As a funder of the anti-fracking movement, Polis finds himself increasingly isolated as the Colorado Democratic Party establishment moves to build a firewall against the rush of anti-fracking initiatives attempting to qualify for the November ballot.
Polis denies that political cleavages on fracking policy exist. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s not a Democratic or Republican or independent issue. We have a state that creates jobs from extracting energy and has regulations that protect homeowners,” he said in an interview at the Capitol Thursday.
But Polis has thrown his considerable financial heft—he’s a multi-millionaire—behind Coloradans for Local Control, which is supporting a rash of anti-fracking proposals, even as a veritable Who’s Who of Democratic bigwigs step up to shoot the measures down.
On Polis’s team are veteran campaign hand Rick Ridder of RBI Strategies, who’s serving as a spokesman for Coloradans for Local Control, and former Polis aide Caitlin Leahy, who has filed 15 statewide initiative proposals, primarily on granting communities greater control over oil-and-gas development and establishing setbacks from drilling.
“Our group is made up of concerned citizens,” Ridder told The Observer.
“He’s one of the concerned citizens.”
Among Leahy’s proposals is a constitutional amendment called the Environmental Bill of Rights, which declares that, “[l]ocal governments have the power to enact laws, regulations, ordinances, and charter provisions that are more restrictive and protective of the environment than laws or regulations enacted or adopted by the state government.”
Polis also enjoys the support of the party’s left-wing activists. At the Democratic Party State Assembly, delegates added to the platform a thinly veiled anti-fracking resolution that upholds “the right of local communities to represent and protect their residents.”
Conspicuously absent from Polis’s coalition are other prominent Democrats. So far even liberal Boulder lawmakers like House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst and Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath have not jumped on the Polis bandwagon, at least not publicly.
Meanwhile, Democratic luminaries are aligning with groups like Coloradans for Responsible Reform, Vital for Colorado, and Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, which have launched efforts to promote the benefits of oil and gas development and the state’s toughest-in-the-nation fracking regulations.
Led by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Democrats’ pro-fracking coalition includes former Gov. Roy Romer, ex-House Speaker Terrance Carroll, former Sen. Ken Salazar and ex-Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.
Democratic State Sens. Lois Tochtrop of Thornton and Mary Hodge of Brighton, key swing votes in the legislature, called for keeping state agencies in charge of regulating the industry in an April 19 opinion piece in the Durango Herald.
“Unfortunately, some are now distorting the facts in order to push aside the common-sense, statewide framework of regulation and replace it with a crazy quilt of regulations that vary widely from one community to the next,” said the article.
Given that imbalance, Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said he doubts any A-list Democrats would join up with Polis.
“I think there is no chance that any major player in the Democratic Party with the exception of Mr. Polis is going to get on this bandwagon,” said Ciruli.
Polis is known for breaking with the Democratic pack. He infuriated Democrats and Republicans alike in 2006 by bankrolling Amendment 41, a widely criticized ethics initiative. Two years later, he beat the party’s handpicked candidate in the 2nd Congressional District primary by outspending her 4 to 1.
Democrats may quietly seethe at Polis’s bull-in-the-china-shop approach to politics, but few would dare call him out publicly. He’s one of the Gang of Four millionaires who helped flip the state legislature from Republican to Democrat, and he’s shown repeatedly that he’s not afraid to spend whatever it takes to vanquish his rivals.
Polis seemed to reach out to fellow Democrats by placing Hickenlooper’s name in nomination last month at the state party assembly, even though he and the governor stand on opposite ends of the fracking debate.
“He [Polis] was trying to send a signal that, ‘I’m a member of the team, even though I’m making a significant contribution to making a mess here,’” said Ciruli. “I think he has to walk a fine line between becoming a state hero for the environmental anti-frackers and becoming a sort of pariah, a person who is so disliked by the party establishment that he could endanger his own political ambitions. And I think he has ambitions.”