Gay Colorado Politician Heads Toward Election Milestone

In 2000, after being elected to the Colorado State Board of Education, Internet entrepreneur and philanthropist Jared Polis saw up-close the failure of public schools to meet the needs of new immigrant and homeless young people.

Tapping into the inventiveness that made him rich in the e-commerce world, Polis founded two charter schools for immigrant and homeless youth, and spearheaded the passage of a state constitutional amendment to prevent cuts to K-12 education.

But despite such successes in his 20s, Polis felt the high-stakes problems he most wanted to solve -- troubled public education, unaffordable health care and a threatened global environment -- couldn't be solved from his home in Boulder.

So, when local Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Udall decided to run for U.S. Senate, the openly gay Polis decided to run for Congress.

On Aug. 12, confirming a Denver Post headline -- "Being gay not hindering Polis' race" -- Polis won the primary. All three Democrats supported gay marriage.

"While I enjoyed worked on educational and environmental issues in the state, I really feel most of the issues we face are national in scope, and it's at the national level that we'll fail or succeed as a country," says Polis, 33.

Polis is expected to be elected in the solidly Democratic district in November. That would make him the first openly gay man to win a seat in Congress as a non-incumbent.

Rising star Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., broke the glass ceiling in 1998 because she was already out before winning her congressional seat. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is the only other out member of Congress right now and chairs the House Financial Services Committee.

Currently, there are 424 out lesbian, gay male, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) elected officials, according to the Victory Fund.

Other key races to watch:

Oregon: Bisexual Kate Brown, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, has a strong shot at winning secretary of state, the second-highest elected position in the state. She'd be the nation's first out LGBT secretary of state.

Texas: Lesbian Democrat Lupe Valdez is in a tough but winnable fight for re-election as sheriff of Dallas.

Michigan: Democrat Garnet Lewis, running for an open state House seat in the Midland-Saginaw area, is in a competitive race. "It feels like the stars are aligned," says the Central Michigan University administrator, who is focusing on education, the economy, energy and health care. Michigan is one of 20 states without an out gay state legislator.

But Polis' breakthrough would be especially sweet. After all, Colorado is home of the 1992 anti-gay Amendment 2 and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, the lead advocate of amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

"It shows how far we've come that an openly gay candidate can win in a suburban district in Colorado," says Polis, who clasped the hand of his partner, Marlon Reis, in a touching moment on primary victory night that was captured in a photograph in The Denver Post.

"This election cycle has definitely put a few chinks in the glass ceiling. ... In our congressional district, we showed that sexual orientation is not seen by voters as a bar to public service."

Polis' advance underscores how far voters have come in looking beyond sexual orientation for candidates with innovative ideas.



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