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Politics and Government

“We’ll see where it goes”: Impeachment has provided rocket fuel to the ascent of Colorado’s Joe Neguse

The 35-year-old congressman from Lafayette has risen quickly through the ranks of the Democratic Party in Colorado -- and the nation. What’s next?

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, at a town hall in Aurora on Monday night, Aug. 27, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Two years ago, Democrat Joe Neguse was managing Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Affairs, an important, yet anything-but-sexy job in state government. 

He was appointed to the position after the blow of losing a statewide race to become Colorado’s secretary of state. Fast forward to today and the 35-year-old, first-year U.S. representative is a prominent voice on the national stage, one that’s getting louder, seemingly by the hour, thanks to the historic impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. 

Neguse traded regulating securities, insurance and real estate in Colorado for a role in the attempt to oust the leader of the free world from office.

Now, Neguse is a regular guest on cable news and respected voice in the U.S. House’s Democratic caucus. His quick rise and prominent voice have put him on a short list for higher office in Colorado. And he’s the subject of attacks by national Republicans, a sign that they are taking notice of his ascent. 

“I don’t think anyone anticipated anything less from him,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and longtime friend of Neguse’s dating back to their days as students at the University of Colorado. “I think it’s fair to say that Joe is unstoppable.”

Neguse, who is less than halfway through his first term, rose to prominence by aligning himself with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi early on and winning a position as a freshman leader of the Democratic caucus, a job that means he sits in on leadership meetings and helps guide the party’s priorities. 

But his profile has really been amplified in the past few weeks, when the impeachment proceedings against Trump landed in the Judiciary Committee, where Neguse sits.

Amid all of the vitriol and political danger surrounding impeachment, Democratic leaders have made Neguse a prominent mouthpiece for their message, trusting him to explain the party’s position to the American public. 

“I think there is clearly broad consensus within our Democratic caucus in the House that the president’s actions really represent a continuing threat to the integrity of our elections and ultimately the sanctity of our democracy,” he said last week on on National Public Radio’s “Here and Now.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, speaks to reporters outside the GEO immigration detention center in Aurora on Monday, July 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

For those close to Neguse, all of this isn’t much of a surprise. He’s long been a darling of Democratic politics in Colorado, both because of his prowess and his personal story. 

Neguse is the son of Eritrean immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1980s. He’s also the first black member of Congress from Colorado. 

All this is fueling speculation that he has his sights set on reaching higher office, such as the U.S. Senate, one day. Republicans, certainly, are taking notice and keeping tabs. 

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful when I’m walking through the halls of the Capitol,” he told The Colorado Sun in an interview. “I’m reminded of this a lot — that there aren’t a lot of 35-year-olds in Congress. There aren’t a lot of first-generation Americans in Congress and people with my kind of background.”

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Bouncing back, rushing forward

Neguse’s political career began when he was at CU, where he rose quickly though student government on the Boulder campus and helped found New Era Colorado, a group that works to get young people involved in politics.

Then, while he was in law school at CU, he ran for a seat on the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents and was elected in 2008 for a six-year term that ended in 2015, campaigning on a platform of being an advocate for students. Then, at just 29, he set his sights on state office and launched a bid to become Colorado’s secretary of state.

The 2014 race was an anomaly in a fiercely partisan year of politics in Colorado. He was by far the youngest candidate on the ticket, and one of only two people of color on the statewide ballot. He faced an experienced politician in Republican Wayne Williams, a former El Paso County commissioner and clerk. 

While Neguse was a strong contender — he lost by less than 2 percentage points — it was a bad year for state Democrats, who lost their majority in the state Senate and three of four statewide elected positions. Republican Cory Gardner also upset Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.  

But while other races devolved into negative attacks, something unusual happened in the Neguse-Williams face off: they became pals. 

“I did not know him prior to that,” Williams said. “But over the course of the campaign we became friends.”

Republican Wayne Williams is the former Colorado secretary of state. “I always thought that Joe would do good things,” said Williams, who is now a Colorado Springs city councilman. “I just didn’t want him to be secretary of state at the same time I wanted to be it.” (Jacob Paul, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Neguse’s loss may have seemed to outsiders like nothing more than a temporary setback. 

But the defeat made him briefly question his future in elected office. Neguse went back to Holland & Hart, practicing law at one of the state’s most powerful and politically involved firms, for about seven months before then-Gov. John Hickenlooper nominated him to lead DORA, which quickly got him back on track. 

Williams even presented and backed his nomination before the Republican-led state Senate, a sign of Neguse’s growing sphere of influence and respect. 

“I always thought that Joe would do good things,” said Williams, who is now a Colorado Springs city councilman. “I just didn’t want him to be secretary of state at the same time I wanted to be it.”

In the view of those around him, Neguse’s loss to Williams actually had some benefits. 

“I think it slowed him down for, like, 48 hours,” said Steve Fenberg, the Colorado Senate majority leader and another longtime friend, referring to Neguse’s 2014 loss. “I think he quickly realized that in some ways it’s a blip, in other ways, probably, an amazing learning experience for him. He ran for statewide office as a very young person. He was on everybody’s TVs. He got really close.”

In his role at DORA, Neguse was able to make friends on both sides of the aisle and earned a reputation for listening and respect. When now-Gov. Jared Polis made the surprise announcement he would vacate his 2nd Congressional District seat to seek the governor’s office, it was an obvious place for Neguse to jump in. He announced his candidacy just days after Polis’ move. 

Neguse won by a landslide in both the Democratic primary and the general election last year in a district that’s long been safe for Democrats.

“Hit the ground running”

Neguse started gaining national attention before he was even sworn into his role in Congress. 

At the end of November 2018, he was chosen as a first-year leader in the Democratic caucus. He also appeared on MSNBC where he took the bold, early stance that there was enough existing evidence to impeach Trump — well ahead of others in his party who then followed suit. 

“I think that there is sufficient evidence in the public square to indicate that this president has violated the Constitution and ultimately has committed high crimes and misdemeanors that warrant impeachment,” Neguse said.

Once sworn into office in January, he quickly began working on the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act, or CORE Act, with Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. He was also pushing for stricter gun control measures, the Green New Deal, immigration reform, helicopter safety and education. He introduced 10 bills in his first 100 days and was a cosponsor on more than 100 others. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet with U.S Rep. Joe Neguse (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I think Joe really was well prepared,” Polis said in an interview with The Sun. “He hit the ground running. His colleagues deeply respect him. He’s able to deploy that for Colorado.”

Other first-year Democrats in the House, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, ruffled some feathers by splitting from, and speaking out against, party leadership at times as they reached the national stage. Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Aurora, voted against Pelosi’s bid for speaker.

Neguse, though, has not, instead ingratiating himself with the likes of Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. 

But his rising prominence is attracting Republican attention and attacks. Republican trackers — charged with filming politicians to try and capture a mistake  — have showed up at his events in the district and Neguse recently was targeted by Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign over his views on impeachment. 

The Trump campaign called him a liar for claiming on CNN that he was for impeachment before Neguse was sworn in without even having evidence. They referenced the MSNBC interview he did in November 2018, even though Neguse cited “evidence” that had been reported in the media as his reason for supporting impeachment.

“I thought that particular criticism was misplaced and was inaccurate,” Neguse said.  

Republicans also are critical of the liberal positions he has taken in Congress, such as going all-in on his support of the Green New Deal. He’s also aligned himself, at least symbolically, with Ocasio Cortez, a frequent target of attacks from Republicans. She spent time with Neguse in Boulder during a visit earlier this year. 

Another visitor to Neguse’s district? Pelosi, who in August came to Broomfield to talk about health care. 

Pelosi and Ocasio Cortez represent two spectrums of the Democratic Party, and the fact that both came to visit Colorado and appear with Neguse is a symbol of how Neguse has been able to thread the needle to please both progressives and moderates. 

Via KDVR.

But Republicans have taken notice of his liberal tendencies, which could make him vulnerable. The Republican National Committee called Neguse “the most extreme member of Colorado’s entire Congressional delegation.”

“Neguse supported impeachment before he was even sworn into office, and has proudly embraced fringe proposals like the Green New Deal and impeaching Justice (Brett) Kavanaugh,” said Kyle Kohli, an RNC spokesman. “While that may earn applause from far-left activists in Boulder, Neguse’s extreme record is completely at odds with mainstream Colorado voters.”

Williams says he has noticed a change, too. 

“There’s a little bit of a difference between (being) the very professional manager of DORA and the very liberal positions he’s staked out in Congress,” Williams said. “I’m not sure how much of that is a reaction to the district and how much of it is the D.C. effect that often takes place for people.”

The criticism he’s faced thus far is likely just the beginning for Neguse. If he continues his ascent, the scrutiny from the GOP will only get more intense. 

“I think he’s ready for it to the extent that anyone can be,” Fenberg said. “It’s one thing to have your political opponent be Wayne Williams. It’s another thing to have your political opponent essentially be Trump’s Twitter account.”

Fenberg added: “He gets death threats because of who he is and the position he is in. He doesn’t talk about it a lot. He’s not someone looking for conflict, but it’s there. I think he deals with it in a pretty mature, measured way.”

But at the same time, despite all the noise, Neguse has managed to maintain and build relationships with Republicans. 

For instance, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Windsor Republican who also sits on the judiciary committee, has become friends with Neguse despite the fact that Buck is also the chairman of the Colorado GOP and one of the president’s fiercest defenders.

Not running for Senate, but an eye toward the future

Neguse was frequently mentioned as a possible 2020 U.S. Senate candidate earlier this year, but he officially ruled out running after Hickenlooper got into the race. 

His decision involved personal considerations, too: he is the father of a 15-month-old girl. Running a statewide race in a national, top-tier competitive contest requires an enormous amount of travel on top of the duties of being a congressman, which demand that he be in Washington during the week. 

Friends also say he wanted to continue the work he’d started in the House and not squander the opportunity that was in front of him.

But the speculation, at the very least, raised his profile. Some were calling him the Democratic version Cory Gardner, comparing Neguse to the Republican senator’s outwardly smiling persona and political gift for sticking to his message.

There’s been speculation that Neguse could fill Bennet’s seat if the latter is appointed to a cabinet position in the next administration. (Polis, who would appoint Bennet’s predecessor, declined to comment about Neguse’s political future. “You’d have to talk to him about that,” Polis said.)

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, in Congress. (Handout)

Republicans are taking notice, too. “There is a lot that folks in both parties can learn from Joe’s success,” said former state Rep. Cole Wist, a Centennial Republican who worked at the same law firm as Neguse. “The most important thing is that being nice still works. Joe has a bright future. He is smart, humble and treats others with respect. We need more people like him in politics.” 

Ryan Lynch, the former executive director of the Colorado GOP who has known Neguse since they were students at CU, said that the congressman is a very likable and effective politician. “While I disagree with many of his policies … he’ll continue to be a political force to be reckoned with moving forward,” said Lynch, who now works as a Republican political operative. 

Neguse isn’t talking about his political ambitions, at least not right now. “My focus remains one and the same — the same that it’s been since the day that I was elected last year — which is to represent the people of the 2nd District.” 

But that hasn’t kept other people from wondering about his future.

“From a much earlier age, we kind of all knew that if he wanted to, this was absolutely an option for him,” Fenberg said. “So it’s not a big surprise to see him get the attention that he’s getting. We’ll see where it goes.”

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