Polis Could Pay High Political Price for Anti-Fracking Initiatives

July 17, 2014

Fracking coloDENVER — Democratic Rep. Jared Polis may have no problem stiff-arming Gov. John Hickenlooper, but the next three weeks will show whether he has the nerve to do the same to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Polis is under intense pressure from state and national Democrats to pull his anti-fracking measures, Initiatives 88 and 89, rather than submit petitions by the Aug. 4 deadline. The initiatives need 86,105 valid signatures each to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot.

The Boulder congressman had agreed to support a Hickenlooper-driven compromise bill on fracking, but the Democratic governor abandoned Wednesday his quest for a special legislative session after being unable to cobble together the votes.

That means there’s no easy out for Polis, not that he’s looking for one. In a statement Wednesday, he said he was committed to finding “a solution that will allow my constituents to live safely in their homes” and blamed the failure of the compromise bill on “special interests and out-of-state organizations.”

“Now, as it has become clear that the path to passing a legislative compromise has been obstructed, we must turn to the people of Colorado to solve this problem,” said Polis.

His campaign released last week a poll conducted in May showing that a majority of Colorado voters surveyed support the measures. Initiative 88 would increase setbacks from 500 to 2,000 feet, while Initiative 89 would establish an Environmental Bill of Rights giving localities more authority over oil and gas operations.

If the initiatives do qualify for the ballot, however, the multimillionaire Polis may pay the price. He’s on the short list to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2016 election cycle, but he’s not likely to get the job if his ballot measures wind up contributing to the defeat of fellow Democrats Hickenlooper or Sen. Mark Udall.

The oil and gas industry is expected to spend tens of millions to defeat the measures, which could end up boosting pro-fracking Republicans while splitting the Democratic base.

“Jared has enough ‘f— you’ money to even say ‘f— you’ to Democrats,” said Independence Institute president Jon Caldara. “However, he doesn’t want to be known around the country as the guy who lost the Democrat-controlled Senate.”

At the same time, if Polis pulls the initiatives, he incurs the wrath of fractivists, who are already steamed over his agreeing to back the compromise bill.

“He’s in kind of a box,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “This is well on its way to becoming a major pain.”

It may be that Polis is fine with thumbing his nose at the national party, but if he’s starting to get nervous and seeking a graceful exit, he may have only one option left: Don’t turn in enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“When Time magazine starts running pieces on how this fracking issue could cost Democrats the United States Senate, Jared might be looking for a convenient out not to do this,” said Caldara. “If there’s no special session, which would be that face-saving out, the next best thing would be just not being able to gather enough signatures in time.”

Polis would have some cover: On Monday, Cliff Willmeng, organizer of the Initiative 75 campaign, announced that he has abandoned the effort because he wasn’t on pace to collect enough signatures for the anti-fracking measure.

Willmeng may not have Polis’s wealth, but he isn’t without resources. The driver behind the successful Lafayette anti-fracking initiative, Willmeng had ground troops, connections and credibility with the state and national anti-fracking movement.

“The failure of 75 suggests there is now a tremendous amount of pressure on him [Polis], and that the entire process is going to get more expensive and require a huge amount of work,” said Ciruli. “We went into this thinking there was an automatic group of volunteers and people dying to sign, but when you have a very strong grassroots organization unable to put it together, it suggests that even paying for it—it can be done, but it now becomes very expensive.”

Even if Polis is genuinely committed to qualifying his initiatives for the ballot, it’s not a done deal. The Polis campaign, which got a late start as a result of a Supreme Court challenge, had collected about 42,000 signatures on each measure of last week, which is about 80,000 short of the number he’ll need to submit.

Election experts recommend gathering at least 120,000 and ideally 125,000 signatures per initiative, given that some signatures will inevitably be ruled invalid.

“They’ve got 80,000 to do in three weeks, so they’ve got to bring in 27,000 a week for three weeks. I guess that’s doable, but it’s not a sure thing,” said Caldara, who’s run a number of ballot campaigns. “Let’s see if there actually is an initiative.”

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