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In the Race for Governor, How Far Left Is Colorado Willing to Go?

DENVER — Jared Polis, a leading Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, walked into the home of a prominent marijuana entrepreneur for a campaign event recently, wearing a suit and bright blue sneakers. He circled a room of voters, wound his way past the margarita machine and then fired off his vision for Colorado.

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Julie Turkewitz
, New York Times

DENVER — Jared Polis, a leading Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, walked into the home of a prominent marijuana entrepreneur for a campaign event recently, wearing a suit and bright blue sneakers. He circled a room of voters, wound his way past the margarita machine and then fired off his vision for Colorado.

Single-payer health care. An all-renewable electric grid. State-funded full-day preschool.

The crowd showered him with applause. “Support the man,” said a host, Scott Duran, 53, “because we really need him.”

Colorado, one of the purplest states in the nation, has seen dramatic social and economic change in recent years. These days, the roads below the Rockies are jammed with Subarus; suburbs have expanded at breakneck speed; and affordable housing is so scarce that by one assessment, Denver teachers can afford fewer than one-half of 1 percent of the homes in their city.

These changes have helped foster a parallel political shift, and in the last five years Colorado has legalized marijuana, passed major gun restrictions and put a single-payer health care system on the ballot. Just this month, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, ordered the state to pursue California-style emissions standards, making Colorado the first interior state to do so.

By many measures, Colorado is shifting blue. Now, with Hickenlooper term-limited and eight candidates from two parties angling to replace him, the question is just how far left this frontier state wants to go.

Polis, a wealthy congressman from Boulder who made his millions in e-commerce, is one of four Democrats seeking to replace Hickenlooper, whose trademark has been political moderation. (Hickenlooper is weighing a bid for president.)

If Polis is successful, he would be the country’s first openly gay man to serve as governor, and he could bring his husband and their two children to this city’s hilltop Executive Mansion — an idea that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

But Polis, 43, is attempting a win in a state whose east and west flanks run deep red, home to influential conservative organizations like Focus on the Family; a powerful fossil fuel industry; and a faction so fervently pro-Trump that in the last election it splintered from the Republican establishment to form a group called the Mesa County Deplorables.

Portions of the state are famously tax averse, and in 2016, even as the majority of voters favored Hillary Clinton, the proposal for single-payer health care failed miserably at the ballot. Four of the last five governors have been Democrats, but moderates have long charted the state’s course.

As it stands, Colorado has 1 million registered Democrats, 1 million registered Republicans and 1.2 million unaffiliated voters, making for a nail-biter of an election year. For the first time in state history, those undeclared voters can participate in the June 26 primary, and the number of votes returned this month will be an early sign of the state’s political direction.

“Hickenlooper would never have campaigned on that kind of overt: ‘Let’s raid the revenue box,'” said Alan Salazar, a former chief strategy officer to the governor, noting that Polis could be a tough sell. “Jared is perceived, I think, as a lot more liberal.”

But Hickenlooper was elected in 2010. That was before the state’s galloping economic growth, before Donald Trump awoke a liberal resistance.

When the governor took office, the state was in recession, with unemployment near double digits, jitters about exiting businesses and thousands of families tossed out of their homes by foreclosure.

Hickenlooper pushed to make Colorado more of a technology and health care hub, luring companies like Arrow Electronics and DaVita, sometimes by cold-calling executives himself. Today, U.S. News and World Report says the state has the best economy in the nation, officials are flirting with Amazon and the Olympics, Google has opened a $131 million campus, and Denverites are elbowing their way through new art spaces, food halls and pot shops.

Colorado, with 5.6 million residents, expects to add nearly 3 million people by 2050. And Hispanic residents, now a fifth of the population, will make up more than a third.

These days, the question is not how to grow, but how to pay for all these new people. Roads are crumbling, schools are starved for funds, and rural communities say all this metro-area expansion is sucking them of water and money.

“You rest on your laurels at your own peril,” said Hickenlooper in an interview at the state’s gold-domed Capitol. His fear, he added, is that “we will strangle on our success.”

Of course, not everyone is interested in solutions put forth by Democrats like Polis, which include a change to a long-standing state law that limits the amount of tax revenue the state can collect. “It’s worse than moving blue,” said Jon Caldara, who leads the Independence Institute, a Denver-based libertarian think tank. “We’re turning into California.”

The best-known Republican candidate, Walker Stapleton, 44, the state treasurer, is promoting himself as a supporter of the president’s tax plan while promising to yank funds from sanctuary cities. Apparently hoping to avoid scrutiny before the primary — he has three lesser-known challengers — he has skipped some debates and repeatedly dodged reporters.

When he does appear, he often saves his fire for Polis: “The issues that matter are: What is Jared Polis going to do to the economic future of Colorado?” he said.

But a Polis primary victory is far from certain, despite the $11 million the congressman has poured into his own campaign.

His Democratic challengers include Cary Kennedy, 50, a former state treasurer who would be the state’s first female governor if elected; and Mike Johnston, 43, a Spanish-speaking former state senator and principal who once ran a school in a juvenile prison. Kennedy has made education the center of her campaign, promoting her role in writing a constitutional amendment that sought to raise funds for Colorado schools. She has the backing of the state’s energized teachers’ unions, and educators have come out in droves to stump for her. “We’re crazy for Cary!” yelled one at a recent event at her campaign headquarters.

A handwritten sign on the wall warned her male challengers. “Spoiler alert: Women don’t give up.”

Both Kennedy and Johnston are pushing progressive plans for renewable energy and school funding, while supporting bans on assault weapons. But they have stopped short of measures put forth by Polis, like the creation of a state single-payer health care system.

Johnston in particular has tried to pitch himself as the only Democrat who can win statewide, traveling rural roads in cowboy boots and delivering Obamaesque speeches about the nation’s imperiled “promise of equality.” On a recent afternoon at his campaign office, he leapt over a fence like a rodeo star before delivering a speech to a sea of voters.

“In the moment when people are lost, we are going to light a lantern out here on the Continental Divide,” he said. “If the rest of the country can’t lead us there right now, Colorado can lead first.”

Across the street, Barry Castile, 56, was playing in the yard with his granddaughters Heaven and Harmony. “That’s my No. 1 man,” he said, motioning toward the campaign office.

Castile, who owned a car detail business before a back injury, said the region’s sharply rising rent had just about convinced him to leave.

But before doing that, he was going to vote for Johnston. “This city has changed a lot. A whole lot. And it’s just gotten outrageous for us.”

All of the candidates are trying to address this central anxiety: How does Colorado, long fertile ground for the everyman’s Western dreams, remain a place for the average American?

“I love the mountains. It feels safe — it was a good place to raise a family,” said Jami Fries, 30, an undecided voter. “That appeal has started to fade.” Polis, sitting on the front porch after his campaign event, said he believes he is the one to take on that challenge.

A native Coloradan, he traveled the Southwest as a child, selling silk-screen posters out of a pickup truck with his parents, then took their greeting card company online and turned it into one of the most visited sites on the internet.

Blue Mountain sold for $780 million. Another online business, ProFlowers, went for $470 million.

Polis has since bankrolled his way from the state board of education to Congress, and during five terms in Washington he has been an advocate for unauthorized immigrants, has supported the Affordable Care Act, and has waged a battle against Colorado’s $32 billion oil and gas industry.

While he has earned a reputation for his left-wing politics, some point out that his record is more mixed, particularly when it comes to business.

Polis said he would prefer not to be boxed in.

“I never view it as ‘liberal versus conservative,'” he said, as voters wound their way up to a smoking room that had become the campaign event’s unofficial after-party. “I view it as a forward versus backward.”

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