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Joe Neguse on His Parents' Refugee Story and Making History in Congress

Joe Neguse is the Democratic nominee to represent the 2nd Congressional District.
Joe Neguse is the Democratic nominee to represent the 2nd Congressional District.
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Joe Neguse is in a tricky position. As the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 2nd District, which includes Boulder and is currently represented by gubernatorial hopeful Jared Polis, pretty much the only way he can lose is if a bizarrely specific virus kills every progressive voter before November.

But in the extended interview below, Neguse, who is being challenged by Republican Peter Yu, Libertarian Roger Barris and independent Nick Thomas, doesn't slip into cockiness for a single nanosecond. Instead, he regularly emphasizes his dedication to take nothing for granted and work as hard as he possibly can throughout the campaign — and to continue doing so for the next two years in Washington, D.C. if he emerges triumphant.

The conversation begins with Neguse talking about his parents, who came to America as refugees shortly before he was born. He then discusses his time at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he served as co-student body president under the school's tri-executive system — a breeding ground for future politicians, including state representative Leslie Herod and state senator Steve Fenberg. But he doesn't give CU Boulder a free pass related to a proposal floated in April about cutting back the student government's power and responsibility — an approach that appears to have been shelved following protests and widespread condemnation.

Neguse also discusses his co-founding of New Era Colorado, an advocacy organization for young voters, his failed 2014 campaign for Colorado Secretary of State and what he learned from falling short, and the issues he's identified as his top priorities: policies to protect the environment, universal health care and a woman's right to choose and immigration reform. In addition, he supports a so-called clean version of the DREAM Act, which would protect participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program without approving actions viewed by critics as anti-immigrant, including millions for the Mexican border wall touted by President Donald Trump.

Near the end of the chat, Neguse addresses the fact that if he is elected, he'll be the first African-American member of Congress from Colorado since the establishment of the state in 1876. It's the kind of history almost certain to be made a few months from now — not that Neguse would admit anything of the sort.

Here's what he had to say.

Joe Neguse with wife Andrea and a friend.
Joe Neguse with wife Andrea and a friend.

Westword: How do you introduce yourself to the voters in your district?

Joe Neguse: I describe myself as a Coloradan — as somebody who cares deeply about our state, someone who considers himself incredibly lucky and fortunate to have grown up here and who had the opportunity to build a life here, and someone who cares deeply that we're working collectively to try and solve some of the public-policy challenges that we face.

Tell me a little bit about your family.

My parents came here from East Africa — from a small country called Eritrea. They came as refugees many years ago, over 35 years ago. I was actually born in Bakersfield, California, and we moved to Colorado when I was six. We lived in Aurora for a brief time, and then in Littleton, Highlands Ranch. I've spent the majority of my life here in Colorado. I went to school up at CU Boulder, where I was a tri-executive, then went to law school and represented the 2nd District for six years as a regent. I met my wife in Boulder County and I've lived there since 2002. So I consider myself a Coloradan, having lived here since I was six. But my story is in many ways an immigrant's story, like many Coloradans.

That's a large motivation why I decided to get involved in public service. At a very early age, I was taught by my parents that it was important to pay it forward. As I mentioned, we were incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to live our dreams in the United States. In many ways, we lived the American dream in many senses of that phrase. Given my parents' background, it was very clear to me the importance of the opportunities and freedoms that we have in this country that don't exist in a lot of places in the world. Our shared experiences and my experience as a first-generation American are things that motivated me all my life to be involved in public service.
How formative an experience was it for you serving as a tri-executive at the University of Colorado Boulder? And what was your response to the administration's announcement several months ago that it wanted to take away much of the power and responsibility from the student government — a plan that appears to at least be temporarily on hold right now?

With respect to the first part of your question, it was an incredibly formative experience serving as a tri-executive on two fronts. One, the student government at the University of Colorado Boulder has an incredible amount of responsibility when it comes to self-governance and overseeing the cost centers at the university — the recreation center and so forth. And there's also the ability to make significant change. So I learned as a by-product of my student activism and my time in student government the power of collectively working toward a common goal, which is something we did for a number of important policy goals while I was there — and we really focused on trying to increase funding for public higher education. As you know, our public higher education system in Colorado is one of the lowest-funded in the United States. It consistently ranks 48th, 49th in the country. So that experience was very formative.

Joe Neguse and State Representative Leslie Herod both served in student government at the University of Colorado Boulder.EXPAND
Joe Neguse and State Representative Leslie Herod both served in student government at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Second is the people you meet — the friendships you develop and the ability to work with really talented and passionate people who are dedicated to improving the general welfare of their community. Think about people like Leslie Herod, who is now a state representative and a very close friend of mine, and Steve Fenberg, who is one of my closest friends — I was a groomsman at his wedding — and is now a state senator in Boulder. So there were a number of different people I was very lucky to have met through student government and was lucky enough to work with — and I'm hoping to continue working with them if I'm lucky enough to be the next congressman in the 2nd District.

In regard to what happened earlier this year, I haven't checked in as to what the current status is, but I was deeply disappointed, as were many former student leaders, and of course the current student leaders also. Fundamentally, from my perspective, the students there are asked to pay a significant amount in student fees, and it's incumbent upon the administration to respect the shared governance model that has existed on the campus for several decades and enables students to work together collectively and collaboratively to best decide how to allocate those fees. Ultimately, I think that's important. So I was very concerned and disappointed about the actions that were taken earlier this year, and I was heartened to see that those actions were at least temporarily put on hold, and perhaps permanently. Given the volume of feedback the administration received, I would hope they would go back to the drawing board, meet with the student leaders there and come to a constructive resolution. I would hope that's the approach they would take.

You also co-founded New Era Colorado. How did that organization fit in with the philosophy you just described?

The premise behind New Era Colorado was fairly straightforward. It was an effort to try to get young people more engaged. That meant registering young voters at the ballot box, so that they understood the power they have to really shape their future, and talking to them about the issues that most impact them as young people — myself included, of course. When we created New Era, I was 22, 23 years old, as was Senator Fenberg. It was important to talk to folks about student debt, for example, and talk about climate change, which is an existential threat in my view, and something that young people in particular care deeply about. And we tried to make it easier for young people to take part in the process. That meant advocating for legislation at the state level for online voting registration, which was successfully enacted about eight years ago, and peer registration for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. I was proud to be a part of helping push that across the finish line and testify in support of it back in 2012, 2013. That's another example of a way we could remove some barriers and better encourage young people to get involved in the political process — because we know when more people participate, we have a better outcome.

That is part and parcel of my run for Congress. At 34 years old, I would be one of the youngest members of Congress if elected, and it's important that young folks, millennials, have a seat at the table. At the end of the day, our fight to make sure they had that seat of the table was a big part of why we created New Era Colorado, and it's a big part of why I'm running for Congress.

Joe Neguse speaking at a recent campaign event.
Joe Neguse speaking at a recent campaign event.

After your service on the CU Board of Regents, you ran unsuccessfully for Colorado Secretary of State in 2014. What did you learn about politics and campaigning during that effort?

There are a lot of things I learned during that campaign. I spent eighteen months traveling the state, visiting every county and every corner of the state, visiting with every type of person, and I found that we are much more similar than we are different. By that, I mean when you visit folks from different communities across the state that superficially one might suspect would have different concerns or different priorities, you find fairly quickly that people generally care about the same things.

As I traveled the state, that was something that became very apparent to me, and it's important to remember right now given the toxicity of our political environment — the vitriol and the divisiveness. It's an important point, and it's a point that shouldn't be lost on our policy makers. As a general matter, folks care about being able to afford to live in the communities they call home, they care about being able to send their kids to a great college, or being able to afford to send their kids to a quality neighborhood school, or being able to afford good-quality health insurance, and being able to afford a quality of life here in our state.

It might sound clichéd, but that really was my takeaway from so many meetings and community visits in so many different corners of our state.

On your campaign website, the first thing you mention among key issues is the importance of ensuring that your constituents have the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water. How endangered is that right, in your view, and what can you do as a member of Congress to protect that right?

That right is significantly endangered by the actions of the Trump administration and by the Republicans in Congress. And you see this on a number of different levels. You see it with the Department of Interior, with Secretary [Ryan] Zinke working to sell off our public lands — and over 52 percent of the 2nd District is federal public land. Think of treasured places like Rocky Mountain National Park. So it's incumbent to have a congressperson who's going to fight tooth and nail to protect those public lands against an administration that is working assiduously to open up these lands to the highest bidders for oil and gas development and so forth. You see it in an EPA that, in addition to being incompetent and lacking any real ethics at all, has worked to undermine virtually every single protection or safeguard enacted during the prior eight years of the Obama administration. You see this with a Congress in gridlock and how it refuses to do anything of note with respect to combating climate change.

From my perspective, there's a lot we can do. We need to be in the Democratic majority, and I'll certainly be working to hopefully earn the votes of the folks in the 2nd Congressional District, as well as working to help elect other Democrats so that we can obtain the majority. And when we do, we'll hopefully have a mandate to help solve this existential threat of climate change.

Joe Neguse with young supporters at the Colorado State Capitol.
Joe Neguse with young supporters at the Colorado State Capitol.

As a practical matter, there are a number of legislative solutions — everything from eliminating subsidies for oil and gas development within our tax code to increasing our investments in renewable energy, reversing the phase-out of the production tax credit and investment tax credit for solar and for wind, and pricing carbon — and there are a variety of legislative vehicles that have been proposed around the right fit for that. I believe we need to enact legislation at the federal level that prices carbon, that takes into account the social cost of the massive oil and gas development that's happening in our country. And then, of course, there's another bill that would ban all oil and gas development on federal public lands, which is something I would co-sponsor at the federal level. So there's a lot to do, a lot to accomplish, and I'm very, very eager to take on that task.

You also talk about the importance of maintaining high-quality health care. Do you see that effort becoming more difficult?

Yes. When I visit with folks across the district, which I've been doing for the better part of the past year and a half, one thing is clear: Folks are incredibly concerned about their ability to afford quality health care. A family shouldn't have to choose between paying their mortgage and taking their children to the doctor. Families shouldn't have to go bankrupt if a loved one gets sick.

From my perspective, the solution is universal health care. There's an improved and expanded Medicare-for-all package pending in the Congress that a decade ago had two co-sponsors, and now it has more than 140 co-sponsors. The momentum is on our side, and I think that if we work hard enough and build a broad coalition, we can accomplish it at the federal level and guarantee that every single person in our country receives a baseline level of health care. And we should fight for that not just on moral grounds, but on economic grounds. In the current system, we spend more per capita related to our GDP on health care than any other country in the Western world: Canada, Australia, various countries in Europe. We also have poor health outcomes on a number of different statistical fronts. You look at infant mortality rates as one example, or maternal mortality rates compared to those countries that have some form of universal health care.

This is something I'm passionate about. It feeds into my approach to public policy, which is trying to expand opportunities for Coloradans and Americans and not restricting opportunities. You see a lot of the opposite at the federal level in regard to what they're doing to undermine the Affordable Care Act and trying to restrict people's access to health care they can afford. You see it with respect to the environment, as we talked about previously, and in respect to their work to try to restrict our ability to enjoy the public lands that we're so lucky to have. Across the board, it dovetails with what I'd like to see enacted into law.

You've also advocated on behalf of the Each Woman Act of 2017 and a clean DREAM Act. Why are those important priorities for you?

With respect to a clean DREAM Act, as you can probably surmise, immigration is an issue I care deeply about given my background as a son of refugees. We must, as a country, have an immigration policy that's humane, and right now, we have an administration that lacks any empathy for folks who are trying to rebuild their shattered lives. To me, it's just not consistent with who we are as Americans. So from my perspective, we need comprehensive immigration reform and a clean DREAM Act that recognizes the folks who are here in our country who know no other home. I've met multiple Dreamers. I've had an incredible opportunity to meet them and hear their stories, and I feel that right now, what this administration is doing on immigration is unconscionable on a number of different levels: with respect to what's happening to Dreamers, with respect to babies being torn away from their parents on our southern border. This is not reflective of who we are as Americans or Coloradans, and it's important this fall for voters to stand up and state the same by voting for a Democratic majority in each house of Congress.

Joe Neguse with Dreamer and Westword profile subject Marco Dorado.
Joe Neguse with Dreamer and Westword profile subject Marco Dorado.

In regard to the Each Woman Act, I'm proud to be a pro-choice candidate and someone who firmly believes that we should be fighting to make sure women have the right to make their own health decisions and have that protected. That's what the Each Woman Act seeks to codify at the federal level. I'm proud to have been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice — not just in this race, but in all my races for public office.

In Boulder, running as a Democrat is generally considered a done deal: You're going to win. How do you avoid complacency? And does your experience in 2014 help you do that?

We certainly aren't taking anything for granted. My view is, whoever is fortunate enough to represent the 2nd Congressional District in the United States Congress has to come to that position with humility and with the recognition that they're there to represent to the best of their ability each and every voter and citizen in the 2nd District. To me, that means working incredibly hard over the course of this campaign to earn each and every vote, and listening to folks about the issues they care about — their concerns and their priorities, which would of course inform my judgement with respect to my own priorities in the Congress. We've been in this campaign the longest. We announced last June, so we've been at it about fourteen months, and we've been traveling the district, as you can see by some of our Facebook posts. We recently went on a district tour and visited twenty cities in two weeks: Eagle-Vail, Frisco, Loveland, Berthoud, Fort Collins, Broomfield, Morrison, Nederland, Genesee. We're very, very adamant that it's important for us to talk to folks and be able to convey our vision to what we believe we should collectively be working on, and then letting the voters make the choice.

If you're elected, you would add diversity to Colorado's congressional representation. Is that something important to you?

I think it's important. As you know, Colorado, which has been a state for 142 years, has never elected a black person to the Congress. We have no people of color in our nine-person congressional delegation. So having representation on the federal level for underserved communities is certainly important in my view, and I think the view of many Coloradans. But at the end of the day, my vision and the vision I'd like to accomplish and put into action if I'm elected into Congress recognizes the goal of trying to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

Of course it is important, and it would certainly make history if we're successful. But from my vantage point, I really am focused on trying to do the best we can to solve a lot of public-policy challenges folks are experiencing.

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