Date: Monday, 10 December 2018
Andrew Romanoff introduced Joe Neguse, a friend and former employee, to a room full of Democratic voters in 2008 by saying: One day we will all be working for Joe.
The people gathered at the 2008 assembly chuckled, but the endorsement from Romanoff, who was then speaker of the Colorado House, helped launch the then-24-year-old law school student down a path of public service that started with his election that year to the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents and recently led him to Washington as the new representative for Colorado’s 2nd District.
Neguse was the second-youngest regent ever elected in Colorado, and he became one of the youngest people in the country to serve in a state Cabinet after Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him to head Colorado’s consumer protection agency. He’s now the first African-American to represent Colorado in Congress and an early leader in his freshman class.
And friends say he’s nowhere close to done.
“Joe has this uncanny ability to bring people together and to really help manage personality differences,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver. “People are attracted to him for it, and in that way he is unstoppable.”
Herod, Neguse and incoming Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, all met at the University of Colorado at Boulder through their work in student government back in the early 2000s.
“We were big student government nerds,” Fenberg said. “We were young people who wanted to be involved in the political process. We felt like we had an immense amount of power, and the administration listened to it.”
The trio soon realized that’s not how politics worked outside of the university campus.
“I think there was a little bit of a wake-up call,” Fenberg said. “Young people don’t have a seat at the table at state-level politics. We’re not really involved in shaping the future of our state.”
So, the three friends set out to change that.
Neguse went to work for the campaign supporting Referendum C, a 2005 ballot measure that let Colorado keep and spend tax dollars it collected above a limit set by a law called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights TABOR for five years. One of his first tasks for the campaign was to drive Romanoff around the state.
“Apparently, he wanted to impress me, so he put a bunch of air fresheners in his car before he picked me up that first day,” Romanoff said, laughing. “The car was overly fresh.”
Despite the pungent aroma of his old car, Neguse impressed Romanoff. The then-speaker put Neguse to work in his office at the Colorado Capitol. Romanoff quickly picked up on Neguse’s political ambitions and nicknamed him “Speaker Neguse.”
A year later Fenburg, Herod and Neguse started New Era Colorado, a left-leaning nonprofit dedicated to registering and turning out young voters across the state. The organization quickly registered more than 100,000 voters, earning them national media attention, but Neguse kept feeling pulled toward elected office.
“Joe is someone who has every single reason to be doing it for the right reasons,” Fenburg said. “He deeply cares about improving people’s lives because he knows how much those opportunities impacted his parents.”
Neguse’s parents fled their home country of Eritrea during a civil war and legally immigrated to the United States as refugees in the early 1980s. They settled in California before moving to Colorado when Neguse and his sister were in elementary school. Neguse said he’s never been able to quite imagine how it would feel to leave your family, move to a foreign country and build a new life.
“That, to me, is a far more momentous accomplishment than me getting elected to Congress,” Neguse said. “They are the real heroes in my mind, and to the extent I’ve been able to accomplish anything it’s largely because of the way they brought me up.”
His parents’ ability to achieve their American dream is why he supports giving citizenship to children brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents, and it’s why he’s a vocal and unapologetic critic of President Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees and other immigrants from six predominantly Muslim countries.
“To have their son, 35 years after they came to this country, get elected to serve in the House of Representatives is emblematic of the forward-looking and inclusive country we are so lucky to call home,” Neguse said. “I’d like to get back to a place and time where we value that.”
He will soon represent a district that encompasses Boulder, Fort Collins, Vail and Loveland. It has been home to other progressive voices who have gone on to bigger political careers, including former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Gov.-elect Jared Polis. And Neguse is no exception to that ideological mold.
He supports Medicare for all, banning assault-style weapons, starting the impeachment process against Trump, and the “green new deal” plan that fellow freshman Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., says would fulfill 100 percent of the nation’s energy needs from renewable sources.
His Republican opponent for the 2nd District, Peter Yu, as well as national Republicans have criticized all of these ideas as expensive, potentially reckless and ultimately unrealistic. During the campaign Yu also cautioned against increasing worker visas, saying they could lower wages and limit job opportunities for Americans.
“It’s important that we not forget that policy is iterative. It takes time, and we’re going to have another election in two years where we’re going to have an opportunity to retake the upper chamber and possibly the presidency,” Neguse said. “What we do in the next two years will be framing a governing agenda for the next administration to hopefully enact.”
Neguse’s confidence and optimism about his legislative prospects against a Republican-controlled Senate and a president who has repeatedly doubted the existence of manmade climate change is emblematic of the kind of person he is, Fenberg said. Neguse saw Fenberg’s own future as Senate majority leader long before Fenberg could.
“I was like, no, that’s ridiculous,” Fenberg said. “That’s his way of inspiring others. In a way, he does that for himself too.”
The recent birth of Neguse’s daughter, Natalie, has only increased those convictions.
“I’ve spent so much time, particularly as a young person being involved in public life, talking about the impact of policies on young people and on the world that you and I are going to be living in,” Neguse said. “And, of course, now it really is about building a world she will live in where she can live her dreams and fulfill her potential.”
Neguse demurred when asked whether creating that world for his daughter would lead him to run for another office such as U.S. Senate or governor someday, but his friends all see that possibility.
“If you told me 10 years ago he’d be in Congress, I would have believed you,” Fenberg said. “And if you told me today he would be in a much higher office 10 years from now, I would believe you.”