Seven weeks after his inauguration on Jan. 8, Jared Polis is already seeing progress in his new job as governor of Colorado. A teacher’s strike in Denver is resolved and legislation is heading to his desk aimed at shifting toward a winner in presidential elections based on the popular vote.
The first openly gay person inaugurated governor also awaits two pieces of pro-LGBT legislation advanced in the Colorado House, but still pending in the Senate: a ban on widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy for youth and a birth certificate bill easing the process by which transgender people can change their gender marker.
Polis talked about his experience — including the role of his spouse, Marlon Reis, the first-ever spouse of a governor in a same-sex relationship — during an interview Sunday with the Washington Blade as he sipped on a Red Bull. The Colorado governor was in town for a meeting of the National Governors Association.
The Blade’s complete Q&A with Polis follows — including his thoughts on Jussie Smollett and 2020 candidates.
Washington Blade: Has anything unexpected occurred as result of being the first openly gay person inaugurated as governor?
Jared Polis: In terms of the unexpected, Denver’s had a teachers’ strike…things like that hit, and the job of governor really has nothing to do with your orientation or identity. It’s just you always expect the unexpected, like you’re always worried about fires in Colorado, [working] with the legislature on some historic progress, including equality.
We’re looking forward to hopefully banning conversion therapy for minors essentially in our state.
Blade: What was going through your head during the inauguration?
Polis: It’s a blur. It was just crazy to be there and have thousands of people with my partner Marlon and our family.
Really, I was looking forward to being done with it because I just was looking forward to doing the job. I was not really comfortable with the ceremonial aspects of it.
But I wanted to put together a thoughtful ceremony. We had people from multiple faith traditions. We had a Sikh blessing, a Native American blessing, we had a Christian minister and Rabbi. We had the gay men’s choir kick it off. We wanted to do a thoughtful, inclusive ceremony.
I set the theme as “Colorado for All” to highlight how our state welcomes and includes everybody regardless of where you live, who you love, who you are, your ethnicity or your race, your gender, so that’s kind of what we wanted to celebrate.
Blade: I’m not terribly familiar with how Colorado handles the office of first spouse —
Polis: So, yeah, Marlon is first gentleman. His cause is animal welfare. He’s going to be hosting a pet adoption at the governor’s mansion in the next few weeks. He’s going to be advocating for animals as well as other causes near to his heart, like equality, and other causes.
Blade: Is there anything different in handling the office of first spouse? After all, Marlon is the first first spouse of a governor in a same-sex marriage.
Polis: He’s attending the spouse track at NGA and the other spouses, Republican and Democrat, are all very welcoming and warm to him.
A lot of them are just figuring it out, too. They’re all of a sudden first spouses, right, of first-time governors? They have to figure it out on their own in their own way.
And there’s no model. I mean, some of them do literally zero with their spouse. Others are full-time with a different cause. Many of them are kind of in between managing a career or being a homemaker along with some causes.
So, that’s what the spouse track here is kind of all about. They’re just kind of figuring how to do it and what to focus on.
And Marlon is ahead of many of them in already identifying his cause and already putting together, you know, some events around it.
Blade: Let’s talk about LGBT policy. You mentioned the legislative ban on conversion therapy. There’s also the birth certificate legislation easing the process so transgender people can change their gender marker. What’s your expectation for timing for when those would become law?
Polis: When they reach my desk, they’ll become law. So, you know, it’s the legislature and I don’t know when they’ll be considered by the other chamber and pass, but they’ll become law when they reach my desk.
And I’ve signed a few bills so far, which is pretty cool just to think that’s the final act, and then I sign it and all of sudden it’s the law of Colorado. It was different than as a congressman. You vote on something and then maybe vote on it again.
I attended some signing ceremonies with President Obama, but now to be on the other end, and seeing this act of signing it makes it law is pretty cool.
Blade: What would be the significance of those two bills in particular becoming law?
Polis: It’ll be exciting and they’re the result of years of hard work. We have a strong equality advocacy organization called One Colorado in Colorado. We have many LGBT members of our legislature, including our first transgender legislator, Brianna Titone.
And so, this’ll be really getting it across the finish line after years and years of work from advocates in our state.
Blade: One other bill that’s coming to your desk soon is the bill that would throw the electoral votes in Colorado to the popular vote winner in presidential elections under certain circumstances. You’ve indicated you support that. Can you talk a little about that?
Polis: When I was in Congress, I supported moving to popular vote for election for president. I believe in one person, one vote. I think the Electoral College is an undemocratic relic that potentially could cause a constitutional crisis, and was nearly done twice in the last two decades.
Blade: I think critics of the proposal would say that if you’re giving up this process for the popular vote, then Colorado will have to give up its nine points in the Electoral College and presidential candidates won’t go to Colorado and make campaign promises. What would you say to that?
Polis: It means that every vote counts in Colorado, right? It means that even if our state is leaning Democrat, every vote counts because they all go into the national total.
So I think it’s particularly important for people who believe in states that lean in one way or the other. And our state’s competitive, of course. But it’s nice to know that even if the Democrat is winning, then all the Republican votes won’t just be thrown away.
Blade: I also want to ask you about the Equality Act. I know you’ve been away from Congress, but are you hearing anything from Congress about it?
Polis: No. I’m hopeful that it will be brought to the floor, hopefully this summer. It’ll be an historic occasion. Hopefully, the House has the opportunity to pass the Equality Act.
Blade: What makes you say this summer?
Polis: What are we in now? March? So, I guess it could be spring. As soon as they have time on the floor of the House, I’m confident they’ll bring it to the floor in the coming months.
Blade: Let’s get to some stories in the news. One high-profile story is the case of Jussie Smollet. When you heard about the story as it unfolded, what was your reaction?
Polis: I haven’t been following it that closely because you know I’ve been following what I have to do as governor. I mean, I see the headlines, but I haven’t read all the articles in detail.
I have to focus on Colorado, and we’re focused on our agenda of free full-day kindergarten, renewable energy, saving people money on health care and tax reform.
Blade: You must be aware that he’s accused of having faked a hate crime against him. Do you have any reaction to that?
Polis: It’s hard to figure out what his motive would have been. He probably needs some kind of help to work through whatever issues he has and I’m sure he’ll likely be facing criminal charges. If he did fake it, then he deserves to be convicted.
Blade: The Trump administration, for all its anti-LGBT policy, last week unveiled a new initiative to decriminalize homosexuality in the 71 countries where it’s illegal. Does the Trump administration deserve credit for this?
Polis: Didn’t the president seem not to acknowledge it?
Blade: He seemed unaware of it when asked about it.
Polis: It’s long been the position of the American government under Republicans and Democrats that homosexuality shouldn’t be illegal. I think we’ve had differences on marriage rights, which President Trump has said he supports traditional marriage and not same-sex marriage.
But, yes, Republicans and Democrats in our country agree that it should not be illegal to be gay.
Blade: But do you think anything in particular will come out of the initiative or is it complete window dressing?
Polis: It’s been the long-standing position of our federal government under President Obama, under President Bush, under President Clinton, we’ve always advocated for human rights, including decriminalization of homosexuality.
But it’s always nice to see it renewed under any administration. The long-standing American commitment to human rights.
Blade: Let’s talk about 2020. Are you prepared to endorse a candidate?
Polis: Ha! No, no. I’m focused on doing my job.
Blade: What’s going into that process? I’m sure at some point you’ll endorse a candidate in 2020.
Polis: I think the first part is who’s running, and I don’t think that’ll be clear for several more months. There are some people running, but there are many people that might run or may not be running, including potentially two Coloradans, Michael Bennet and John Hickenloooper.
Blade: One candidate already in the mix right now is South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. It’s a long shot, but he could be the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate and maybe the first openly gay president. What advice would you have for Pete Buttigieg?
Polis: I’ve met Pete. He seems like a good guy. He certainly would be a better president than the current one.
I think he needs to build name recognition. You know, there are big names in the race and he’ll have to find a way to kind of build that name recognition and offer something new and exciting…
Blade: When do you expect you’ll make an endorsement in the race?
Polis: Again, I haven’t thought about it yet. I’m interested in seeing who’s running and interested in seeing them pay attention to Colorado.