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The Most Expensive Seat in the Country


Editor’s Note: Read the for Yellow Scene Magazine’s official Second Congressional District endorsement.

Gut-busting Alabama-style ribs smothered in sweet southern barbecue sauce are the centerpiece of a buffet in the middle of a well-appointed living room typical of this Thornton subdivision. A dozen or so people hover around the spread, hoping to get a taste of the ribs that have been slowcooked through the night. They are also waiting patiently to get a word with the 30-something man dressed oh-so-casually in a logoed evergreen golf shirt and tan slacks, munching on ribs just a few feet away. He’s talking to someone; it sounds like skyrocketing gas prices are the subject. Someone waits patiently nearby, perhaps wanting to bend his ear on issues surrounding the Iraq War. Or the economy. Or the environment. The non-descript man is none other than Jared Polis, the über wealthy Boulder e-business phenom who has a net worth measured in 10 figures and would absolutely love to be your next congressman.

We’re in Thornton, an outpost of the 2nd U.S. Congressional District that is as liberal as Boulder is eccentric, at a backyard gathering of Polis supporters mixed in with those who haven’t yet committed to a candidate.
In Boulder, former state legislator Joan Fitz-Gerald is also out and about, hitting the backyard and coffee shop circuit, getting the word out about her run for the open seat. Will Shafroth is equally busy going door-to-door introducing himself as the candidate without a name who has still managed to garner enough support to claim more than $1 million in contributions from voters like you.

Welcome to the bizarre fight for the Democrat nomination for the congressional district serving Adams and Boulder counties and a few mountain communities to the west. When all is said and done, this will likely be the most expensive house seat in the country (it was No. 6 following first quarter reporting, but much has changed since). It may cost $10 million or more to settle the three-way race to replace Rep. Mark Udall, the popular Boulder Democrat who is leaving his seat to run for senate.

You can pretty much thank the man enjoying those ribs for that exorbitant price tag.

“Frankly, the money in this race is being driven by the money Jared can pump into this,” Fitz-Gerald says.

The Guy Behind the Money
Jared Polis is many things.
An extremely successful e-business developer. A dedicated philanthropist. A financier of charter schools. Former state board of education member. 33. Gay. Liberal. Tri-lingual. Big-time baseball fan.

But it is his money and seeming hell-bent desire to spend whatever it takes to win the Second Congressional District primary that is getting all the attention.

After a recent contribution of $2.1 million, Polis’ self-funded total is now $3.7 million, making him No. 1 this year when it comes to self-financed House candidates. He had triggered the millionaire’s amendment, which had allowed for opponents of self-financed candidates to ask for triple the limit of $2,300 from any single donor. But in June, the Supreme Court ruled Congress went too far in crafting the amendment, striking it down. To compound that, Fitz-Gerald and Shafroth both worry Polis is far from done spending.

That will mean as the days tick quickly away toward the Aug. 12 primary, there will be a blast of “I’m Jared Polis, and I approved this message” television spots.

“We knew from the beginning we were facing potentially unlimited funds,” Fitz-Gerald says. “You can’t stress about it.”

So Polis fits the bill of being a self-financed millionaire politician. He could pour several million more into TV ads, mailers, blimps floating over Coors Field during an afternoon game, live telecasts from Iraq—basically whatever he wants.

Yet he doesn’t seem to fall into the typical mold of rich guy running for office.

He doesn’t own the type of elaborate home that conservationists always try to curb in Boulder—he lives in a condo just off Pearl Street. Polis drives a hybrid Lexus—when he isn’t walking to work.

Flashy, he is not.

Over the last decade, Polis has successfully sold multiple Internet businesses such as American Information Systems, a web hosting site; Bluemountainarts.com (for $800 million-plus), a web-based greeting card company; and Proflowers.com. He also founded the Sonora Entertainment Group, which runs movie houses throughout the west featuring films in Spanish or subtitles (Cinema Latina in Aurora is the closest).

Since making his first million as a 23-year-old, he has poured much of his energy into the state’s education system, including serving on the state board of education for six years (he ran a million-dollar-campaign for that office) and building two charter schools in the metro area catering to students who don’t speak English.

“What they say about wealth is it exaggerates your characteristics,” Polis says. “For me, it propelled this public service thing. I’m still a workaholic.”

He also financed a trip to Baghdad this year to give himself a firsthand look at the issues in the Middle East. Some called it a publicity stunt; he called it an eye-opening experience.

“It was very interesting,” he says. “It was a little scary. There was a shelling 500 yards away. I was wearing a bullet proof vest.”

So yes, Jared Polis has enough money to fill Scrooge McDuck’s Duck Tales money bin. But he’s trying to run a race that doesn’t peg him as the rich guy who wants to buy his way into Congress.

Money Doesn’t Buy Elections
The self-financed candidate is hardly anything new. Each election cycle, a handful of the elite wealthy decide to pour oodles of money into a campaign against an incumbent.

It usually doesn’t work out, regardless of how much money is infused into the battle.

Just ask James Humprheys. He lost bids in 2000 and 2002 to be a West Virginia representative despite pumping in nearly $15 million in the two unsuccessful races.

There are numerous other examples, too.

Open seats are a much different story. Since popular Rep. Udall is leaving his comfy liberal Boulder congressional seat in an attempt to become a U.S. senator, it’s anyone’s guess who will win this race. And money likely will have little to do with the outcome.

“They actually do about the same,” says Scott Adler, a Ph.D. political science associate professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, in comparing wealthy to regular candidates running for an open seat. “The reality is, I’ll be perfectly honest, if I am running for an open seat, I would much rather be the guy with the money.

“But there is no guarantee he is going to get anything out of his money.”

So if cash doesn’t factor, why does everyone seem to be making such a big deal out of Polis’ pockets?
Perhaps it’s the pressure an influx of $3.7 million in personal checks creates.

“Certainly, he can put pressure on his opponents this way by buying a tremendous amount of TV time; it forces them to respond,” says Adler, a specialist in the U.S. House and Senate.

And while it’s often the media spewing stories about his latest donation to the campaign, Fitz-Gerald and Shafroth are just as much a part of making money an issue.

They see it as a way to paint Polis as someone who cannot relate to the common voter. The two recently publicized their previous seven years of tax returns to force the Boulder philanthropist to do the same.
Polis made nearly $100 million in 2006, about $24 million in 2000 and a hair more than $100,000 in 2001—the other years, he posted losses.

This is where the fireworks begin.

Fitz-Gerald’s camp loves to point out that Polis didn’t pay taxes in five of the last seven years (of course, omitting that he lost money and paid more than $18 million in taxes in the other years).

“Politics is silly,” responds Polis over a casual lunch, a few blocks from his Pearl Street campaign headquarters. “That’s what turns people off.”

Every media source loves to highlight Polis’ contributions (“$3.7 million—but who’s counting,” jokes Shafroth).

This has led to a massive drive to fund all three campaigns. Perhaps surprisingly, following first quarter reporting (through March 31), Polis led in personal contributions as well ($1.6 million; Fitz-Gerald raised $1.1 million and Shafroth $1 million). The numbers likely have changed dramatically (the second quarter had not been released by press time).

Yet each camp claims the most local support by crafting the numbers to fit best. “Joan’s taken the most PAC money,” Polis is fond of saying of campaign dollars brought in through policy-driven organizations.
Fitz-Gerald’s camp points to some of the wealthy out-of-state groups that can be found on the Polis contribution ledger (Swift Boat Veterans). Shafroth, a political newcomer, seems to avoid the politics fighting mostly, but he still claims the most local support since he petitioned his way onto the ballot by collecting nearly 5,000 signatures instead of going through the Democrat’s statewide delegate system like his opponents.

“I’ve actually been involved in the process,” Shafroth says of what he calls a calculated decision to skip the delegate process in favor of petitioning for a spot on the ballot. “Frankly, I got to speak to the voters.”

Inferring, of course, that Fitz-Gerald and Polis only rubbed elbows with political insiders at these county conventions.

Politics is silly.

Close to Home
And frankly, money has been drowning out the issues.

Sean Hempy is a whole lot more concerned with how each candidate will help him move his family out of their modest Thornton duplex than whether Polis throws another million into his campaign war chest.

Cleaning up a plate of barbecue and fixins at the Thornton cookout, Hempy watches as his 10-year-old son hams it up with Polis, the two discussing the merits of the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies.

Hempy lives next door, and with a growing family, he’d like to move to a bigger spread. The housing market, which has taken a huge dent out of the home values of this neighborhood just off 104th and Washington, is prohibiting that move.

“I haven’t heard anything that’s real yet,” Hempy says, referring to the national debate about how to improve the real estate market. “Nobody knows.”

He wants to know what Polis (Fitz-Gerald and Shafroth, too) will do about easing this frustration.
Hempy listens to Polis’ presentation, which touches on education, nuclear technology, jobs, the housing market and his recent trip to Iraq.

Leaving the cookout, he’s impressed with what Polis has to say.

Hempy never mentions Polis’ money.

What impresses most at the backyard affair is the access to a congressional candidate who could become part of the solution to Iraq, the failing economy or global warming.

“Usually in order to get this close you have to go to some high-dollar fundraiser,” says Lori Langston, a Thornton resident.

This year’s race seems a whole lot more personal than previous national elections.

Personal Politics
The personal nature of the fight for this seat is fitting.

This race will likely come down to whose personality fits best with the district’s constituents since there really isn’t a huge disparity between the candidates’ platforms.

They all want to pull out of Iraq, ease the burden of the cost of gas, push environmentally-friendly legislation and universal health care, and receive a Udall endorsement. We’re talking about three Boulder-area Democrats, after all. They’re fighting for a nomination that is all but assured of walking into the seat come general election time since Dems have such a stronghold over the district. “The differences (on the issues) will be so marginal,” Adler says. “It’s about who is going to get things done.”

So perhaps this is a contest as to who you think has the mettle to push solid Democrat legislation across the aisle.

Luckily, this race is full of personality.

Polis is young, rich, gay, Princeton educated and a genuine philanthropist who cares greatly about

Fitz-Gerald is the experienced candidate who has broken ground for women in Colorado politics. She was the first woman to be president of the senate majority, made a name for herself leading the liberal minority before that, and has a solid track record of serving the people dating back 15 years.

Then there’s Shafroth, who has no political experience to speak of. But he has an impeccable track record of conserving land in Colorado as the founder of the Colorado Conservation Trust and former executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado. He has been a part of major preservation battles serving on the California Coastal Commission.

“These are three very credible, very qualified candidates,” Adler says.

If you are looking for subtle differences, expect Shafroth to push for a stronger environmental agenda, Polis to pull from his years in education, and Fitz-Gerald to have the most experience pushing policy through. But don’t take our word for it, mail-in ballots will be sent out in days, meaning all three will frantically make the rounds throughout the district this month. There are few other certainties in this race: This will be the most expensive seat in the house this year, and about the only thing the money promises is record primary voting turnouts.

Politics is silly, indeed.

Mail-in ballots will be mailed out today and the final day to register as a Democrat or independent and be eligible to vote in the CD2 primary is Monday. The primary is Aug. 12.

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