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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis addresses the Western Conservative Summit on July 12, 2019, at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis extended a hand to his political rivals Friday, telling a conservative political summit that “our state of Colorado is big enough for all of us to live our lives according to our values” even as his critics responded with shouts for a “recall.”

His remarks at the 10th annual Western Conservative Summit are the first for an elected Democrat, and the first-year governor received a mixed response as he spoke from the same stage where Donald Trump Jr. will speak later in the day.

Polis, the nation’s first openly gay man elected governor, touted his work to expand state-funded full-day kindergarten and reform the tax system, but in his 10-minute speech he emphasized a broader message about bipartisanship and respectful debate.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis addresses the Western Conservative Summit on July 12, 2019, at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

“While we should never gloss over the things that divide us, there is a lot more that unites us,” Polis said. He added a moment later: “When we close ourselves off from discussion or debate, and we reject the possibility of hearing and understanding other perspectives, it threatens the fabric of our democracy.”

The appearance came days after conservatives started a long-shot effort to recall him from office after only six months.  And his willingness to attend loaned bipartisan credibility to an event that has refused to allow a gay-rights Republican organization to participate and amplified speakers who discriminated against Muslims. A year ago, it featured Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King, who was ostracized and denounced by his own party for being a white supremacist.

At the same time, Polis’ appearance may undermine his own party’s criticism of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner for sharing the stage with the son of President Donald Trump. 

But in an interview after the event, he told reporters: “I think it’s very important that Coloradans of different ideologies, different races, different geographies, different orientations and gender identities all really celebrate that we’re all part of what makes Colorado great.”

Conservatives look to dismantle Polis agenda at event

This year, much of the summit’s focus is dedicated to reversing the agenda Polis and Democratic legislative leaders advanced in the 2019 legislative session after taking complete control of Colorado government in the 2018 election. 

Jeff Hunt, the summit’s organizer, started the event hours before the governor took the stage by blasting Democrats in Colorado. 

“We had a very, very rough legislative year. If you were here in Colorado you saw that the state legislature sought to strip our rights — when it comes to our parental rights, our religious freedom rights. They sought to weaken the sanctity of life and traditional family values,” he told the crowd of hundreds at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Holding up a Bible, he added: “The left has no real guiding principles. I mean, truly they don’t.” 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at an event in Aurora on July 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The workshops for conservative activists include sessions about how to defeat “Medicare for All” and socialistic policies, the expanding legalization of marijuana, federal protections for public lands and the national popular vote movement.

One session is titled: “From Equal Pay to Paid Leave: How to Fight the Left’s Wooing of Women.”

Polis is a prominent advocate for “Medicare for All.” He signed legislation this year to expand access to marijuana. He is a vocal advocate for federal public lands. And he signed legislation to add Colorado to a compact with other states in favor of using the national popular vote to elect presidents instead of the Electoral College.

MORE: Gov. Jared Polis made headway on 22% of his campaign pledges so far, Promise Tracker analysis shows

Polis’ critics make their displeasure apparent

In the front row, LeAnn Leffler-Foote, a 43-year-old oil and gas worker from Grand Junction, turned her back to the stage when it came time for Polis to speak. “I turned my back on him because he turned his back on us,” she said, citing the “outright attack on the oil and gas industry” in a new law authored by Democrats to impose tougher regulations on drilling.

“We voted against the setbacks in November,” she said, citing the defeat of Proposition 112, which Polis opposed. “And for them to turn around and go against the word of the people, the choice of the people, says that he has some sort of agenda. The question is what is that agenda.”

Not far away at another table, Anita Connors shifted uncomfortably as Polis talked about religious freedom — a theme of the summit. She said it was hard to hear because of the case against Colorado cake baker Jack Phillips, who will speak at the event. “I think he’s a hypocrite,” said the 65-year-old from Evergreen who wore a Trump 2020 hat. “I had a very hard time listening to him talk to us about religious freedom and the Bible.”

As Polis left the stage, she shouted “recall.” Connors said she already signed a petition to force a special election to challenge him. “I would love to see him recalled,” she said. “He’s not doing anything good for our state. To totally disregard the voters, and hurt the oil and gas industry and people’s livelihoods the way he has, it’s just almost criminal.”

Others in the crowd were more diplomatic. Polis received a standing ovation from a small portion of the crowd. Peter McInerney, a 37-year-old unaffiliated voter from Golden, said he applauded the speech to show respect for the fact Polis made the effort to attend.

“Polis has got a good point. No matter where you come from — background, faith, political spectrum, beliefs — we are all here in this great state of Colorado,” he said. “We’ve got to tolerate each other to make it a good state. We are not always going to agree on issues but we can come to a reasonable compromise.”

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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