Colorado’s Got a Gay Governor: Who Cares?

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Jared Polis, the incoming governor of Colorado, at left, with his partner, Marlon Reis.CreditCreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

BOULDER, COLO. — On Tuesday, the first openly gay man elected governor in American history was sworn in, his partner at his side. It was a vision of progress captured in its unfurling: a milestone celebrated by those who saw themselves represented, even as it was also accepted by others as a matter of unremarkable course.

In November, Jared Polis beat his Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton (a second cousin to Jeb and George W. Bush), in a self-funded campaign that helped make the race the most expensive in Colorado history. Constituents voted for him by a more-than-10-point margin, in a state whose swing on gay rights in the last three decades can be described as a complete about-face. Even in Colorado, once known as the “Hate State” for its anti-gay policies, Mr. Polis’s gayness was “interestingly uninteresting to voters,” as the conservative columnist George F. Will wrote.

“What we found,” Mr. Polis said, “was that the voters don’t really care. This has been a much bigger deal nationally.”

The national press trumpeted his win as part of a “Rainbow Wave”that carried more than 150 L.G.B.T. candidates into office nationwide. Here in Colorado, Mr. Polis, 43, a five-term congressman from a district that includes Boulder and Fort Collins as well as rural and mountain communities, has been shruggingly, who-cares gay for years. He does not conform to the clichéd gay stereotypes: He’s a techie nerd with thinning hair and an ungymmed physique, in ever-present blue sneakers and a western belt. (Mr. Polis’s inaugural ball is the Blue Sneaker Ball; the dress code is easy to infer.) In 2014, GQ called him the worst-dressed congressman ever, though he’s improved his style a bit since then.

Jared Polis, with his family and supporters, at his election night party in November. Credit Evan Semon/Reuters

When Mr. Polis was first elected to Congress in 2008, though, the usual preconceptions about gay men preceded him. “The things people assume but don’t know about the L.G.B.T. community,” said his partner, Marlon Reis, 37. “All gay men are stylish, they dance well, they yada yada yada.” When they arrived in Washington, Mr. Reis continued, “Barney Frank actually said to Jared one day, ‘Your suit looks like you crumpled it up in your pocket for the whole day.’”

Annise Parker, the chief executive of LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports L.G.B.T. candidates and endorsed Mr. Polis, stumped with him during the last month of his campaign. “I have great respect and affection for him but he’s not the most exciting guy in the world,” she said. “He’s very low key; he’s a policy wonk. He just wants to work for the citizens of Colorado. And that clearly came through.”

A candidate’s sexual orientation, she said, was “not a reason for people to vote for you.”

“Someday,” she added, “it won’t be a reason for people to vote against you.”

His recent campaign for governor focused on education (Mr. Polis proposed to fund full-day preschool and kindergarten for the entire state), affordable health insurance and renewable energy, and he neither played up nor played down his sexual orientation and his family. Mr. Reis, who has generally shied away from interviews and public appearances, campaigned with him, but sparingly.

Barack Obama endorsed him. President Trump endorsed Mr. Stapleton and tweeted that Mr. Polis was “weak on crime and weak on borders.” (Mr. Polis responded: Did you “mean Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arizona? Those are the only borders Colorado has.”) Attack ads warned that Mr. Polis — branded by conservatives a “Boulder liberal” — wanted to turn Colorado into an progressive paradise imaginatively called “Radicalifornia.”

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