He clapped to the music at a predominantly black church service. He celebrated with an African American fraternity at a scholarship fundraiser. And he held meetings with black leaders.
The events — all in a single week — are part of an effort by Gov. Jared Polis to reach out to the black community in Colorado amid criticism about a lack of racial diversity in his administration.
The first-year Democrat used the events to promote his administration’s mission to build a “Colorado for all” and encourage the audience to apply for positions on nearly 300 state boards and commissions.
“We need to make sure that the representation on all of those boards and commissions is demonstrative of the full diversity of our state in every way, and we want your help to make that a reality,” Polis told the congregation at Heritage Christian Center in Aurora last week.
But black leaders say outreach and board appointments are not enough. Polis told them he would do more, and now they want to hold him to his campaign pledges.
“The partnership dynamics right now are unsatisfactory to the African American community and we are holding him accountable,” said John Bailey at the Colorado Black Roundtable in an interview.
In his 2018 campaign, Polis promised to take multiple steps to promote diversity in his administration. The Colorado Sun’s promise tracker shows Polis pledged to identify laws and policies that suppress communities of color, review of appointments and staffing to ensure broad racial representation and “hire qualified people of color for important positions.”
In April, after finalizing his cabinet appointments, Polis told The Sun he satisfied the promise to select a diverse cabinet. Six of the 20 members of his cabinet are people of color, and for the first time, the majority is women.
The Colorado Black Roundtable believes Polis didn’t go far enough. Only one cabinet member identifies with an African American heritage. Angie Paccione at the Department of Higher Education, is biracial, born to an African American mother and a white father.
Moreover, black leaders said Polis made other promises when seeking their support during the campaign. In addition to diverse hires, Polis pledged to conduct two disparity studies — one on issues that impact black families and the second on economic opportunity and minority businesses.
So far, neither has materialized. (The Sun now rates the pledge “In Progress.”) Black leaders laid out their concerns to Polis in an hour-long June meeting. “We reminded him of those things because we didn’t see the appointments of African Americans in cabinet or high-level executive positions,” he said.
The black community’s main goal, Bailey added, is seeking a more robust dialogue. “This is not a recall, but this is really a call to engagement. So that’s what we were doing, that’s what we will continue to do.”
A look at progress toward Polis’ promises
In an interview after the scholarship reception Saturday for the Delta Eta Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, Polis sidestepped a question about criticism from the black community. He said he is reaching out to a variety of interests in Colorado, not just black leaders, now that the legislative session finished.
“We celebrate all forms of diversity in the state,” Polis told The Sun. “I think this week is a good example because I addressed a conference of conservatives, met with a criminal justice reform group, obviously attended this (event).
“I have a core belief that diversity is a strength,” he continued. “And that means the more diversity the better, that means ideological, theological, that means racial, that means gender.”
The Polis administration reports that 26% of the governor’s appointments for boards and commissions to date were people of color. Before he took office, it was 18%. Of his picks, Hispanics account for 11%. African American are 8% of them, according to the governor’s office.
In Colorado, 22 percent of the state’s 5.6 million people identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to 2017 federal population estimates, and 4 percent are African American.
The outreach to the black community is now new, either. In addition to the recent events, Polis attended the Martin Luther King Day Marade in Denver, hosted a reception for Black History Month at the governor’s mansion and met with black business leaders earlier this year.
Even though the disparity studies remain outstanding, a Polis spokeswoman said multiple agencies are taking their own steps.
The Department of Personnel and Administration did conduct an executive branch review of appointments and staffing, the governor’s office said, and it is planning leadership trainings. The Department of Higher Education also is working to hire a chief equity officer, the first position of its kind. In addition, an equity presentation is scheduled for the upcoming cabinet retreat, and the governor is considering an executive order related to diversity trainings.
In an interview, Paccione said her biracial identity informs how she does her job and makes her committed to addressing equity gaps in the education system. She said Polis was “very intentional” about who he chose for his cabinet and her background was part of her selection.
“I think (African Americans) will be happy to see how I represent the community on the cabinet,” she continued. “It’s who I am as a person, but it’s also what I’m passionate about — making sure there is equity, both education equity and economic equity.”
“There is an opportunity to do better”
Polis’ visit to the Heritage Christian Church for a weekday service July 10 was not his first. He visited a nondenominational megachurch during the 2018 campaign, too.
The state’s first Jewish governor took a front-row seat and listened as Pastor Marlon Sanders told him and the other politicians in the audience to shake off criticism. “We are praying for you, and you have a church here that has your back,” Sanders told Polis, whom he later called “the coolest governor.”
In his remarks, an animated Polis channeled the pastor’s energy as he celebrated his administration’s accomplishments and spoke of national politics.
“I know sometimes when we look nationally, it feels like we are being tested like the Book of Job, am I right? Am I right?” Polis said, trying to rouse the crowd.
“The negative feelings some politicians dig into for their own advantage, that’s because they know that they are on the losing side of moving forward with a more inclusive vision for society — one that celebrates diversity, celebrates people of different ethnicities, of different origins, of different faiths,” he continued, his voice rising again. “There are those who are fearful. They will learn that diversity is something to celebrate, not be afraid of.”
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, sat next to Polis at the event and attended the June meeting with the governor and black leaders. When it comes to diversity in the Polis administration, Fields said “there is an opportunity to do better.”
“I want my grandkids and kids in Colorado to look at our administration and see a reflection of the state,” she said, adding that Polis made a commitment at the meeting to address the issue.
Others are willing to give Polis more time. Moments after Polis spoke at the scholarship event, the fraternity’s chapter president, Penfield Tate, a former state lawmaker, said he’s confident Polis will do more.
“He’s been on the job — what seven months?” he said. “We can take a deep breath and let him finish filling out his slate of people.”