Colorado's heterodox governor expertly avoids the culture wars
By most accounts, Jared Polis is an unusual man. For one, his name is Jared — a name not not typically associated with the upper echelons of American politics. As Colorado’s first Jewish and openly gay governor, he is a Democrat, but also a libertarian who supports gun rights, abortion, weed, and even Bitcoin.
This makes him an awkward figure in Democratic circles, made all the more so by his distinctly apolitical approach to Covid. During the pandemic, the governor pursued a path that was neither ‘let it rip’ or micromanaging mask-enforcement. He refused to implement mandates in the face of a surging Omicron variant (when its relatively benign nature was still unknown) and resumed in-person schooling quicker than most states. As he told a Colorado public radio station last year, the ‘medical emergency’ phase of the pandemic had passed. “Public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear,” he said. “That’s just not their job”.
Colorado has one of the lowest Covid death rates in the country, and Polis is at least partially responsible for that. Where some states opted for a highly centralised, top-down approach in managing the outbreak, the governor again took a different route: by localising the response. Colorado is a famously purple state, replete with conservative enclaves, having drifted from solidly Republican to Democrat in the last 20 years. Without wishing to antagonise either Red or Blue, Polis decided to give local authorities the power to decide for themselves on whether to implement mandates. Unsurprisingly, some of the more liberal areas adopted them, while more conservative places like Colorado Springs opted out.
Relinquishing power at the height of an emergency is a rare thing among politicians, but it seemed to chime well with residents here. Denver locals all spoke fondly of Polis, even if they found it difficult to pinpoint what it is they liked about him. “He keeps a pretty low profile,” said one, “and that’s how we like it here”, while another noted, “he wasn’t seeking headlines like other governors — he just got on with it”. “I like him,” said my Uber driver. “What’s his name again?”
As the only libertarian in the Democratic party (he was the sole Democratic member of the libertarian conservative Liberty Caucus), Polis’s heterodox political positions have put him out of step with the Democrats. Rarely does he attract that much attention either inside the party or out, which is part of his appeal. By keeping a low profile, Polis affords himself more leeway in the stances he can adopt. Unlike a politician with big name recognition like AOC, the governor does not have to try to satisfy voters in deep blue California or provide fodder for Tucker Carlson on Fox. He is responsible to Coloradans and Coloradans alone.
After I reminded him about the identity of his governor, my driver added: “we’re too busy to think about politics; if he lets us get on with our thing, we’ll let him get on with his”. A commendable philosophy, and one that will hopefully spread to other states.