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Members of the Colorado legislature applaud and take photos as Gov. Jared Polis enters the state House chambers before delivering his first State of the State address on Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is making a strong play to score his top legislative priority, but his strategy is leading some prominent Democratic lawmakers to cry foul.

To build support for full-day kindergarten, Polis is making personal appeals to budget writers, appearing in front of a legislative committee and visiting schools across the state. The governor’s office even recruited allies to attend a public hearing and lobby state lawmakers.

The Democrat’s style represents a significant departure from his predecessor and demonstrates a political savvy he honed during a decade in Congress. But the resulting whiplash is creating as much tension as support and sparking a power struggle in his party early in the 120-day lawmaking term.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and budget writer, said she appreciates Polis’ bold ideas but less so his tactics. “It’s not working toward a (shared) vision — it’s trying to sell us a vision,” she said.

For all the efforts to work together, the strain indicates Democrats are not entirely united in their priorities after winning complete control at the Capitol in the 2018 election. And it threatens their goal to present a unified vision to voters.

Rep. Chris Kennedy, the assistant House Democratic leader, said it’s still early, and the party agrees on more issues than not. “It’s not to say it’s not without conflict,” he added, “but there’s nothing wrong with conflict.”

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Polis points to his experience in Washington

From the start, Polis promised he would set a new path with the state legislature. “I will do things differently,” he told The Colorado Sun just hours after his inauguration.

A month into his term, that much is clear. The governor’s powers are limited when it comes to spending and lawmaking, but Polis is proving deft at using his bully pulpit to make his agenda the priority.

His approach to the General Assembly is derived from his experience as a Boulder congressman. And it reflects an attempt to address past complaints that the governor’s office engaged too late in the legislative process.

“As a former legislator, I saw firsthand how helpful it was to have the support of President (Barack) Obama when passing the Affordable Care Act and Every Student Succeeds Act,” Polis said in a statement provided by his office.

He added: “We want to empower our Republican and Democratic legislators to achieve the goals we share.”

Polis’ predecessor, Gov. John Hickenlooper, took a more hands-off approach and let lawmakers take the lead on crafting state policy. The two-term Democrat accomplished most of his legislative agenda each term, but he preferred to work behind the scenes to guide bills he would sign or squash measures he opposed. Hickenlooper often would decline to comment on legislative issues, saying if he gave lawmakers advice it would make the situation more complicated.

Just before he was sworn in as governor, Jared Polis, right, greets outgoing governor John Hickenlooper at the podium on Jan. 8, 2019 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, special to The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Bill Ritter, the one-term Democrat who came before Hickenlooper, played a more active role, particularly in pushing one of his top legislative priorities, renewable energy.

But Polis is more aggressive than both in his outreach to lawmakers and the public. And his tack is drawing notice.

“He’s a hands-on guy, isn’t he?” said Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican budget writer from Carbondale who attended a recent town hall with Polis in Frisco. “I think he’s got a businessman background and he likes to have a hands-on style. … Because I come from a business background and problem-solving, I’m enjoying the difference.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, applauded Polis for attending a recent education committee hearing at his invitation, saying it was the first time he saw that happen in his seven years in office.

“I think that’s a smart move,” said Wilson, the sponsor of the forthcoming full-day kindergarten bill. “Because anytime you have the executive branch and the legislative branch separated by a floor in the Capitol, a lot of things can happen going up and down the elevator.”

MORE: Gov. Jared Polis wants to eliminate a Trump tax break to pay for a Colorado tax cut

State budget is the pressure point at the Capitol

The pinch point between Polis and lawmakers is the budget. In his State of the State address last month, Polis outlined more than 40 policy priorities, led by a $227 million plan to provide full-day kindergarten statewide.

The Democratic legislative majority supports the policy, but budget writers are concerned about the long-term spending commitment and want to save room for transportation projects and other items.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis stands with members of the state legislature before his inauguration at the state Capitol on Jan. 8, 2019. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Pool)

The public pushback is subtle but clear. “It’s very clear in the constitution that the legislature has power over appropriations and the governor gets to make recommendations,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who leads the powerful Joint Budget Committee. “And we are absolutely willing and happy to hear about those recommendations. But at the end of the day, there has to be room for the legislature’s priorities, too.”

In his first appearance before the budget committee in January, Polis addressed the members one-by-one listing how much money his kindergarten plan would send to their districts. The blunt move appeared to stun the committee.

“He can point the target right at me all he wants, but at the end of the day, I’m here to represent the people who elected me,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat on the committee. “I’m here to make sure I’m looking out for southern Colorado, specifically. And if his ideas fit that, and improve life for people in Colorado, I’m here to help make that happen.”

A week ago, when the budget committee held its first-ever public hearing, the governor’s office told superintendents to attend and express support for the plan for full-day kindergarten. The move angered at least one committee member.

“I felt like (the hearing) was co-opted by the person with the biggest platform in the state,” said Zenzinger, a budget writer. She said the governor’s office is already part of the budget conversation, but so far Polis “just doesn’t like what he’s hearing.”

Maria De Cambra, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the administration is building a coalition to support the kindergarten plan and let the superintendents “know how they can engage in support of our efforts.”

But whether it’s helping is a different question. Moreno, the top budget writer, said Polis represents “moving from one extreme to the other.” He’s looking for more balance, so “the legislature has its space to do what we do.”


John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.