Former CU Boulder student body president Joe Neguse made a name for himself in Colorado. Now he’s doing it in Washington, D.C.
There he is with Nancy Pelosi in the House Chamber. There he is making phone calls with Joe Biden. There he is addressing the press, Bernie Sanders behind one shoulder, Cory Booker behind the other.
That’s him on C-Span, CNN and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Former CU Boulder student body president Joe Neguse (Econ, PolSci’05; Law’09) made a name for himself in Colorado. Now he’s doing it in Washington, D.C.
In November the one-time Baker Hall resident was handily elected to Congress from Colorado’s 2nd District, which includes Boulder, becoming the first CU graduate to represent the university’s hometown in the House of Representatives since 1975 and the first African-American elected to Congress from any part of Colorado.
Neguse, 34, hadn’t been sworn in yet when he emerged as a prominent member of Congress’ incoming class, the most demographically diverse in the nation’s history. Within weeks of the Nov. 6 election, he was elected to the House Democratic leadership as co-freshman representative. Soon afterward, he was asked to deliver the party’s final weekly address of 2018.
Since taking office Jan. 3, Neguse has won seats on the House Judiciary and Natural Resources committees, the latter of particular interest to Colorado, given its influence over policy affecting public lands, outdoor recreation and wildlife. As of late January, he had introduced more bills than any freshman member of the 116th Congress.
No one who knows him is surprised.
“You never saw him wasting time,” said Steve Fenberg (EnvSt’06), majority leader of the Colorado State Senate, recalling his days with Neguse at CU, where they became close. “He was always doing something in service of his goals.”
The son of Eritrean refugees and a self-described “eternal optimist,” Neguse has been on an upward trajectory in public life since his teens.
Born in California and raised in Highlands Ranch, Colo., he arrived at CU as a freshman in August 2002 with an impulse toward “civic activism,” he said in a January interview with the Coloradan.
"I reflect a great deal on their journey," Neguse said of his parents,
who fled Eritrea in the early 1980s.
He made connections in student government, worked on projects related to diversity, affordability and higher education finance, and eventually became a tri-executive, or co-president. He campaigned for statewide ballot measures and served as a Boulder Housing Authority commissioner, a city council-appointed post, while earning a reputation as a thorough student with a sense of humor and authentic humility.
Amid all that, Neguse managed to hold down a job at the CU Rec Center, find time for intramural basketball, write an honors thesis about failing nation-states and graduate from CU a semester early with two majors and summa cum laude honors.
“I distinctly remember him coming in one week having consulted sources tracing back in African history to the 15th century,” said CU political scientist David S. Brown, who led Neguse’s honors thesis committee (and whom Neguse credits with “a profound impact on my career”). “He uncovered pre-colonial trade routes to help explain why certain countries were able to maintain fairly stable exchange rates, a key government responsibility that is usually beyond the ability of most failed states.”
Brown added: “I feel honored that Joe regards me as a mentor, but I know better — I’ve always been the one learning from him.”
Between Neguse’s December 2005 graduation and his return to CU for law school (where he would be elected class president), he worked for Andrew Romanoff, then speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, and co-founded New Era Colorado, a nonprofit foundation that promotes civic engagement among young people through voter-registration drives and leadership training.
By 2008, according to the Denver Post, Romanoff was already joking that “one day we will all be working for Joe.”
That was the year Neguse, then 24 and still in law school, won election to the CU Board of Regents, which governs all four CU campuses. Among the youngest Regents ever, he served six years, representing the district he now serves in Congress.
In the years to come, Neguse would join one of Denver’s oldest law firms, Holland & Hart, run for Colorado Secretary of State, fall short, and join then-Gov. John Hickenlooper’s cabinet as executive director of the state’s consumer protection agency.
In June 2017, just after Jared Polis, now governor, announced he would seek that office instead of a sixth term in Congress, Neguse said he would run for the seat. Now he’s a sitting member of the House of Representatives, serving alongside an unprecedented number of women, the first Muslim and Native American women and the youngest congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, 29.
Neguse’s background gives his arrival as a major Colorado public figure a quintessentially American cast.
Born in the U.S. to immigrant parents who fled chaos in Eritrea in the 1980s, he grew up in Highlands Ranch and attended ThunderRidge High School. His parents, Debesai and Azeib Neguse, put themselves through school and raised Neguse and his sister, Sarah, with an appreciation for opportunity.
“I reflect a great deal on their journey,” said Neguse, whose parents, wife Andrea (Jour’11) and infant daughter Natalie attended his swearing-in. “It’s never too far from my mind.”
His early weeks in the capital were predictably busy.
Neguse set up shop in the Longworth House Office Building, began hiring staff, including district director and deputy chief of staff Sally Anderson (IntlAf’12), gave his first speech on the House floor and held town hall meetings in Estes Park, Fort Collins and Broomfield. He participated in efforts to end the 35-day government shutdown, introduced a flurry of bills — and spent a lot of time in the air. By his count, he took 10 flights in his first month in office.
During a mid-January return to Colorado, he came to CU for a ceremonial second swearing-in at Colorado Law. His former professor Melissa Hart, now a state Supreme Court justice, administered the oath in Wittemyer Courtroom before an assembly that included Polis and former Colorado Law Dean Phil Weiser, now the state attorney general.
In brief remarks, Hart recalled that Neguse’s first law school class was the opening session of her civil procedure course. When she entered the room, she said, she noticed one student had the attention of most of the others.
"Exactly the kind of person you might want as your Congressman."
Describing Neguse as smart, funny, collaborative and “extremely kind,” she called him “exactly the kind of person you might want as your Congressman,” regardless of party affiliation.
Neguse’s early priorities in Washington have included public lands protection, voting rights, climate change, prescription drug costs, gun safety and immigration.
Higher education is on his agenda, too.
Well versed in the challenges facing colleges and universities from his years as a regent, Neguse said he was preparing legislation that would make it easier for students to transfer credits between two- and four-year schools, and is looking at ways to lower textbook costs.
He also plans to advocate, as he has since he was a student, for greater access to financial support for public higher education.
Constituents passing through Washington should feel at ease relaying their priorities in person: Beneath his office nameplate, Neguse has posted a sign that reads, “This office belongs to the people of 2nd Congressional district of Colorado.”
In our print edition, this story appears under the title "The Congressman." Comment on this story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top image by Getty Images/AAron Ontiveroz/Contributor