11 January 2007

Polis, Rico Munn's Vacancy and 41

Yesterday, I returned a call I'd received from Jared Polis. Polis had the grace and generousity to a candidate in a vacancy race he was calling to support, to take time out of his own retirement party to take my call, which speaks well of his commitment to public service. I, of course, recognized him as a state board of education member, a leading patron of the Colorado Democratic Party and the principal financial and intellectual force behind the flawed Amendment 41 passed by voters last fall. He recognized me as a blogger, although he was calling me in my capacity as one of the Democratic Party muckety mucks who is on the vacancy committee for Denver's state board of education seat.

Attorney Rico Munn has joined Governor Ritter's cabinet as executive director of the Department of Regulatory Affairs, largely a consumer protection post. This created a vacancy on the board. The vacancy election will be held January 14th (this Sunday) in the afternoon, at the State Democratic Party headquarters on Sante Fe drive in Denver.

Polis backed Polly Baca, who had previously called me personally seeking my support for the post. I've been through the vacancy fire drill several times before and provided the standard operating procedure response. I heard each one out, asked a question or two, and stated that I appreciated hearing their plea, but would not commit. This is almost always the right thing to do because unless you know someone personally and are already very familiar with the candidates in the race, you never know who else might be running. Voting in vacancy elections is generally preceded by speeches from each candidate, and those speeches often say a lot about each person's agenda and character, so it pays to wait before committing.

Between the two calls, I know something about her now, but since I don't know who else is running, I'm not sure whether she is one of the better candidates in the race or not. She is a political veteran and has fire in her belly, but a hear that she isn't terribly popular with the Colorado Education Association.

Polly Baca's approach is the usual way one campaigns for a vacancy. The campaign experience she developed as a state senator and community organizer shows she is aware of how things are usually done. There are only a few hundred potential voters on the vacancy committee, and one's objective is to call as many people as you can before the election. I haven't yet heard from the other candidates for the post, but have heard through the grape vine that at least two or three other candidates are running.

Between hearding directly from Ms. Baca, and hearing from Polis, I received another rumor that Baca was a strong voucher supporter, so I raised the issue with him. He advised me that this was not true (in considerably stronger language than that) even though he'd been the target of similar accusations, but that both he and Baca did favor charter schools and generally favored making more choices available to school children.

Polis largely pitched the asset Baca would offer the board as a strong representative of the state's Hispanic community (not the world's most impressive qualification standing alone, even though it is not meaningless, what really matters about a candiate is what he or she plans to do if elected), and also noted the name of another candidate who is quite solid if I was set against Baca.

This was interesting, although even in a brief conversation with Polis, you quickly get the feel that he has an instinct for the compromises that make sense in the business world, but fails to recognize that compromise plays out differently in politics, and it is clear that he lacks the strong persausive ability to close the deal that some politicians naturally possess.

* * * *

Jared Polis is one of those notable Colorado political figures about whom it is easy to have mixed feelings.

I've spoken to him personally and heard him speak at political events a few other times, all briefly, as well as yesterday. He is a sincerely nice guy, who really does care. He is willing to be bold in taking action, and he isn't stupid -- he graduated from Princeton and has run several successful businesses. But, this isn't to say that he is always on the ball either.

The state board of education, upon which he is a vice chair, while weak in any case, has not been particularly effective during his tenure. Reports I've had heard from various people who have attended the board's meetings have been tinged with disgust at a board that is disorganized, politically overheated, and hasn't shown much respect to the real tasks before them or the people who have come to testify on those matters. Part of this has come from an even partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on the Board (my understanding, which may be incorrect, is that the at large seat held by Polis is being phased out this year, returning the board to an odd number of seats and Republican control), but this is only part of the issue. Personalities matter and when the group doesn't function well, this is a shared responsiblity.

Polis, while I don't doubt he was well intentioned, has done a deep disservice to this state by proposing and securing approval for Amendment 41. This ethics in government measure imposes a strict gift ban and other restrictions on elected officials, senior appointees and their family members, and this is all well and good, and is the reason that Colorado voters backed the measure. The basic idea has some merit.

But, Amendment 41, which can be clarified by legislation, but only amended or repealed by a vote of the people, also imposes the same extremely strict gift ban on every single ordinary government employee or government independent contractor in the state and their families, no matter how mundane their post, without requiring any nexus between the gift and official action of that person.

This insidious provision has the effect of making public employment far less desirable in the State, and it is likely to work a real hardship on ordinary people with innocent motives. It is an aburd provision that voters approved only because few of them were not aware of it -- a classic flaw in the process of making law by initiative. So, Amendment 41 bans not only gifts to state legislators, but also gifts, for example, to the child of a state file clerk, or the spouse of state patrol officer, or contact website developer for the state.

On the other hand, Polis has provided a lynch pin of support for the Democrats in Colorado which deserves credit as a substantial force that has helped bring the party to control of both houses of the Colorado General Assembly, and the Governorship. And, I don't doubt that he was well intentioned, even in measures like Amendment 41 and his efforts on the state board of education. Indeed, had he not won the at large seat on the state board, which his background of stunning business success and willingness to support his own campaign helped secure, there is a real likelihood that rather than merely being ineffectual, it would have actually screwed up education in the state. Now, with Democrats in charge of the levers of state power, this is far less of a concern. Legislation can circumvent most bad decisions of the Board.

The book isn't closed, but this political scion's track record and credibility are mixed at this point. It will be interesting to see if Polis does anything to redeem himself in the next few years. As it stands, his stumbles have made him an unattractive candidate to replace Mark Udall in Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, a post he is rumored to have an eye on.

* * * *

I received another call asking for support from Shawn Morris. Her background is in public policy and Texas politics, she has children currently too young to be in the Denver Public Schools, and she has taught undergraduates at Denver's Auraria Campus. In short, her resume certainly isn't up there with Baca, but she clearly has a clue.

She said she was anti-voucher, expressed skeptism about charter schools not subject to the same rules that other Colorado schools were held to (although she was not against them) and felt that the high school system in Colorado needs to be greatly reformed to make students better prepared for college if they are going, and to bring education in skilled trades back into the education system.

* * * *

I'll try to write more about the vacancy race when and if I know more about the other candidates. If you have anything to say about any of the candidates, feel free to offer it in the comments. Either way, I'll offer a report on the fireworks on Sunday once its over, and I suspect that this will be more heated than many vacancy elections.

But, it is worth saying that the result won't make or break many political equations in the state. Any replacement will, of course, be a Democrat, so the partisan balance of the board will be unchanged. It is also a weak political body.

Unlike state boards of education in many states (Ohio, Texas and Kansas come to mind), Colorado's state board of education can't dictate textbooks or curriculums to local school boards. It can't, for example, impose creationism on the state.

The most important K-12 state level education decisions each year, those contained in the state budget (the education budget has to be completed before the rest of the budget, to allow boards time to make personnel decisions for the coming school year), are made by the legislature and not the state board of education. The most important powers that the state board of education does have in Colorado are to:

1. License teachers.
2. Handle appeals of local school district refusals to grant school charters.
3. Supervise the CSAP (state testing) and school report card process.
4. Coordinate the process of awarding state and federal grant money to school districts.

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