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'Young People Have the Most at Stake in This Election': An Interview With Rep. Jared Polis

VICE News spoke with Colorado's Rep. Jared Polis, a strong supporter of environmental causes and the first openly gay parent to serve in Congress.

by Ari Ratner
Oct 14 2014, 6:15pm

Photo by David Zalubowski/AP

Democratic Congressman Jared Polis represents Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, which includes Boulder, Fort Collins, and Vail. Elected first in 2008, Polis was previously an entrepreneur. His companies, including an electronic greeting card company and the ProFlowers delivery service, earned him an estimated net worth of anywhere from $72.09 million to $142.2 million according to data from 2012.

Polis is one of only seven openly gay members of the House, and the first openly gay parent to serve in Congress. A strong supporter of environmental causes, Rep. Polis voted in favor of curbing CO2 emissions in 2009, and in 2011 supported $5 billion in tax credits for alternative energy projects.

VICE News: We came to Colorado because it's a microcosm of the energy and environmental issues that the country faces. And there's obviously a close Senate and Governor's race. What's at stake in this election for the environment, for energy, for Colorado, and for the country?

Jared Polis: Well, I think there's a lot at stake. There's a lot at stake for our quality of life and for sustainable development. The two parties have very different visions for that sustainability. The Republicans continue to fail to look at the science around climate change and draw the same conclusion that the vast majority of scientists have drawn and, therefore, they're not inclined to do anything about it.

You'll find a wide range on both sides, but I think you'll find that most Democrats recognize that climate change is one of the greatest challenges that humanity faces and how we can minimize its effects and mitigate them where possible is absolutely critical.

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Then, of course, there's so many important areas that have a nexus to energy policy. National security is one and you see that used both ways. So you'll see people talk about, "Well, security is a reason we should develop oil through fracking in our country."

Others will argue — like myself — that we need a sustainable energy policy, which means ongoing development of solar and wind and other technologies that get us more than a few years down the road at a great cost to our quality of life and environment.

Your district, especially Boulder, is famously progressive and very heavily invested in green energy and a new kind of energy economy. Other parts of the state are more conservative in outlook. Within state politics, how does the green energy economy stack up against the traditional energy economy? What's the fight like?

Well, ultimately the green energy economy will need to be able to compete on price and scalability. And it's really at that tipping point. In fact, if you unpacked a lot of the subsidies that go to the oil and industry, over $40 billion federally, enormous de facto subsidies at the state level by being exempt from all zoning requirements, I think that green energy would be even more competitive.

Congressman Cory Gardner had difficulty answering a yes-no question on climate change during the Denver Post debate last Tuesday…

Yeah, I could see him having difficulty answering yes-no questions, because he does try to — he's very slick. So he will always try to avoid being pinned down on particular issues where possible.

On climate change, do you think Gardner is voting on conviction or is this more of a tactic that he's trying to tack to the center but not lose the base?

Yeah, I mean, that seems to be the main Republican talking point. The mainstream Republican talking point is: "It may be changing, I don't know if it's caused by humans." So I mean, again, not looking at the science, but giving some little throwaway line to the other side to show that you're not just somehow ideologically against it.

'Science is not supposed to be perfect. It's an ongoing process of rediscovery and we disprove old hypotheses and come up with new ones.'

But, again, I think matters of science should be important to voters and I think hopefully a majority of voters will want elected officials that will learn from science. Science is not supposed to be perfect. It's an ongoing process of rediscovery and we disprove old hypotheses and come up with new ones. But at any given time, the scientific consensus represents the most accurate knowledge that humanity has. So as an elected official myself, I constantly turn to science in a variety of issues including climate change.

On fracking, in particular, I know you've taken an active role. Can you characterize what's going on in the state and what your position is?

Well it's a challenging issue because of the enormous deep pockets on the other side. So you have enormous deep pockets, which can manifest in the insider game in terms of the oil and gas industry having hired almost every lobbyist under the state capital, or the outside game in terms of their ongoing presence on the airwaves and talking about how wonderful fracking is.

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The concerns I hear from my constituents are around the siting of fracking and the rules around fracking here in Colorado. Namely that it can occur in your own backyard without permission here in Colorado. People naturally don't like that. That has a negative effect on property values, a negative effect on health and quality of life. Many of my constituents are outraged, which is why four out of the five biggest cities I represent have voted for moratoriums or bans on fracking.

You talked about the money coming in from the state. It seems to be a proxy war: You have the Koch brothers' money on the conservative side and Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate Action PAC on the other side.

Is there something in particular about Colorado that explains why the money is pouring in?

Well I would first say that what Tom Steyer is doing is very important, because it compromises the debate for all the money to be on one side. So it's very important for there to be a public debate about energy and climate. And there has to be, for that to occur without vast distortions, there needs to be money on both sides. So I applaud the work of Tom Steyer and others who have provided some counterbalance to the self-interested investments of the oil and gas industry.

As for Colorado, it's a swing state. It's one of the most competitive Senate races. It's also a Senate race where there's a major difference between the candidates on it. For instance, in other races like Louisiana, there's not going to be a lot of differences between Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and her opponent on energy issues. There may be some; I'm sure there are. But you have a Democrat who supports the Keystone pipeline, who supports liquefied natural gas, all of those things.

'It's very important for there to be a public debate about energy and climate. And there has to be, for that to occur without vast distortions, there needs to be money on both sides.'

In Colorado, you have more of a mainstream Republican viewpoint and a mainstream Democratic viewpoint. Kind of the "Let's protect our quality of life, let's protect our environment," versus "Drill, baby, drill." So you have a stark contrast and you have a state where it's extremely competitive and so that's why these issues are highlighted.

You also, of course, have the impact locally it's making. The good impact in terms of the jobs that are being created. The bad impact in terms of the homeowners that are forced out of their own homes or lose the value of their property or their quality of life.

At the Pueblo debate someone yelled "We love fracking!"

They probably wouldn't love it if it occurred in their own backyard.

Do you think there's a place in the state at all for fracking?

Yeah, I think it should be up to each community to decide. And many communities like Weld County— that's one of the areas 40 minutes from here where it tends to develop. It's a popular activity that counties build their economy around, their tax base. The county government is very hospitable to the industry. You have other counties like Boulder where the people and their elected representatives do not want fracking. So I think the best answer is simply to allow the communities to decide whether to have fracking and how to regulate it.

Back in August, there was a little bit of controversy surrounding your decision to abandon two anti-fracking ballot initiatives. Would you care to comment on that?

Well this issue is on the top of the mind of many of my constituents, so trying to find a path forward is critical. Right now where it stands, like I said, four of the five biggest cities have passed moratoriums or bans. They are all being sued by the oil and gas industry to overturn those bans. So the question remains of whether communities have the ability to regulate or ban fracking. If the courts overturn those bans, then I think that it will be necessary to either pass a new law that allows them to do it or go to the voters with a proposal that allows them to do it.

VICE News reaches a large and growing audience, young readers in particular. Is there anything about the elections in Colorado that you'd want our readers to know?

It's ironic— because young people have a lot more at stake in any particular election than more senior Americans. They have their whole future ahead of them. So when we're talking about quality of life, environmental issues, and renewable energy, we're talking about our lifetime. We're talking about the lifetime of somebody in their 20s or 30s and how it affects the geo-political landscape, how it affects the air they breathe, how it affects the price they pay for energy, how it affects the quality of their life. So, young people have the most at stake in this election because it's about sustainability and it's about our future.

On the political trajectory of Colorado itself, it's become not only a Senate battleground but also a Presidential battleground. Where's the state headed? Is it a microcosm of the country politically? How do you deal with the polarized electorate here?

We have it all. We have red areas and blue areas. We also have a lot of purple areas too like Jefferson County, Arapahoe County. We have a lot of areas that are evenly divided in this state. And they're the ones who decide the races. So there's the pockets of Democrats. There's pockets of Republicans. And then much of suburbia— suburban Denver area— is evenly divided and has a critical role in deciding which side prevails.

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The state, over time, is likely to trend more Democratic, in large part, because of demographic trends. Our growing Latino population, which because of Republican obstinance to immigration reform, continues to vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Our Democratic legislature has allowed for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. We've also set in process a way where people who are here can get driver's licenses and insurance. Republicans oppose all those measures.

You said that the money in politics on these issues can be lopsided. How does that play out in your county?

It's very lopsided. When these municipal fracking bans are on the ballot, the industry will spend like $1 million and the other side will spend like $5,000. So it's amazing that some of them have passed. There's one that failed in Loveland, like very close 52-48 and the industry spent millions.

The part that isn't even packed into that is — and we have separate figures for this — but it's definitely part of it, and if you turn on your TV you see it. They've been running just general pro-fracking ads to about the tune of $1 million. And those aren't disclosed. But the direct expenditures on the race is disclosed. But also as mentioned they have air cover to the tune of a million bucks plus a month.

Follow Ari Ratner on Twitter: @amratner