INSIDER OR OUTSIDER? A PROGRESSIVE SON OF REFUGEES CRASHES CONGRESS
Congressman-elect Joe Neguse certainly doesn’t sound like a contrarian, smiling boyishly and sipping on a cup of water at a popular Tex-Mex spot on Capitol Hill. “Perhaps it’s the American West ethos. Rugged individualism recognizing that we are stronger when we have to lean on each other a little bit,” says the 34-year-old Coloradan and new father of a weeks-old daughter.
Even as Neguse completes that bromide about playing nicely with others, the millennial has backed some fairly radical legislation. Not only single-payer Medicare for all and a higher minimum wage, but also the Green New Deal, a stimulus package that would include guaranteed, federally funded environmental jobs for all willing and able Americans. Neguse joined only a dozen new House Democrats who have backed the controversial resolution, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Two days before this interview, Capitol Hill police handcuffed rowdy #GreenNewDeal protesters occupying the office of (likely) incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Neguse confounds the traditional insider vs. outsider dichotomy. Sure, he got his start as a grassroots activist, pushing for a ballot referendum to increase education funding while still in college, and founded New Era Colorado, a youth mobilization effort that registered more than 150,000 young voters and helped pass progressive legislation. But he has also been a card-carrying member of the statewide political establishment, serving as a regent for the University of Colorado system and on the cabinet of Gov. John Hickenlooper as director of the state’s regulatory agency. In fact, his first job was literally chauffeuring those interests from stop to stop, as a driver for then–Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff. His car was a clunker, but Neguse wanted to impress, so he filled it with air fresheners. “I was sort of assaulted by this aroma,” Romanoff chuckles now.
That eager mentality isn’t likely to change now that Neguse has moved to the marbled halls of the Capitol, after becoming the first African-American elected to Congress from Colorado. “He’s deeply committed to improving the lives of people who don’t have all the breaks stacked in their favor,” Romanoff says. The son of Eritrean refugees who fled to California during the civil war with Ethiopia in the 1980s before moving to Colorado when Joe and his sister were in elementary school, Neguse says his election in a 90 percent White Boulder-based district was revelatory. “It became clear to me that, irrespective of one’s race or religion, perhaps what you look like or if your parents have accents, like mine do, that fundamentally we care about the same things.” The district has augured bigger things: Jared Polis, its current representative, recently won his race for governor, while Mark Udall, who previously held the post, went on to become a U.S. senator.
PARTICULARLY AT A TIME IN OUR COUNTRY WHERE THINGS ARE SO PRECARIOUS … MAYBE THERE IS A RISK OF THAT ABIDING SENSE OF OPTIMISM NOT SHINING THROUGH THE MORASS OF DAILY CONTROVERSIES. JOE NEGUSE
For now, Neguse is finding his footing in the new House Democratic majority as both insider and rabble-rouser. He is part of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus — a left-wing group that could prove frustrating to Democratic leaders, as the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus has been to Republicans — and the House Democrats’ leadership team, as one of just two freshman representatives. “I’m very excited about his leadership,” says Veronica Escobar, a fellow freshman congresswoman from Texas and Progressive Caucus member. “It’s an incredible freshman class, as the country has seen. Really diverse, impressive résumés, a long record of public service, and Joe is one of them.”
“There is no margin in making enemies,” Neguse says, a lesson he learned from both Hickenlooper and Romanoff. Still, he also doesn’t see seeking allies and the limelight as mutually exclusive strategies: to that end, he chose a national platform — CBS’s Face the Nation— to announce his backing of Pelosi for speaker.
He applies the sentiment to working with President Donald Trump too. On the one hand, he believes it’s important to aggressively investigate Trump, and he would love a high-profile slot on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to help with the investigating. However, Neguse also says bipartisan wins are possible with the president, particularly on pharmaceutical costs and infrastructure. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he says. “Policy is iterative. Every step is important.”
His humility ends when it comes to board games. “I’m an incredible Monopoly player — I strike as many deals as I can,” he says. When his father wasn’t forcing him to write essays about Rocky Mountain News articles growing up, he found time to play pick-up basketball, usually as a point guard dishing out assists. His music tastes also seem crafted for bipartisan appeal: a fan of Bob Marley and Tupac Shakur, of Journey and John Denver.
“I am an eternal optimist,” Neguse says, but he worries whether that will communicate. “Particularly at a time in our country where things are so precarious … maybe there is a risk of that abiding sense of optimism not shining through the morass of daily controversies.”
During the campaign, Neguse toured a Colorado children’s hospital where terminally ill kids painted inspiring quotes and posted them on the wall. He remembers one line, author unknown: “Fear is contagious. So is hope.” On Election Night, a substantial majority of voters put their hopes in House Democrats. “Now,” Neguse says, “we’ve got to make sure we deliver.”