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Jared Polis is learning early on about one of the hardest parts of being governor: serving as the state’s chief mourner

Jared Polis follows Gov. John Hickenlooper and others before him in leading Colorado through tragedy and disaster. He’s found that it’s one of the toughest parts of being the state's chief executive.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis responds to a question about Tuesday's shooting at a charter school during a news conference Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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Gov. Jared Polis was in his office finishing up an interview with a local radio station last week when news out of Highlands Ranch broke: there had been a school shooting.

That set in motion a series of decisions for Colorado’s new chief executive. Should he head to the scene and risk getting in the way, or monitor from afar? When is the right time to contact victims? What is the governor’s role during a tragedy like the deadly attack on STEM School Highlands Ranch?

Polis is getting a taste early on of one of the most difficult and sensitive roles he must fill as Colorado’s governor: being the state’s chief consoler and mourner, responsible not only for comforting victims and their families but also showing the public that there is a path forward.

Two months into the job, Polis found himself dealing with local tragedy when a Colorado State Patrol trooper was killed during the “bomb cyclone” blizzard. And then the school shooting happened last week, thrusting his leadership in a time of distress to the national stage.

Managing these crises have been among the toughest parts of his job so far, Polis said.

MORE: Hero students like Kendrick Castillo highlight a shift in guidance on how to respond to a school shooting

In interviews with The Colorado Sun, former Gov. Bill Ritter and top staffers for other past governors said shepherding the state through trying times is among the most complicated and delicate roles the chief executive must fill. It’s a balancing act that requires not getting in the way, but also knowing when to step up.

“Governing is pretty intense. It’s all day, every day,” said Ritter, Colorado’s governor from 2007 to 2011. “There’s not a moment when you’re not the governor. There may be moments where you can relax — not many. And then comes this. The weight and responsibility of the position, it is manifest in that tragedy. It visits you in a different way than anything else you do. There’s a burden from being the chief mourner for the state of Colorado that visits you differently than any other gubernatorial responsibility that you have.”

On the presidential campaign trail, former Gov. John Hickenlooper often cites his time helping Colorado recover from the unthinkable. He shepherded the state through the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, a string of devastating fires and then, in 2013, biblical flooding.

In his campaign kickoff, Hickenlooper cited the 32 funerals he attended during his first term alone. “John was frequently at a place where he, too, wanted to cry,” said Roxane White, who served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff. “You knew you could never replace someone’s wedding photos. You knew no matter what you did you could never replace someone’s child who was murdered.”

So on Wednesday morning, the day after the STEM School Highlands Ranch attack that left one student dead and eight more wounded, Polis stood at a lectern before a scrum of reporters and cameras and tried to begin the healing process.

“Well,” Polis said, “we’ve been no stranger to tragedy.”

Students from STEM School Highlands Ranch wait to be evacuated after a shooting at their school on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. At least eight of their classmates were wounded and one other was killed by two alleged gunmen who also are students at the school. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Heartbreak. Frustration. Sickness.”

Polis’ response to the Highlands Ranch school shooting appeared to follow the path of other leaders before him.

He met with first responders and medical staff who treated the wounded. He spent time with victims and their families trying to console them. He posted condolences and messages of support on social media.

“Time and time again Coloradans have proven how resilient we are, and this time is no different,” he said at a news conference the day after the shooting.

He summarized what he thought were the state’s collective feelings: “Heartbreak. Frustration. Sickness.”

But the governor stopped short of calling for new gun-control or mental health legislation to address the shooting when asked about what could be done to stop future attacks. He also decided against participating in a vigil held the night after the shooting that was organized by pro-gun control groups and was attended by Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Jason Crow.

That memorial ended up grabbing headlines after student attendees protested that what they thought was a memorial for their dead and injured friends had been co-opted by politicians.

“America has seen too many of these senseless acts of violence,” Polis said Wednesday morning. “And there’s discussion, of course, to be had about what we can do to make sure kids are safe at school. Today, obviously, less than 24 hours after the tragedy, it’s really about the outpouring of support from all sectors, for the families who are directly affected.”

(Polis declined to be interviewed for this story through a spokeswoman, who said he wants the focus to be on healing and the victims and families impacted by the shooting.)

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who will be prosecuting the case against the alleged shooters, echoed that sentiment.

“We are a resilient people, but the time for resilience isn’t going to be within the first 24 hours of this,” Brauchler said at the same news conference. “We’re going to mourn. We’re going to take care of those who are down, and we are going to pick ourselves back up.”

A Douglas County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle outside of STEM School Highlands Ranch following a shooting that left one student dead and eight others wounded on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis has dealt with tragedy before

During his decade in Congress, Polis handled his fair share of tragedy, from responding to the northern Colorado floods that devastated communities and lives in his congressional district, to working with military veterans and standing up for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community after the deadly 2016 shooting at an Orlando nightclub.

But one situation he responded to stands out from the others.

Following the deadly 2015 crash of a Flight for Life helicopter in Frisco, which happened in Polis’ district, he became an advocate for the victims, including Dave Repsher, a flight nurse whose body was 90 percent burned in the wreck.  

A Flight for Life helicopter just before it crashed in Frisco in July 2015, killing the pilot and seriously injuring two others aboard. Congress passed legislation on Wednesday mandating that newly built helicopters have crash-resistant fuel tanks. (Screenshot from National Transportation Safety Board video)

Karen Maheny, whose pilot husband, Patrick, was killed in the wreck, says Polis was there for her after the crash — calling to check in, sending her a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in Patrick’s honor and passing legislation to make sure helicopters are equipped with crash-resistant fuel tanks.

MORE: President signs measure seeking to make helicopters safer after deadly 2015 Flight for Life crash in Colorado

But the moment that really stood out came during the National Transportation Safety Board’s hearing in Washington on the crash, Maheny said. She was worried about her husband being blamed for the accident and was preparing for a difficult day.

That’s when Polis appeared in the hearing room.

“He knew the gravity of that day,” said Maheny, who later recorded a 2018 campaign ad for the governor talking about how much he was there for her. “Jared pulled himself out of committee. He made a point and sat down next to me.”

So when Maheny heard Polis’ voice on the radio last week, responding to the STEM School shooting, she found it comforting.

“I’m so glad that if we have to go through a tragedy that he’s the one helping to usher Coloradans through this,” she said. “He doesn’t avoid being there for the people who have been through the worst day of their life.”

“You don’t really think about it”

Ritter says leading the state through crisis was not top of mind as he was campaigning to be Colorado’s leader. Over nearly two years of running for the post, his focus was mainly on policy and politics.

But he remembers being confronted with that part of being governor early on. In fact, just hours after he was inaugurated he was summoned to a meeting on how to respond to a blizzard in southeast Colorado that was threatening the livelihood of ranchers.

“I greeted people after the inauguration, went in and closed my door and had a meeting about a blizzard,” Ritter said. “Having experienced times where governors did actually respond to tragic things, I knew that was part of it. But you don’t campaign about that.”

Sean Duffy, who served as former Gov. Bill Owens’ spokesman, said his then-boss reached out to governors before him to learn how to best handle tragic situations. When crises arose, they took precedence over everything else.

The 1999 Columbine High School massacre happened just a few months into Owens’ term. The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, forest fires and military funerals followed.

Unidentified students embrace each other at a makeshift memorial for their slain classmates at Columbine High School on a hilltop overlooking the school in Littleton, Colo, Saturday April 24, 1999. Twelve students and a teacher were killed in a murderous rampage at the school on April 20, 1999, by two students who killed themselves in the aftermath. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

“Any governor is always looked to as, really, the voice of the state — they represent all the people of the state,” Duffy said. “He has a responsibility and a natural duty that people look to him to kind of express what they’re feeling in many ways. You’re representing more than just yourself. You’re carrying the mantle of the state, and getting that tone and content and appearance correct is the biggest challenge. Knowing when to step back. That’s important.”

White, Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, said timing is everything when it comes to responding to a disaster. When the Aurora theater shooting happened in 2012, Hickenlooper waited to visit victims until they said they were ready.

“When Aurora happened, what I said to John that morning is ‘We need to go to that site and then we need to have a person from our administration in every hospital room talking to people to find out if and when the family is ready to have a visit from you,’” she said. “It’s very hard to console an individual family and reassure the state at the same time.”

But over time, people interviewed by The Sun said, the chief executive gets better at managing crises. Owens upset people during the Hayman fire in 2002 by saying it appeared that “all of Colorado is burning” and Hickenlooper drew criticism after the theater shooting for putting off the gun control conversation until later.

“Unfortunately,” White said, “John, I think, became very good at being the consoler-in-chief.”

MORE: Kendrick Castillo didn’t hesitate when a gunman burst into his high school classroom. “He went down as a hero.”

Polis, meanwhile, is still trying to comfort the state after last week’s tragedy. He’s made sure to paint Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old student killed trying to stop one of the two alleged shooters at STEM School Highlands Ranch, as a hero. He’s met with Castillo’s family. And his work seems to be helping, for at least some of those impacted by the attack.

John Desjardins, a Douglas County dispatcher who met with Polis in the aftermath of the shooting, posted on Facebook that the governor’s visit meant a lot.

“Regardless of your politics,” Desjardins wrote, “his visit today spoke volumes to us.”

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