As Scott "Honey Badger" Gessler stepped away from another run for the Secretary of State seat in order to go for governor, Joe "I go by Joe" Neguse stepped into the race for that position, as the sole Democratic candidate. Neguse believes that young people should be as involved in the political process as their parents -- and he's proving it by running for statewide office after first winning a seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents.
More than most, Neguse understands what it really means to have the right to vote. His parents are refugees from Eritrea, a one-party state in east Africa that does not hold national elections. They both fled Eritrea in 1980, when it was embroiled in a civil war with Ethiopia. Neguse's father, Debesai, had been an English teacher in Eritrea; he enrolled at California State University, Bakersfield, while working. His mother, Azeib, also wound up in Bakersfield, where she held down numerous jobs, including that of bank teller. They met through mutual Eritrean friends, married and had Joe and his younger sister, Sarah.
When Joe was six, the family moved to Colorado. Debesai, who'd become an accountant, got a masters from the University of Denver. Azeib has a degree in finance from the University of Colorado Denver and now works at their local library in Douglas County. From his parents, Joe Neguse learned to appreciate every opportunity -- especially the opportunity of an education. "As immigrants, they emphasized, quite a lot, the values of hard work and perseverance, given where they had come from and their journey to this country," Neguse says. "In particular, education. The values an education can provide. Not just to you, but to the broader community."
Joe grew up in Highlands Ranch and went to Thunder Ridge High School before attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he served as student body president. He graduated in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in economics and political science.
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Neguse's passion for public education led him to work on the campaign for Referendum C, a measure on the 2005 Colorado ballot that would permit the state to retain and spend money from existing revenue sources that went beyond the TABOR limit for five years; education and health care were among the issues earmarked by the proposal. The referendum passed with 52 percent of the vote.
It was during his time campaigning for Referendum C that Neguse met Andrew Romanoff, then Speaker of the House in the Colorado General Assembly. After graduation, Neguse worked in Romanoff's office at the State Capitol. "I started to see, firsthand, the kind of positive public policy that can happen if you have the right people in office," he says of that time.
In 2009 Neguse graduated from CU Law School -- at the same time he was running for the second congressional district seat on the CU Board of Regents. He won and has served as the vice-chairman of the board's Budget and Finance committee, as well as chair of the Regent Audit Committee. He is currently an associate at Holland & Hart, working on labor and employment disputes.
And now Neguse is running for Secretary of State against Republican Wayne Williams, currently the El Paso County clerk. Neguse and Williams come from vastly different backgrounds and hold strong opposing views -- especially on the issue of voting.
Neguse's background gives him a feel for how immigrants who become American citizens contribute to their community. "Ultimately, I think immigrants play a critical role in our democracy," he says. "Every citizen in our state, including those who have immigrated, has a stake in the future of our great state. What has been very concerning for me is to witness, as many others have, a secretary of state, currently, who has worked to make it harder for all citizens to vote."
In his campaign video, Neguse introduces himself to a crowd as "the guy running to clean up Scott Gessler's mess." Back in 2011, Gessler was accused of voter suppression when he argued against sending ballots to voters who were deemed "inactive," meaning they had not voted in the last election.
Williams also believes in a high hurdle for registration: According to his campaign page, he "consistently testified in favor of requiring photo identification to vote." But Neguse doesn't believe that voter ID laws work: "As a citizen, you have the right to vote. We should be making it as easy and accessible as possible for you to vote. There should be no debate on that issue," he says.
Neguse also believes in election transparency. "Campaign finance has gotten completely out of control," he says. His solution? Audit the current tracer system. When candidates are running for office in Colorado, they must submit campaign finance reports with the Secretary of State's office. "Putting the resources in so that those reports are reviewed, by staff at the Secretary of State's office, to ensure that candidates and committees, any entity required to register with the state, is following the law," is part of his plan to reform campaigns and the ways they are financed.
Continue to read more of our interview with Joe Neguse. Neguse says he also wants voters to know who is paying for the barrage of campaign ads each election year, by working with the legislature to require that campaign donor information be put online. "The influence of money really is corrosive to our democracy. We've got to work collectively to reform the system," he explains. If those candidates or any campaign committees are found to be breaking campaign finance law, Neguse believes they should be held accountable more so than they are now.
If Neguse wins in November, he has plans to make voting easier. Integrating new technology to help disabled people, adding more polling places on college campuses to get young people more involved and working with the county clerks to expand voter opportunity are just some of his ideas. As a co-founder of New Era Colorado, he has a history of working to involve students and young people in the political process, through a non-partisan, grassroots campaign.
"It's why I'm running for Secretary of State," he says. "To make sure that every single person who's eligible to vote gets to vote, to stake their claim in our state's future. Because it is a right that we can not take for granted, given how hard we fought for it, and how unique of a right it is. In the context of the world."
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If Neguse does not win the Secretary of State's seat, he will will continue practicing law, he says: "Public office is not the only way to serve." And he has other ways to occupy his time. His family may be small, but it's tight-knit. His sister Sarah, a physician's assistant, had a daughter, Laila, eight months ago. "The cutest niece any uncle could ask for," Neguse says, before pulling out his phone to find a picture. Neguse's family, including Laila, makes an appearance in his campaign video.
Neguse also hopes to marry his fiance, Andrea Rael, within the next year. He met her four years ago at a a campaign event for Romanoff. "She's the best thing that will ever happen to me," he says.
You can meet Joe Neguse tomorrow at Paxia, where the candidate will hold a "Get to Know Joe" event starting at 5 p.m. You can also follow his campaign on Twitter (@JoeNeguse), on Facebook (Joe Neguse for Colorado), and through his campaign website.
From our archives: "Scott Gessler: Ten politicos weigh in on Secretary of State's first years in office."