COVER STORY | Polis loyalists follow candidate’s decree: Keep campaign ‘joyous’
Author: Ernest Luning - August 28, 2018 - Updated: September 11, 2018
If Democrat Jared Polis’ campaign for governor has a mantra — and you can bet the five-term congressman from Boulder’s operation has a mantra — it’s this: “Be joyous.”
That’s according to Lisa Kaufmann, who chairs the Polis campaign and has helped chart the dot-com millionaire’s political course for more than a decade.
Kaufmann, a co-founder of New Era Colorado — along with state Sen. Steve Fenberg, state Rep. Leslie Herod and former CU Regent Joe Neguse, the Democratic nominee for the 2nd Congressional District seat Polis represents — was one of Polis’s first hires when he launched his congressional bid in the summer of 2007. She’s run his campaigns and been his political director and chief of staff over the years.
When she met with Polis to plan his gubernatorial push last summer, Kaufmann says, “He said to me the most important thing is that this campaign be joyous — and that we have a lot of fun doing this and this doesn’t become a chore to run, and that we’re out there doing the things we want to do, talking about the issues we want to talk about, building diverse coalitions, and that it’s a campaign on substance and not tearing down other people.”
Then Kaufmann caught the eye of Jenn Ridder, the Polis campaign manager, who shares an office at campaign headquarters on the second floor of an unassuming building that used to house an ice rink on the edge of the University of Colorado campus.
“A lot of campaigns are like, this is what you do because this is what you always do. That wouldn’t be Jared’s campaign,” she said.
“Our message was, Jared is about big ideas and has the skill set to move those big ideas forward,” Kaufmann continued. “And we’ve really made that a mantra for the campaign — ‘Be joyous.’ In the hiring process, we’re going to look for that in people. We hired with that lens. Even if you were the most qualified and had the best skill set, if you didn’t convey that in your interview, you didn’t get hired. My first three questions were: What’s your favorite band, what’s the best concert you’ve been to in the last couple of years, and there was another one.”
Ridder laughed and nodded. Her favorite musician, she recalled telling Kaufmann, is Emmylou Harris, and when she interviewed for the job last July, she was in Norway skiing but had recently seen a country concert. She couldn’t recall the third question either.
The campaign counted 68 staffers at about that same number of days before mail ballots were set to go out, though Ridder said she anticipates adding more field staff as the election approaches.
The senior staff, however, is set and has mostly been in place for about a year.
“We started the senior staff early, because our whole thought was, if we win the primary, we want to be able to start on day one, we didn’t want to be adding staff,” Ridder said. “Now we’ve been together almost a year, and it’s just incredible how well we all know each other and know each other’s weaknesses.”
She added that there hasn’t been any turnover or major additions after Polis won the primary in June, well ahead of three other Democrats.
“Jared said he wants it to be joyous, and we are. We all bring our best attitudes every day, and that’s kind of the philosophy,” Ridder said.
She’s known Polis since she was a youngster, when her parents, RBI Strategies co-founders Rick Ridder and Joannie Braden, ran his 2000 campaign for the state board of education.
“I grew up with Jared Polis water bottles,” Ridder said with a smile. “All the extra ones ended up at our house, so I would bring Jared Polis water to school.”
Uncommon loyalty —in both directions — is a theme.
“I’ve been working for Jared for a long time. Today, in fact, is my 11-year anniversary to the day,” Kauffman told a packed ballroom in Broomfield just before Polis took the stage to declare victory on primary night two months ago.
“Most members (of Congress), they have their chief of staff, they have their person. What I would say is, Jared has an army of people with him,” she said, adding: “To those of us who have had the pleasure to work alongside him, we would walk across hot coals for him without thinking twice, because we know he would do the same for us.
Ridder cut her teeth as a field organizer in Adams County for the 2008 Obama campaign, then was deputy campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s unsuccessful re-election campaign and spent last cycle as Mountain West political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Lessons from the first Obama campaign still guide how Democratic candidates run, she said.
Polis’ operation has opened 11 field offices throughout Colorado — its first, in Grand Junction, opened in January, and the latest, in Durango, opened in early August — and organizers are adding garages and houses by the dozen to serve as staging locations for a massive ground operation.
“What we try to do is, be in your community, find more volunteers and go and knock on doors. The more convenient you can be to your volunteers, the better. We hit 3,000 volunteers this week,” she added with a grin. “We’re talking to voters at the door about Jared and who he is. That’ll go on until October, then we’ll move into GOTV (get out the vote) and go and collect those ballots.”
The biggest change in the last decade, Ridder noted, is that a campaign’s digital operation has come into its own.
“It used to be maybe one person writing emails; now, it’s its own department,” she said, waving out her office door into the warren of cubicles and offices beyond. “We have a designer in house who helps us with videos, creating memes, creating graphics. We have about 50,000 Facebook followers and about a million interactions a week. It’s insane — you have to be on top of your game with that.”
Another innovation, Kaufmann said, is the campaign’s outreach into what she termed the marijuana community, including a full-time organizer.
“Someone said early on, do you know there’s 40,000 employees that have been given a badge to be in the industry?” she said. “That’s a constituency that has jobs that depend on the next administration and have a stake in this but isn’t going to be communicated to, especially because a lot of them are unaffiliated. There’s this line that we strategically went after the unaffiliateds (in the primary), but a lot of that is those folks. It’s a testament to being open and accessible and willing to innovate and try new things.”
Ridder gave Colorado Politics a quick tour of the headquarters, pointing out the various departments. The campaign’s senior staff had just concluded one of its twice-weekly staff meetings.
Political director Alvina Vasquez, who worked at political consulting firm Strategies 360 before joining the Polis campaign late last year, described her job.
“Jared knows people from his different roles, as a businessman, congressman, philanthropist,” she said. “I’m collecting their voices, making sure we’re folding them in, making sure we’re hearing them. Jared doesn’t like to do anything in a vacuum — our strategy is making sure everybody has a voice.”
Her job overlaps with policy director Shad Murib’s, they both pointed out.
“We’re doing a lot of coalition-building around his policies,” said Murib, a former chief of staff to the state Senate Democrats who started his political career working as a legislative aide to Polis.
“Research is part of it, but more often we will have great conversations with Jared about ideas from a meet and greet, then call people inside policy shops and government and outside government and shape that into an op-ed or a policy. Now we’re a train heading to Nov. 6.”
Mara Sheldon, the campaign’s communications director and a Summit County resident, joins the others at staff meetings but is usually “on the go, on the road,” she says.
Her approach to communications — honed since she was 21 and landed a job as a congressional press secretary — is based on personal relationships, Sheldon said.
“I’m having coffee and sitting down with reporters, finding out what kind of stories they like to write, understanding the kind of things they’re looking for story-wise,” she said. “You have to take each issue as it comes and try to think creatively about how to approach it. I don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. I don’t believe in that. The relationships are key — I often know which reporter would handle things in certain ways.”
Although she’s worked on numerous campaigns over the past couple of decades, Sheldon said the Polis campaign is the most fun she’s ever had — and attributes that to the candidate’s approach.
“The people I work with are top-notch. We all work together really well. We all complement each other,” she said. “More than that, though, Jared is incredibly involved in the day-to-day. I talk to him regularly. He’s incredibly approachable. He’s the most fun person I’ve had the opportunity to work with. He listens to you, and he wants to have those discussions.”
Ridder said it’s part of the collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach she and Kaufmann cultivate.
“We have a policy idea,” Ridder says. “Shad writes the policy. Alvina helps with the stake-holding. Then it goes to comms to figure out how we’re going to release it, then to digital to figure out how we’re going to get it on our website and talk about it, then down to field to figure out how we’re going to talk about it with the voters, on the doors. It’s like a chain reaction, and every person is involved.”
A bulletin board across from Ridder and Kaufmann’s desk features a Post-it note with the number of days remaining until ballots are counted. Alongside the number is a handwritten message: “Be bold, be consistent,” with a note scrawled next to that in a different hand: “And don’t forget the welfare of the candidate.”
“I think Jared wrote that,” Kaufmann says with a big laugh. “We run the risk of running him ragged, since he’s always the one who wants to stay the latest and start early the next day. So it’s a good reminder.”
Lisa Kaufmann, campaign chair
- A co-founder of New Era Colorado, an organization that encourages young people to register to vote and to cast ballots, Kaufmann went to work for Polis’ first congressional campaign in 2007, eventually becoming his political director and then setting up his office in Washington, D.C. She was most recently his chief of staff.
Jenn Ridder, campaign manager
- Ridder was deputy campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s 2014 re-election bid and worked as Mountain West political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2016. She got her start on the 2008 Obama campaign, working as a field organizer in Adams County.
Alvina Vasquez political director
- Most recently the state vice president for public affairs at political consulting firm Strategies 360, Vasquez managed advocacy and communications for Campaign for a Strong Colorado, a consortium of nonprofits before that. The veteran broadcaster is a greyhound owner and advocates for retired racing dogs.
Mara Sheldon, communications director
- Sheldon landed a job as press secretary to a congressman from Florida when she was 21 and soon after became communications director for Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who was at the time the dean of the House. She’s worked on ballot issues and presidential campaigns in the decade since.
Shad Murib, policy director
- Before his most recent position managing state Sen. Andy Kerr’s short-lived congressional campaign last year, Murib was chief of staff for the Colorado Senate Democrats, managed state Sen. Kerry Donovan’s 2014 campaign and worked as a legislative assistant for Polis.