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U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse wants to restore faith in Congress. Here’s how he’s trying to do it

Jacy Marmaduke
Fort Collins Coloradoan
Published 8:39 PM EDT Aug 13, 2020
U.S. Representative Joe Neguse congratulates a new United States citizen during a naturalization ceremony at Dunn Elementary School in Fort Collins on Friday, February 21, 2020.
Tanya Fabian/For The Coloradoan

Sworn into Congress in January 2019 amid the longest federal government shutdown in American history, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse was eager to get home.

He had back-to-back town halls to prepare for, both scheduled four days after he took office. He held 22 more in the following year, more than any other freshman lawmaker and more than the rest of Colorado’s congressional delegation combined.

Nearly all of the 30 bills he introduced in his first year in office — the most of any freshman lawmaker — were inspired by people and municipalities from his district, which covers Fort Collins and the rest of Larimer County as well as the Boulder, Vail and Thornton areas. Four of the bills passed into law. (He tied with another freshman lawmaker for the “most bills passed” title.)

He did it while flying between Washington, D.C., and Colorado every week so he could spend Thursdays through Sundays with his wife, Andrea; his nearly-2-year-old daughter, Natalie; and the constituents of his district, whom he describes as possessing “the skills, wisdom, ingenuity and creativity (needed) to address the problems we’re all facing collectively as a community.”

If you ask Neguse, who would prefer you call him “Joe,” his growing collection of superlatives comes not from the pursuit of glory but from an innate desire to do the improbable.

At a time when public disapproval of Congress sits easily above 70%, the nation approaches 5.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and America endures the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Neguse wants to restore people’s trust in government.

“There is this emerging lack of faith in our government, and in the ability of our federal government in particular to be able to solve some of the challenges we face,” he said. “For me, I’ve been able to pursue my dreams because of the freedoms and the opportunities we have in this country. I have immense faith in the ability of our republic to get things done. So part of my obligation is to show that can be the case, to show what good governance looks like.”

To him, that looks like leading locally: being present in his district, earnestly listening to constituents of all political stripes and introducing legislation that will help them.

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The logistics of leading locally have changed dramatically since March, when the coronavirus pandemic sledge-hammered its way into the public consciousness and made “the problems we’re all facing collectively as a community” unequivocally worse.

Gone are the days of in-person town halls, with engaged constituents packing libraries and restaurants shoulder to shoulder. Neguse, like many Americans, hasn’t attended a public gathering in months. When he’s not wearing a mask 6 feet apart from his colleagues in the U.S. Capitol, most of Neguse’s meetings are over Zoom.

He’s introduced about a dozen more pieces of legislation since March, most aimed at helping communities weather the COVID-19 outbreak. Eight of them were incorporated into the House’s HEROES Act, including measures to ensure direct federal stabilization funds to cities and counties with fewer than 500,000 people, appropriate $25 billion in supplemental funds to the U.S. Postal Service, increase food stamps funding by 15%, and secure hazard pay for frontline workers. Neguse is hoping that some of those measures will make it into the Senate stimulus bill that was being developed before negotiations stalled.

“The role of government — state, federal, local — to be a resource and provide a lifeline to a community that is struggling is just so critically important, and I’ve always felt that way,” he said in an interview. “It’s why I decided to run for office in the first place. If ever there were a time for our government and our leaders to be responsive, now would be it.”

‘We felt like we owed it to the constituents’

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., volunteers at Community Food Share food bank in Louisville on June 5, 2020.
Courtesy of Sally Tucker

Neguse learned from an early age “to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities you have in front of you.”

The son of Eritrean (east African) refugees, he was born in California but spent most of his childhood in the Boulder area. His family “came here with virtually nothing and succeeded.”

He was 24 years old and wrapping up his law degree when he was elected as a University of Colorado regent for District 2 in 2008. He served as a regent and worked as a litigator for clients in employment, commercial and regulatory cases until 2015, when former Gov. John Hickenlooper named him executive director of the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA), Colorado’s consumer protection agency.

He also founded New Era Colorado, a youth civic engagement organization, served a stint on the Boulder Housing Authority and ran for Colorado Secretary of State in 2014.

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He said he looked at his election to Congress as another opportunity. He was 35 at the time, making him the youngest member of the state’s delegation and the first Black person representing Colorado in Congress. He was soon elected as the freshman representative for the House Democratic Leadership team and placed on committees for natural resources, judiciary and, later, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

“There aren’t a lot of people in Congress who look like me and who have this opportunity,” he said. “We felt like we owed it to the constituents who have put their faith and confidence in me to do everything we could to deliver on the promises we made. That meant being active.”

Winning the 2nd Congressional District seat also earned him a relatively large legislative team, with 17 staffers across three offices in D.C., Fort Collins and Boulder.

He and his staff made it their mission to “hit the ground running” on legislation. His legislative record reveals both his background and his passions: Education, fair elections, public lands and climate change, consumer advocacy, housing affordability and immigration.

His legislation also reflects the stories Neguse and staff have heard from constituents and specific struggles faced by municipalities in the district.

Ally’s Act, which would require insurance companies to cover specialized hearing devices, was inspired by a letter from 10-year-old Broomfield resident Ally Tumblin. Two bills meant to expand affordable housing stock were the product of conversations with the Boulder and Fort Collins housing authorities. Conversations with Front Range Community College and Colorado State University leaders led to two bills aiming to expand access to open source textbooks and aid students in getting associate’s degrees for college coursework they’ve already completed. 

Neguse’s office has taken the same locally inspired approach to legislation and advocacy since the pandemic hit. He introduced the Coronavirus Community Relief Act after Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell and others in his district expressed dismay about the lack of direct federal stimulus funding for cities and counties with a population of less than 500,000 people. No municipality in his district met the initial population requirement for direct funding.

He convinced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to include firefighters and first responders with symptoms in the top-priority group for testing after working with Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint. Neguse and his staff worked nights and weekends to help Coloradans who were stranded abroad at the start of the pandemic return home.

Conversations with constituents also inspired his legislation barring price-gouging and allowing food stamp benefits to be used on household goods like cleaning products and diapers during the pandemic.

Many of Neguse’s bills won’t pass. After all, the vast majority of legislation introduced in Congress never becomes law. But he’s optimistic that some of the measures he secured in the HEROES Act will make it through the Senate, such as assistance to USPS and SNAP funding.

“I know people are often pessimistic about that, but from our vantage point, last year we had three bills signed into law by the president,” he said. 

Neguse said he has a bent toward bipartisanship, which has proven useful for a Democratic lawmaker in a divided Congress under a Republican president. While he said some issues, like climate change, call for “comprehensive, large-scale bills that meet the gravity of the crisis we’re in,” he also sees incremental change as valuable. He co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution in the House with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and has introduced several sweeping environmental bills without bipartisan support, including a federal ban on certain pesticides, but he’s also sponsored bills on regenerative agriculture with Republicans.

He said he became well versed in bipartisanship while he was a CU regent, working on a majority-Republican board with a 5-4 split.

“For me to get anything done, I needed to convince some of my Republican colleagues to come along,” he said.

Next up on the docket for Neguse, pandemic-wise, is continuing to address the economic fallout and unemployment toll of coronavirus. He and his office field calls daily from constituents who are struggling to pay rent, feed their families, secure unemployment benefits and keep their small businesses afloat. He said he talks weekly with the mayors and county commissioners in his district, and his staff sends him a daily summary of problems happening throughout the district. He’s continuing to hold town halls, now virtually, and he’s kept up his his twice-weekly flight schedule.

He said he believes in the American Dream because he’s lived it. But he also describes the American Dream as “under assault,” not just because of widespread anguish wrought by the pandemic but also because of the lack of access to affordable education, housing and health care, the mounting consequences of climate change and the “very real toxicity” that has infused partisan politics.

Given all that, he said he understands the temptation to be jaded or cynical about the value of government. But he’s still going to try to convince you otherwise, because he’s seen that federal lawmakers can work together and get things done.

In big ways, like when Neguse’s Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act secured bipartisan support and became the first large-scale Colorado public lands bill to pass the House in almost a decade. Environmental advocates are hopeful it will pass both chambers as a negotiated amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act later this year.

And in smaller ways, like the day of his service town hall at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Neguse held several of them during his first year in office, inviting constituents to join a volunteer project before sitting down together for a question-and-answer session. The plan was to seed and mulch a trail in the park for about 45 minutes before the formal town hall portion of the event began.

Among the attendees was a Republican tracker, who regularly tailed Neguse at events and recorded his speeches for the opposing party. A tracker’s goal, writes the Washington Post, is to “catch (politicians) saying something dumb, offensive or off-message so it can then be used against them.”

But the tracker showed up that day with his phone put away — for the moment, anyhow — dressed for a stint of landscaping and ready to literally roll up his sleeves and work with Neguse to restore a little piece of Rocky Mountain National Park.

“That helps restore people’s faith,” Neguse said, smiling as he recalled the morning. “We can solve big problems by working together and listening to each other and respecting each other’s opinions and lived experiences.”

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support stories like this one by purchasing a digital subscription to the Coloradoan.​​​​​​​

This content was originally published here.