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Joe Neguse and his family and friends attend the swearing in ceremony at the U.S. House of Representatives. Courtesy of Joe Neguse

Meet Joe Neguse, Colorado’s First African-American Congressman

The freshman representative from Colorado's 2nd Congressional District might be new to Congress, but he's no stranger to politics. Here, Joe Neguse talks about climate change, health care, public lands, and what his historic win means to him.

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You’d think Joe Neguse was starved to talk policy when we caught up with him earlier this month, though he’s surely been doing plenty of that as of late. The freshman representative of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, encompassing Boulder, Fort Collins, Summit, and Eagle Counties, couldn’t seem to talk fast enough, diving head-first into the proverbial weeds of legislation he wants to run—and then his value-prop for said legislation, followed by the political viability of that legislation (or, in some cases, his case for writing that off). The 34-year-old Lafayette resident is nothing short of a wonk, albeit an affable, charismatic one, who just landed his dream job.

While Neguse rode into Congress on the Blue Wave—and made history as Colorado’s first African-American congressman—the newly minted representative is no stranger to politics. As an undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder (he also earned his law degree there), Neguse worked for Andrew Romanoff when he was Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives. He founded the progressive political nonprofit, New Era Colorado, which registers and mobilizes youth voters, alongside Colorado’s current Senate Majority Leader, Steve Fenberg (D-Boulder). He was elected to serve as a CU Boulder Regent, headed Colorado’s consumer protection agency under former Gov. John Hickenlooper, and ran a failed bid for Colorado Secretary of State in 2014.

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The son of Eritrean immigrants, Neguse grew up in Highlands Ranch and has stayed in Centennial State ever since. According to Neguse, 2019 was the first time in 28 years that he didn’t ring in the new year above 5,000 feet—as he had already begun setting up his new Washington, D.C. residence with his wife, Andrea, and their infant daughter, Natalie. Now in the seat left vacant by Gov. Jared Polis, Neguse is focused on bringing his progressive policies to Congress, and will have the opportunity to make his mark as a member of the prominent House Judiciary Committee. We caught up with the congressman to talk about his leadership role in the House of Representatives, his policy priorities—from immigration to health care and protecting public lands—and his favorite Colorado institutions. 

 5280: The 2018 midterms were historical for the House of Representatives. How would you describe the energy of the freshman class?

Joe Neguse: The energy is incredible…. Voters spoke in a resounding way about what kind of government they’d like to see, and you have this incredibly diverse, engaging freshman class poised to do great things. By some accounts, I believe the average age of Congress dropped by 10 years, because of the youth in the freshman class, which is incredible.

Are there any specific moments in meeting your colleagues that stood out?

I was able to participate in a press conference organized by several of my fellow freshman-elects around the Green New Deal. Representatives-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), and others facilitated a press conference on the steps of the Capitol before any of us were sworn in, which is quite different than how typical Congresses have worked in the past. I think that speaks to the activism and a desire of this class to really get something done and to push the needle.

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Another example would be, in years past there’s been one freshman elected to represent the class at the leadership table in the House. This year, the class decided collectively that, given its size and and the importance of this last election, that this class ought to have more than one voice, so ultimately we petitioned and pushed to have two people at the leadership table with the Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader, and the rest of the leadership team. I was, of course, incredibly grateful and honored to be one of those two people at the leadership table.

What are you hoping to accomplish as a representative of the freshman class?

My goal is relatively straightforward: to advocate in the interests of the freshman class. I mean, this is the largest class of new, incoming members since Watergate. And so this is a group of people that are really committed, I think. We all have different policy priorities, but fundamentally are all interested in reforming government.

You’ve made some history yourself as Colorado’s first African-American congressman. What does that mean to you?

From my perspective, I think the 2018 election in Colorado, in many ways reflected what I’ve always found to be the case in Colorado, which is that we are a very inclusive and forward-looking state. You see that of course in the election results, with respect to our new governor, my predecessor whom I’m now replacing in Congress, being the first gay elected governor in the United States. You see that in Brianna Titone’s victory at the state legislature (editor’s note: Titone was the first transgender legislator elected to the Colorado General Assembly), and then of course, the honor that I have served as the first African American ever elected in Colorado’s 142-year history to serve in the U.S. Congress, So I’m grateful to the people of our state, and I’m grateful to the people in my district in particular, in Boulder, in Fort Collins, in Lafayette, where I live, who were willing to give me this honor. I hope that the election will serve as an inspiration to younger people of color living in Colorado and elsewhere, that they should follow their dreams and ultimately that everything is possible.

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You gave the Democratic Party’s last weekly address of 2018, which focused on HR-1 (a comprehensive election reform bill). Why were you chosen to give this address? 

One of the reasons I was so excited to deliver that address is that this is an issue that I’ve spent my entire career working on. You know, for long before I got into public life, we co-founded—myself and Steve Feinberg, who’s now the Senate Majority Leader—we co-founded an organization called New Era Colorado, and the focus was trying to get young people more involved in our politics and in civic life, and making it easier for them to do so.

We pushed for online voter registration in Colorado, something a lot of folks are now familiar, which essentially enabled 16- and 17-year-olds to be able to pre-register to vote, which we know empirically if they do that, they are far more likely to continue to be engaged once they’ve become of age.

In any event, it was just an incredible opportunity that I’m able to move at the federal level and, you know, tout the successes that we’ve had in Colorado.

You have spoken about climate change in severe terms on many occasions, calling it an “existential threat.” What policies do you intend to push for in this area?

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I do repeat that phrase often and I use it with intentionality. The reason why I say “existential threat” is I mean it. I see it through the prism of having a four-month-old daughter (editor’s note: She’s five-months old at publishing time) and thinking about what the world will look like when she’s 34 years old, when she’s my age.

If folks read the IPCC report, or the report released more recently by this administration—notwithstanding their effort to sink the report by releasing it on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving—but nonetheless, if you read those two reports, it’s very clear we have a very short runway to avoid catastrophic consequences for our planet that will leave the world in a much worse place for my daughter’s generation. That’s why I believe it is an existential threat and why I call it such.

Now, in terms of policy proposals, there are plethora of things that we can do to really move the needle. One of which, as I mentioned earlier, is the Green New Deal, which I am excited about. It kind of outlines in broad strokes bold, comprehensive action at the federal level to transition us to 100 percent renewable energy and leverage the skills and the ingenuity of the American workforce to ensure that folks who are willing to step up and be a part of that transition have the ability to do so. 

I also support pricing carbon. There are a variety of different legislative vehicles that have been proposed, whether it’s a carbon tax, a carbon tax and dividend, a variety of different programs. So we’re taking a look at each and every one of those. But fundamentally, from my perspective, I think it’s important that we price carbon. That’s something that this Congress ought to do and you see a growing bipartisan consensus on that front.

Then, you know, there’s a bill called the Keep It in the Ground Act, which would in effect ban all oil and gas development on federal public lands in the United States—Arctic drilling, coastal areas, and so forth. That is something that I support as well.

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I think we have a lot of tools in our policy toolbox. The real question is, will the Congress have the political will to actually take these issues head-on? I certainly hope they will.

Immigration reform is the major challenge currently facing the 116th Congress. What are your goals in this area for the upcoming term?

I have a visceral interest and investment in this issue, being the son of immigrants who were given this incredible opportunity to live the American Dream, and I’m eternally grateful for having that opportunity.

From my perspective, the way in which this administration has conducted its immigration policy has been inhumane, and I’ve been very disheartened by it. You see what this administration has done, by way of example, on our southern borders, separating children from their parents. It’s unjust; it’s immoral. I think we need an immigration policy in the United States of America that is humane and that recognizes and reflects the benefits of immigration to our country.

Fundamentally, I believe in a clean Dream Act. I believe in comprehensive immigration reform. I think the contours of those policies have been pretty well established for the better part of the last decade. You saw this in the 2006–07 McCain-Kennedy bill, you saw it in the Gang of Eight 2013 bill. The contours and the proposals around this issue have been fairly well fleshed out for quite some time. I think one of the most disappointing aspects of politics over the course of the last several years has been the loss of bipartisan consensus around immigration reform, which used to be a bipartisan issue.

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What about health care? 

I think there are a number of points that are critical. The ACA led to millions more Americans having coverage, including countless Coloradans, including thousands in my district as a byproduct of both the individual exchanges and subsidies, as well as the expansion of Medicaid. I think it’s critical we defend the law [which was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in December].

We’ve got a lot of progress that we still need to make. There are a lot of people in my district, in Summit County, in Eagle County, our mountain communities, that are paying some of the highest health insurance rates in the U.S. on the individual exchange. There are a variety of state solutions that are being proposed. I am eager and excited to work with Gov. Polis and various legislators who represent these areas, like Colorado Rep. Dylan Roberts (D-26) and Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-5), who have proposed some really innovative approaches to potentially solving this problem at the state level.

At the federal level, I think there’s much we can do from a policy perspective. I’m interested in partnering with some Republican members from rural areas of our country who also may be experiencing some of those issues [as Colorado’s mountain communities], especially in areas where there’s less competition in the individual exchange, so that’s an area of legislating where I think we can ultimately accomplish a lot.

But, fundamentally, I see this form a fairly straightforward point of view, which is that I don’t believe that in the United States of America, that anyone should go bankrupt if god forbid a loved one gets sick.

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Coloradans treasure their vast public lands arguably more than any other non-coastal Western state. But enormous agitation has flared between the Trump administration and the outdoors community over slashing National Monuments in the West and selling leases for natural resource extraction on huge swaths of public lands with minimal environmental review and rock-bottom prices, notably on Colorado’s Western slope. What are your specific priorities around public lands protection?

This is an issue I am deeply passionate about, you’ve recounted extremely effectively for the readers the litany of terrible actions by this administration to undermine and outright diminish and damage our federal public lands.

In Colorado, and in my district in particular, this is an issue of crucial importance. Fifty-two percent of the 2nd Congressional District is federal public land, [including] Rocky Mountain National Park up in Estes Park and White River National Forest. Some of the most beautiful public lands in our country are in my district

I think there are two approaches, both of which I think are equally important. One is on the legislative side, proactively legislating in this sphere. As I mentioned there’s a bill that I intend to carry to protect 90,000 acres of land in Summit and Eagle counties. There’s [also] a public lands bill with respect to the San Juans. There are a variety of other pieces of legislation that I will be involved in pushing that will protect existing public lands and try to also designate additional areas as protected lands. That is, of course, an incredibly important tool that we need to leverage.

In addition, the Keep It in the Ground Act, which would essentially preclude much of what this administration has tried to do in terms of mineral leasing and oil and gas development on our treasured public lands, that’s a bill that no member of our delegation had sponsored and I intend to be a co-sponsor of that bill in 116th Congress.

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And then of course, we need to exercise the oversight functions of Congress that have been largely abdicated during the prior Congress, which means leveraging our subpoena power and our ability to hold the Department of Interior and the various federal regulatory agencies, the Department of Agriculture, responsible for our public lands. I mean, fundamentally you have folks at the head of those agencies, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, who clearly were undermining many of our laws that were designed to protect our public lands, our air, our waters, our rivers, and so forth.

Now for the bonus round: What is your favorite Colorado sports team?

I’m a basketball guy, so big fan of the Denver Nuggets and the CU Buffs. And of course the CSU Rams. 

And, after a long week, what’s your favorite restaurant for comfort food?

Oh, that’s a great question! There are a lot of choices there, but I love Lunada’sit’s a nice spot close to where we live [in Lafayette]. There’s also a great restaurant called Community on Main Street in Lafayette—my wife and I love going to those.

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