of bloggers at an event that they were responsible for the demise of print media.
At one point, Polis said he would argue that the demise of the paper was “mostly for the better.” John Temple, a former publisher and editor for the News, was indirectly quoted in the Associated Press as saying that Polis’ remarks were “misguided” and “an example of the congressman’s poor judgment.”
Polis expressed a very different view of the News when discussing the paper’s demise with the Blade.
“That was really a shame because we were one of the few cities left that had two major papers,” he says. “This was something that wasn’t a huge surprise to us in Colorado. It was announced several months ago that it would be sold or closed down and it was really just a matter of time.”
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Polis is attentive when constituent lobbyists from his district come to his office to request support for legislation. Early in the day, representatives from the NTEU pay a visit to talk about a bevy of issues related to federal employees.
One lobbyist seeks support for legislation that would give employees of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency the same collective bargaining rights available to employees of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Another lobbyist wants greater staffing for U.S. Customs & Border Protection workers at the Denver International Airport to help with narcotics smuggling and illegal immigration issues.
Polis gives a number of “uh-huhs,” indicating he’s receptive to lobbyists. He asks questions to get more details on their requests, but is careful not to make commitments.
Still another lobbyist tries to convince Polis to sign on to legislation that would prohibit the federal government from contracting work to private tax collectors — a practice started by President George W. Bush — and allow the work to go to federal employees in the Internal Revenue Service.
But Polis is hesitant to sign on to a congressional effort in managing executive affairs, saying that he’ll “look into it,” but doesn’t know “if it’s a good precedent to have Congress meddling in these kinds of things.” As the NTEU lobbyists leave, Polis tells them, “We’ll see what we can do on some of these issues, for sure.”
Later in the day, citizen lobbyists from the American Legion seek the lawmaker’s attention on taxation and facility matters. They also try to convince him to sign on as a co-sponsor for a federal constitutional amendment that would prohibit flag burning.
The group’s lead lobbyist wants Congress to approve the amendment, so lawmakers can “send it to the people” and there’s an opportunity for two-thirds of state legislatures to ratify it. But Polis is reluctant to give his support to the amendment.
“On the flag burning thing, what I worry about is, people aren’t actually talking about it,” Polis says. “But then once you start talking about a constitutional amendment, I think people are likely to go start burning flags and that offends people. So it actually creates that behavior.”
The lead lobbyist in the group responds that he’s had conversations with Scott McInnis, a former Republican congressman from Colorado, about the amendment.
“I mean if it was an acute problem,” Polis says, “if people were burning flags in your faces and offending your veterans — that would be different, but I haven’t seen much of it. And I can guarantee you that if we start making this a big public deal and pushing this amendment, then it’s likely that people will start to burn flags more often.”
As the American Legion members prepare to leave, the lead lobbyist spies Meaghan Gay, a freelance Blade photographer, and Conchita Cruz, a legislative assistant for Polis, in the room.
“You are a smart guy!” the lobbyist exclaims. “All these beautiful women!”
Polis smiles politely and others in the room laugh. The lawmaker shrugs off the remarks and later notes that most people don’t know the names of their representatives in Congress — let alone their sexual orientation.
“And the ones who know who I am — that would typically be one of the things they might know about me,” he says. “They might know that I’m a Democrat, that might know I’m gay, they might know that I’m a businessman, or they might know that I’m involved in education.”
Polis says he doesn’t think his sexual orientation makes a difference to his constituents.
“They talk to me about whatever topics are on their minds and I don’t think they’re focused on whom I’m dating,” he says. “They want me to make progress on those issues for them.”
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The lawmaker’s day lightens up when his boyfriend of more than five years, Marlon Reis, pays a visit to the office for a lunch date. Reis lives with Polis in an apartment about three blocks from Cannon.
Reis says he likes to visit Polis at work whenever the lawmaker has a break in his day, but notes “it’s rare” when he can “actually come in and see him” because open space in Polis’ schedule often fills up with more work.
Reis says that he recently bought a vegan cookbook, the “Veganomicon,” and will work on improving his culinary skills so he can bring Polis lunch more often.
“My goal this week is to learn how to cook,” he says. “I’m going to Whole Foods later today, so I’m going to try to get some survivals.”
Reis, 27, says he quit his job in his native Boulder months ago to help Polis in the final months of his campaign and prepare for the move to D.C. One task that keeps him busy while he lives in the District is developing ideas for a novel about animal intelligence, which he hopes could be useful in advancing animal rights.
“With success,” he says, “I will give readers the reason they’ve been missing to give animals the fair consideration they deserve in a world in which our livelihood should not have to depend upon the suffering or privation of another species.”
A vegan, Reis at lunch digs into a plate of ratatouille — although he says he’s not particularly fond of eggplant — while Polis munches on a cucumber salad and yogurt.
The two discuss dinner plans for the week and getting accustomed to life in D.C. Reis says he’s still figuring out how to navigate Metro and find his way to Georgetown. There’s no Metro rail stop in the affluent, historic neighborhood.
Cottingham, who lives in Georgetown, suggests to Reis that he walk to Georgetown from the Metro stop in Foggy Bottom or Dupont Circle. She says walking from her home to the Metro stop is “her main form of exercise.”
Reis also expresses interest in joining the Congressional Spouses Club, and says the only thing preventing him from obtaining membership is getting around to paying his dues — around $100. He says the spouses of House lawmakers “have been very welcoming.”
“They want to sort of take me under their wing and show me the ins and outs of being a spouse and what you should do and shouldn’t do,” he says. “That kind of thing.”
Reis says he’s the first same-sex partner of a U.S. lawmaker to have been allotted a congressional ID card designating him as “spouse.” The ID card grants the significant others of lawmakers access to the Capitol building and member office buildings.
He says he compared cards with Lauren Azar, the partner of U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in Congress, and found that Azar’s card referred to her as a “designee.”
“It seems that timing is important, as she had filed her application for the ID back when Democrats were a minority in federal government,” Reis says.
After seeing Reis’ card, Reis says Azar told him she intended to get a new card identifying her as a spouse.
Polis and Reis’ lunch needs to be brief because Polis must return to visits with constituents and prepare to move resolutions on the House floor later in the day.
The two say goodbye outside Polis’ office. No smooch — but the two embrace with an affectionate hug. Reis says he’ll see Polis later in the evening, perhaps with a delicious vegan meal to offer. Reis walks away as Polis resumes his work on Capitol Hill.