Joe Neguse navigates Washington vitriol during ‘hectic’ first month in Congress

The freshman congressman from Lafayette is making an early mark

Newly elected Congressman Joe Neguse speaks at the Westin Downtown Denver on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photograph by Evan Semón for The Colorado Independent)
Newly elected Congressman Joe Neguse speaks at the Westin Downtown Denver on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photograph by Evan Semón for The Colorado Independent)

WASHINGTON — Joe Neguse doesn’t want to be called “congressman.”

It’s a new title for the 34-year-old freshman Democrat in the U.S. House, who’s been representing Colorado’s 2nd District for just over a month. He’s not accustomed to the label, and he says he doesn’t expect he will become so.

“I insist and will continue to insist that people call me Joe,” he told The Colorado Independent in a recent interview.

Neguse — who’s young, black, enthusiastic and charismatic — is rarely written about without the term “rising star.” His friends and Colorado political observers see in him a unique combination of empathy, humility and ambition that could propel him from the House to higher office, including perhaps the Senate or even the White House.

“I’ve always said that I can’t wait to visit him in the Oval Office,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat and a longtime friend of Neguse.

He’s already risen swiftly in state politics.

After graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Neguse joined Herod and two other friends in co-founding New Era Colorado, a nonprofit aimed at mobilizing youth voters. He was elected to the University of Colorado Board of Regents at age 24. When he was 31, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him to his cabinet, where he led the state’s consumer protection agency.

“Joe has always been a kid who was really doing things beyond his years,” said former Gov. Bill Ritter. Neguse was an intern in Ritter’s office when he was in law school at the University of Colorado.

Neguse, who became Colorado’s first African-American member of Congress, laughs off talk about his political prospects — including a presidential run. “My honest answer is my end goal is I’d like to be able to accomplish something meaningful for the Second District,” he said. That district, anchored in Boulder, stretches from north of Fort Collins though Denver’s north and western suburbs, sweeping in the mountain communities of Vail and Idaho Springs. It’s been a solidly Democratic district since the mid-’70s and most recently was held by now-Gov. Jared Polis.  

‘We do things a little differently in Colorado’

For now, Neguse is still learning to navigate his way around Capitol Hill.

“It’s been a hectic 30 days,” he said of his first month in office.

Most of that time was dominated by a government shutdown. “To be the first class that’s sworn in, at least in modern history, amidst a government shutdown is a fairly unique situation,” he said.

His staff was “immediately kind of hitting the ground running to help folks in a measurable and meaningful way because so many folks were hurting as a byproduct of that government shutdown.” That tumultuous 35-day shutdown — the longest in U.S. history — was helpful in some respects, he said.

“It’s given our team some clarity of purpose, right, in terms of why we’re here.”

But it was also a dispiriting plunge into to the national political scene.

“I had a fairly dim view of Washington, D.C., before I came or went to Washington, D.C.. It certainly has not helped that view,” Neguse said of the shutdown.

He’s been surprised by the “vitriol” and “divisiveness” on Capitol Hill, he said. “We do things a little differently in Colorado. There is this sense of trying to work together, trying to find consensus to solve problems. That is certainly different than in D.C., where it’s much more partisan, [that] has been my sense thus far.”

‘Ray of sunshine’

It hasn’t been all vitriol and partisan spats, though. Neguse said he’s been “very inspired and encouraged” by the colleagues he’s met, particularly his fellow freshmen.

“I think this class is going to do some historic things, not just in this session, but I suspect in sessions to come, much like the class of 1974 during the Watergate era,” he said.

Even in a crowded freshman class packed with headline-grabbing lawmakers, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Neguse has gotten noticed.

He was elected as one of two freshmen representatives to the House leadership team, was selected to give the Democrats’ last weekly address in 2018, and he’s been churning out legislation during his first month in office.

His predecessor, Polis, laid the groundwork for several of Neguse’s first bills. They include a bill to provide incentives for residential solar installation and another to install a statue by a Colorado artist in Washington as a national monument dedicated to women’s suffrage.

Neguse is working with Sen. Michael Bennet on sweeping legislation that would protect about 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado. He also introduced a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds nationwide to register to vote ahead of their 18th birthdays.

Neguse is also teaming up with the GOP on legislation. Two of his first bills dealing with land use in the state are co-sponsored by Colorado Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton.

Republican Rep. Ken Buck called Neguse a “ray of sunshine” in a January interview with the Colorado Times Recorder. “He just has this bubbly personality. He is really friendly and a nice person. And I think, while we disagree politically, and we disagree on policy, he’s exactly the kind of person that you want to see in politics.”

That remark by Buck “shows you that it doesn’t have to be this personal partisan battle all the time,” Herod said.

She expects Neguse to “show folks that politics can be done differently, that you don’t have to be overly partisan to be progressive, and that feels like a contradiction to so many people.”

Planning for life after Trump

In Congress, Neguse has secured seats on the House Judiciary and Natural Resources committees, both of which he sought out.

He’s on an immigration subcommittee on the Judiciary panel, which is important to him in part because his parents were refugees from East Africa (they fled Eritrea before he was born). He hopes to be a part of crafting a “comprehensive immigration solution” in Congress, he said.

On the natural resources panel, he’s hoping to delve into climate change policies and other issues affecting public lands.

Neguse wants to pass “as much legislation as we can that meaningfully moves the needle in a real constructive way.”

In areas where there isn’t much hope for bipartisan legislation, given the current political atmosphere, Neguse aims to lay the groundwork for the future.

He plans to “be a bold voice on some of these large societal, structural problems that we collectively need to address in the hopes that we can set a governing agenda for the next person, hopefully a new president,” he said.

“With respect to climate change, it’s fighting for things like the Green New Deal, and with respect to health care, fighting for Medicare for all so that we can make progress and again set a governing agenda for the next administration to act on.”

Neguse was appointed this week to a new select committee set up by House Democrats to tackle climate change, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday. He’s also an original co-sponsor of a Green New Deal resolution introduced this week by Ocasio-Cortez that aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning the U.S. energy sector away from fossil fuels while boosting jobs in renewable technologies.

Much of what’s driving him, Neguse said, is his infant daughter, Natalie, who was born in August while he was campaigning.

“I try to view legislation and these foreign policy decisions through a vantage of a young father, of thinking about what the world will look like when she’s 34,” he said.

‘He’s just getting warmed up’

Neguse got his start in state politics working for Andrew Romanoff, then-speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

They met when Neguse still in college, and his job was to drive Romanoff around the state to pitch an economic recovery plan.

Neguse picked Romanoff up in an old clunker, Romanoff recalled. “He wanted to impress me because at the time I guess my title was impressive. And he decided to add so many air fresheners to his car, like pine or new car smell, that I asked him why he was wearing so much cologne.”

Romanoff was impressed (not just by the air fresheners). “I hired him to work for us in the House majority office and we’ve been friends ever since,” he said.

In Romanoff’s office, Neguse became known as “Speaker Neguse,” although he didn’t get an official sign on his desk. Romanoff used to joke: “We’re all going to be working for Joe Neguse someday.”

Speculation around Neguse’s political future continues, but his friends and allies expect him to spend some time building up a solid record in the House.

“People are talking about him running against Cory Gardner for the U.S. Senate right now and he just got there,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, a liberal advocacy group. “Let him figure out where the bathrooms are before he has to switch chambers.”

Ritter said there’s a “good chance” Neguse will run for the Senate, but not for a while.

“You know the United States Senate, it’s kind of a club where once you get there, it could be a while before there’s any opening,” he said. “I think people are thinking a guy like Joe is likely to do something else someday but because he’s so young, he has time to do something after he serves in the House a long while.”

Silverii compared Neguse to past Democratic presidents who were seen early in their political careers as up-and-comers.

Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy probably heard early in their lives, “Hey you should run for president,” Silverii said. “I would not be surprised if that happened to Joe Neguse a lot throughout his life, but I think he’s probably going to take it one step at a time.

“He keeps this pace up for four, six, eight years, great, run for Senate, run for president. He’ll be super ready for that. But I don’t think there’s any need to rush the guy. He’s just getting warmed up.”