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One has to move pretty fast these days to keep up with Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District Representative, Joe Neguse. During his first term in office, he introduced more legislation—and had more signed into law—than any other House freshman. Elected to his second term in the House last November, Joe Neguse is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and has been given key, high-profile assignments including being a manager for Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial and being named one of four co-chairs on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. He is well liked among his peers and is known for his efforts to work collaboratively with Republicans.
Joe Neguse is the son of immigrants from Eritrea, an experience that has led him to believe deeply in American democracy. He attended public school in Colorado and has his undergraduate and law degrees from CU Boulder. He resides in Lafayette with his wife, Andrea, and two-year-old daughter, Natalie. You can sign up for the congressman’s newsletter and learn more about him online at neguse.house.gov.
Congressman Joe Neguse was interviewed by Tom Brock on July 22, 2021.
Boulder Magazine: As Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District congressman, how do you divide your time between the needs of your constituents and the responsibility of being one of only 535 elected officials in the House and Senate who determine the direction of the United States?
Joe Neguse: My principal responsibility, Tom, is to represent my constituency and work collaboratively with my constituents to help solve problems, and ultimately address some of the consequential challenges that we face as a community in northern and central Colorado, and ultimately, as a country. My focus has always been on leading locally in an effort to do precisely that. It so happens that many of those issues that my constituents expect me to address happen to be issues that are impacting our country at large. A good example is climate change. That is both born from the realities of living with the real impacts of climate change and from the intense flooding that we’re experiencing from burn areas. It is also the reality of representing a threshold district that is one of the most educated congressional districts in the United States, where we are home to thirteen different federal labs and research facilities across Boulder and Fort Collins. The folks that I represent care a great deal about climate change and taking action against what is arguably the most existential threat that we face as a society, and as a planet. So, that’s an example of where I am both representing my constituents and also leading on an issue that has national significance for the rest of the country.
Locally Focused Topics
BMag: Let’s talk more about climate change. You recently introduced the Climate Resilient Communities Act, in part to help our local communities. Describe how that will help Colorado and Boulder County.
Neguse: One of the first things I did after I was elected to Washington was relay to leadership my committee assignment requests—the committees where I thought I could make the greatest impact, and one of my top requests was to serve on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. That’s a special committee that empaneled at the beginning of the 116th Congress to address climate change. It was important for me because it’s a personal passion of mine, and again, important to my constituency. As part of my work in that regard, we have introduced a series of different bills, including the Climate Resilient Communities Act, a bill in which we are trying to build climate adaptation into the system. That means everything from encouraging and incentivizing FEMA to ultimately mandating FEMA to provide better guidance with respect to building code standards so our communities can recover more quickly in the face of a natural disaster. The frequency of those natural disasters occurs at a much higher level as a result of climate change. And, also changing the reimbursement schedules so that ultimately our local communities, cities and counties are not having to bear the incredibly high costs associated with suppression of wildfires. The bill does a number of different things to take decisive action in the fight against climate change, and better protect and equip our communities in dealing with the impacts of climate change. And of course, because of the reality of our congressional district where so many communities are situated in the wildland-urban interface, it ultimately creates an environment in which we need to be very vigilant about making the necessary investments on the front end to deal with this crisis.
BMag: One of the things you address is wildfire protection. How does that work?
Neguse: We have proposed what we are describing as a twenty-first century Civilian Conservation Corps. It is a reimagining of the program that existed in the 1930s that was wildly popular, that was responsible for building incredible public infrastructure, some of which remains to this day in our district. Red Rocks was built by the triple C of the 1930s, along with incredible trails and other public land infrastructure across our district, which we still enjoy today. We clearly have a crisis from prospective climate change and the various impacts of climate change, including wildfires. The pervasiveness and intensity of wildfires in the Rocky Mountain West, clearly, are exacerbated by drought conditions that are a direct byproduct of climate change. I believe that we ought to invest at a scale that meets the moment in our public land infrastructure. Essentially, creating a twenty-first century climate corps where you would employ hundreds of thousands of folks working to do deferred maintenance on our public lands, to do wildfire resiliency work, to do various wildlife habitat preservation work, reforestation, watershed mitigation and protection, all of which is apropos of your question, in terms of being a direct response to some of the terrible wildfires that our state and our community have experienced. I represent a congressional district that was home to the largest and second-largest wildfires in the history of Colorado, both of which happened simultaneously in our district a mere seven months ago. So, this is an issue that I’m very passionate about and we’re very excited that the president has announced his support for our proposal. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get it across the finish line as part of the infrastructure proposals that are making their way through Congress currently.
BMag: There are major pieces of legislation nationally that address climate change. Name one important area you’re acting on.
Neguse: At the federal level, there is so much that we have to do. Everything from the Civilian Conservation Corps to adopting a Renewable Energy Standard at the federal level—we did that in Colorado more than fifteen years ago. We were a national leader at that time when we adopted the RES in Colorado back in 2004. I believe it’s long past time for us to do so at the federal level. There is so much that we can do in a variety of different industries to move the needle in a significant way. One area that we’ve been working on quite a bit is regenerative agriculture. There are endless opportunities in the regenerative agriculture space, incredible farms in Boulder County, in Larimer County, that are using regenerative agriculture practices to not just help in the fight against climate change, in terms of leveraging the carbon sink of these healthy soils, but also creating healthier food for us to eat. So there are a lot of opportunities. Climate change poses huge challenges but it also creates incredible opportunities for us as a country if we think boldly and creatively, and are willing to act decisively.
BMag: On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your level of support for the Green New Deal?
Neguse: Ten! I’m one of the original sponsors of the Green New Deal. As you may know, I joined the Green New Deal after I was elected, but before I was sworn into the United States Congress. I’m one of the original four or five members of Congress who supported the effort, and again, I think much of what we’re pursuing today when we talk about, for example, a climate conservation corps, is consistent with the goals that were outlined and articulated within the Green New Deal.
BMag: You recently proposed two bills in Congress that address affordable housing—again, something that’s important locally and nationally. What would those bills accomplish?
Neguse: Our focus has always been on leading locally, and to us, that means trying to solve problems that our communities face at the local level by engaging and leveraging the ingenuity, expertise and insight of our constituency, which is incredibly well-informed, deeply engaged and well-educated in developing those solutions. And that runs the gamut—from visiting with wildfire experts, and forestry folks at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University as we developed our wildfire package, to working on a health-care bill that we’ve named after an eleven-year-old girl, Ally, in Broomfield, based on a letter she sent to us. She implored us to do something about the exorbitant cost of bone-anchored hearing devices for young children like herself.
To your point, the affordable housing bills we’ve introduced are both bills that attempt to address what is a looming crisis in our state and, in particular, in northern Colorado. From Breckenridge to Boulder, from Frisco to Fort Collins, from Vail to Estes Park and everywhere in between, there are middle-class families that are being squeezed by the incredibly high price of housing in our communities. I believe that policymakers ultimately need to take steps to help incentivize the development of more affordable housing stocks—supplies, essentially—so that ultimately more families can be able to continue to call home the incredible communities that we are all so blessed to live in. Both of our bills are technical bills that cut red tape. One of them enables local housing authorities to acquire affordable housing properties at an expedited clip, which will increase the supply of affordable housing available for families. It’s an idea that was developed in concert with affordable housing experts in our community. The second bill does something similar, and we’re excited for the prospect of both bills potentially getting signed into law.
BMag: You mentioned Ally’s Act—describe what that is.
Neguse: Again, broadly, we’re working on health-care reform and trying to expand access to affordable health care. I have been leading the push with three of my colleagues, in particular, creating a broad coalition to expand Medicare. We’re working now to try to lower the eligibility age and secure vision, dental and hearing benefits into the Medicare package. But with respect to Ally’s Act, it’s more narrowly tailored to a particular problem that Ally raised with us. Almost two years ago, I received a letter in the mail from a young girl named Ally in Broomfield who, at that time, was nine or ten years old. She wrote me this incredibly powerful and poignant letter describing the issues that she had experienced with her hearing as a result of a condition she was born with that ultimately requires a sophisticated, bone-anchored hearing aid called a Baha to be able to hear, and that most private insurers at that time did not cover the device. I just was so moved by her story and thinking about the many young children across our country that are unable to live their dreams because they can’t access these devices because they can’t afford to pay for them on the private market. So we introduced a bill, and it’s a bipartisan bill, to try to fix it, and we named it Ally’s Act after Ally, and we’ve been pushing it for the last few years. It started as a bill that didn’t have any co-sponsors. It was just us, and now the bill is bipartisan, as I mentioned, it’s bicameral, Senator Elizabeth Warren is the primary sponsor of the Senate version of our bill that she introduced after we had a chance to visit with her and make the case.
BMag: What other essential priorities are you working on that impact our local communities?
Neguse: There are many issues that I work on, from immigration to education funding. But one issue I have been working on my entire career, which has taken greater salience with me personally over the last several months, is the fight for gun violence prevention. After the terrible incidents of gun violence and mass shootings that our state has experienced, most recently in Boulder where we tragically lost the lives of ten members of our community, it is incumbent upon Congress to finally get something done and to start taking steps to save lives. I’m the vice chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, a role that I take very seriously. We were proud to lead an effort to implore the president, following the terrible tragedy in Boulder, to take steps to regulate concealable assault-style weapons, which was allegedly the weapon used in the shootings at King Soopers. I was grateful to President Biden for heeding that call. I had a chance to thank him in person when he invited me to the White House for his Rose Garden ceremony, where he announced that the ATF would proceed with regulations for those specific weapons, but we need to do much, much more. I’m one of the original co-sponsors of the Assault Weapons Ban, as well as, of course, the universal background check bill and closing the Charleston loophole. It’s one of the central reasons why I chose to go on to the Judiciary Committee in the House because I feel so strongly about gun violence reform and gun violence prevention and legislation. It will continue to be one of the issues I fight most passionately for in the United States Congress.
Uniting the Great Divide
BMag: You entered Congress at a very divisive time. You soon became a rising star and were named co-freshman representative to leadership, among other positions. How did you find your footing so quickly in that environment?
Neguse: I don’t know that I would necessarily describe it that way. I’ve been very lucky to have been in a position where I can help make a difference and hit the ground running, and my team worked incredibly hard. I’m grateful for their hard work. We’re very committed to taking every advantage of the opportunity that we have been given by the people of Colorado to work on their behalf and being active and engaged in our office. That’s something that’s been very important to us from the very first day I was sworn in. That’s why we endeavored to really introduce more bills than any other freshman lawmaker in the United States, and worked very hard to secure the passage of the bills that we introduced. So I’ve been very lucky and am grateful to my staff and my colleagues in Congress who have given me the opportunity to help be a part of a leadership team where I’m able to work in concert with them on these issues of national significance.
BMag: As a member of the Judiciary Committee, you helped draft both the first and second articles of impeachment on Donald Trump. Describe that historic process.
Neguse: Obviously, impeachment is a solemn step and one that is not taken lightly under our Constitution. I took the role I had—with respect to the first impeachment proceeding in my role on the Judiciary Committee and then my role as a manager during the second trial—very seriously. I believed the role needed to be treated with the respect and solemnity that it deserves because the Constitutional stakes were incredibly high. I believe that, ultimately, we took the steps that were necessary to vindicate our Constitution on both occasions and I’m proud of the work that we did.
BMag: Let’s move on to the January 6th Capitol insurrection. You had just finished your speech on the House floor about the importance of certifying the election, and about that time, the mob reached the House door. What was that moment like?
Neguse: Well, it would be a longer conversation in terms of delving into all the details of that day. But suffice it to say, it was a harrowing moment for the Congress, for all of those who were in the Capitol Complex building and for, ultimately, our country, our republic and our democracy. I was on the floor and was worried about the safety of everybody in the Capitol Complex—my own safety and the safety of staff and fellow members. Clearly it was an event that will stain our history for years to come. But I think the events that followed the insurrection, beginning with the fact that we returned to the floor that very night—something that all of us agreed we had to do to convey to the rest of the country and to our allies and the rest of the world, that American democracy would not be cowed or intimidated. That we would proceed with the Constitutional duty that Congress was responsible for discharging. I was on the floor from the moment we began the proceedings that afternoon to the moment we all were evacuated off of the floor as the mob descended, and then when we returned later that evening at about eight o’clock until four the next morning, to finish our duties and certify the 2020 presidential election. That was one of the proudest moments of my life because I believe it was a testament to the durability and strength of the American democracy.
BMag: Another priority of yours is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. What’s the chance of that passing, and if it does, how much of an impact will it have?
Neguse: I think it will have a meaningful, significant impact and I believe it is absolutely necessary for it to pass. In my capacity as a member of the Executive Board of the Congressional Black Caucus, it has been a big focus of mine. In state after state, efforts are being made to suppress the vote and make it harder for those who are legally eligible to vote to do so. Unlike the state of Colorado, which has arguably the gold standard for election administration and enabling folks to vote. I’ve spent a great deal of my time in Washington making a case to my colleagues that we ought to emulate the reforms that we’ve adopted in Colorado that have worked so well. These are embedded in HR1, and ultimately HR4 is just as necessary in terms of restoring the Voting Rights Act to prevent the type of voter suppression efforts and tactics that we see happening in state after state. It is a critical moment for our country in terms of whether or not we’ll be able to continue functioning as the constitutional republic that our framers intended. A crucial part of that is protecting the right that is the most sacrosanct under our Constitution, which is the right to participate in our democracy and the right to vote—the right from which all other rights flow.
“From Breckenridge to Boulder, from Frisco to Fort Collins, from Vail to Estes Park and everywhere in between, there are middle-class families that are being squeezed by the incredibly high price of housing in our communities. I believe that policymakers ultimately need to take steps to help incentivize the development of more affordable housing stocks—supplies, essentially—so that ultimately more families can be able to continue to call home the incredible communities that we are all so blessed to live in.”
—Congressman Joe Neguse
BMag: You also mention immigration as one of your major concerns, especially being the first-generation son of immigrants. A federal judge in Texas recently overruled DACA. Do you think there’s a path forward for comprehensive immigration reform?
Neguse: I do. I was deeply disappointed by the judge’s ruling that you mention, with response to DACA. I served as the vice chair of the Immigration Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. This is an issue that I care deeply about as a son of immigrants and as someone who has been able to live the American dream. Working to make sure that the DACA recipients in our district—these incredibly talented young men and women whom I’ve met in Boulder, Fort Collins, Broomfield, Breck, Vail, Grand County and elsewhere—are able to continue calling the United States, the only country that many of them have ever known, their home. We are pushing to make immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for our Dreamers a part of the reconciliation bill that is making its way through Congress. We have a ways to go in that regard, but we’re going to keep pushing because I believe we owe it to our constituents.
BMag: You’ve been recognized for your leadership, and were named as one of the four co-chairs of the powerful Democratic Policy and Communications Committee—congratulations on that. How does this position influence the direction of the Democratic Party?
Neguse: Well, thank you. I appreciate you saying that. The DPCC’s role is essentially to help develop policies, ultimately, that the entire House Democratic Caucus can organize and unite behind, and then figuring out the best ways to calibrate our message so we can effectively communicate the impact of those policies. That’s the job. I spend a great deal of my time visiting with colleagues. We have folks who are deeply progressive and more moderate members of our caucus. I spend a lot of my time meeting with the different members across the ideological spectrum. I have been able to witness firsthand the rich diversity that our caucus is so well known for, and trying to develop consensus around some common principles and then, ultimately, the communication strategies to ensure that we effectively communicate to the public the priorities we are pursuing. I have learned so much about the country and a great deal about other districts and places in our country and the representatives who serve those jurisdictions, so I have enjoyed the opportunity.
BMag: I would like to finish with just some questions about Joe Neguse. Before your first House campaign, you mentioned that you didn’t see Congress as a lifelong career. You’ve said how difficult it is to be away from your family. Do you see an end date for your time in Congress?
Neguse: The hardest part of the job is being away from my wife and daughter, and the sacrifice they make to help me do this job is significant. But this is a great honor. It’s an incredible honor to represent our community and the 2nd Congressional District in the United States Congress, and I’m grateful to the people of our community and to the voters for giving me the opportunity. I think it’s important for our public servants to be committed to working hard and putting in the necessary time to really address the consequential challenges we face. I’m very much committed to doing that now, and I am enjoying it. So I look forward to continuing to serve if given the opportunity, and the people of our community will have the final word on that front.
BMag: If and when you do leave Congress, is there something you would like to do that would continue your advocacy for the causes you believe in?
Neguse: That’s a great question. I don’t have a good answer to that. I haven’t spent much time thinking about that. My focus has been almost myopic in terms of really trying to do everything that I can with the opportunity I’ve been given to try to move the ball forward for the people of Colorado. I believe that you don’t need to be in public office to be a public servant and to contribute to your community. Public service, community service, will always be an important component of my life. It’s core to how I was raised and the expectation my family has always had for me in terms of paying it forward to this incredible country that has given us so much. So that will always be my North Star, and I’ll go where the path leads.
BMag: You’ve been quoted as saying, “I’ve always found the Constitution to be incredibly powerful and interesting and inspiring.” Can you tell us why?
Neguse: Because I have yet to come across anything like it in my life, and in my studies as a law student and in my experience as a lawyer, and in my current capacity as a member of Congress. As I said, my parents immigrated to this country as refugees and at a very early age, taught me and my sister to not take for granted the sacred freedoms and opportunities we have in the United States—all of which flow from that sacred document. And it means a great deal to me and my family, because there are many countries in the world where such freedoms and opportunities don’t exist, and that is why I’ve always found the Constitution to be sacrosanct, and have drawn so much inspiration from it.
BMag: Are you optimistic for the future of America?
Neguse: I am, very much so. It’s not to say that we don’t face incredible challenges, difficult challenges, and in some respects existential challenges. And yet, our country, as one can easily glean from a review of any history book, our country has faced existential threats before, great challenges before, times of social unrest and upheaval and times in which the moral conscience of the country was tested. And yet, on every occasion, we’ve always risen to the occasion. That is, I think, reflective of the American spirit. It’s what makes our country so wonderful. I have no question or doubts—partly born from the many conversations I have with young people in my capacity as a congressman—that students will lead our country very well to the future. I have no doubt that our future will be a bright one. But we’ve got to work for it.
Extended Interview Questions
BMag: During the COVID pandemic, which of course isn’t over, your office did a lot to help support local businesses and individuals. Are there ongoing efforts to continue this help as they try to recover?
Neguse: Very much so. I had an opportunity to visit with so many businesses during the course of the last year. So many small businesses that have really struggled through no fault of their own. And I was grateful for the opportunity to work with my colleagues, to partner with them, on a variety of different efforts that ultimately created lifelines for many of these businesses including the EIDL [ Economic Injury Disaster Loan] program, the PPP [ Paycheck Protection Program] program, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and the Save Our Stages fund, which was incredibly important for our district, which is home to incredible live music venues. We have endeavored to be responsive to constituents as they navigated the variety of federal programs, not just on the business side, but also individuals, and that work continues to this day. There are a variety of different programs that I still believe need to be plussed up as we work through our infrastructure bill, including, for example, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. We’ve signed on to a number of letters to leadership and to the various committees of reference asking for increases in funding for those particular programs, and we’ll continue to make that a priority.
BMag: One of the things you’re known for is collaboration and working across the aisle. Since the insurrection, nearly all House Republicans deny the fact that it even took place, despite clear evidence. How do you work with them?
Neguse: I would say it depends on whom you’re working with. There are some Republicans who did vote to certify the election results and who acknowledged the terrible events of January 6th and have condemned it. I disagree, even with them, on other matters in terms of, for example, the formation of a select committee that they universally opposed. But I have been able to work with those who have voted to certify the election results, on a number of different projects and bills that are important to me and to the people I serve. At the end of the day, my job is to represent the people of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District to the best of my ability and try to solve problems that need solving. Ultimately, my constituents expect me to work in good faith with anybody who is willing to also work in good faith to try to solve a problem.
BMag: Do you see any residual impact from the divisiveness of the insurrection in dealing with your constituents?
Neguse: The vast majority of folks we interact with are friendly and collegial—whether they agree or disagree with me on a particular policy matter, they are respectful. That isn’t to say that that necessarily encompasses all folks you engage with in public life, but I think that’s generally the case. Broadly speaking, our politics have become more caustic and vitriolic year after year after year, and I believe that former President Trump turbocharged those changes that were metastasizing, and clearly, I don’t think that is going away. I try my best to turn down the temperature of our politics—it’s one of the reasons we do town halls, because I believe that our democracy works better when we have more people participating. But it’s difficult to have more people participate when folks are unwilling to listen to each other and have a fair exchange of views and be respectful of those views.