Representative-Elect Joe Neguse in the CPR studios on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018.

Alex Scoville/CPR News

Last week's orientation for new members of Congress was more exciting than your typical new-job junket.

Freshman Democrats found themselves taking sides in a House leadership battle and advocating for a climate change committee.

One of those new faces is Representative-elect Joe Neguse from Colorado's Second District, which encompasses  Boulder, Fort Collins, and Vail. Taking over Governor-elect Jared Polis' old seat, Neguse, 34,  is the son of Eritrean refugees and a former Regent at the University of Colorado.

The first African-American from Colorado elected to Congress, ​Neguse talked to Colorado Matters about the brewing fight for Speaker of the House and aligning with high-profile Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on climate change. He also addressed accepting campaign donations from a Denver law firm that works with the Saudi government in light of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Interview Highlights

On why he chose to back Nancy Pelosi:

"So ultimately where I landed is that I would support Nancy Pelosi to be the next Speaker of the House for a variety of reasons. I think it's important that we have steady leadership. I also would just say I found it to be quite interesting that this question was sort of asked so often when there are no other candidates that I'm aware of that are running against Leader Pelosi. But in any event, I also thought what was pretty heartening for me, there was some signals from the leadership office this last week that made it pretty clear that the leadership team was going to ensure that there are diverse voices at the table.

So what do I mean by that? Leadership made a commitment to create a diversity office in the next Congress which was a very important step and also a commitment to members of the Progressive Caucus that the Progressive Caucus would be represented on key exclusive committees which, again, I thought was important. So ultimately decided that that's where I landed."

On why he supports Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's push for a climate change committee:

"I do think that this is an existential threat. I see this as the defining issue of our time and so it's important in my view to have a select congressional committee that ultimately has the tools to really get a grasp on the public policy solutions that I think we should ultimately be adopting. That need to be very, very significant in scope to ultimately move the needle in a tangible way.

Now, as you said, we do have a Republican President and a Republican Senate. I am not naive enough to think that this president will sign the kind of far reaching, comprehensive legislation that I believe is warranted to ultimately deal with the planetary crisis that we're grappling with. But I do think there's an emerging bipartisan consensus on some potential solutions. You've heard a number of Republicans and Democrats talk about pricing carbon. There are a variety of different ways to do that, whether you are doing a carbon tax that then includes a dividend that is paid back to the American taxpayer or using those dividends to reinvest in renewable energy. I actually think you see a lot of thought leaders on the left and the right talking about the need to think thoughtfully about some policy prescriptions on this issue."

On learning to work across the aisle on the Board of Regents:

"That's certainly been my approach here in the state when serving on the Board of Regents. I was the Democratic Representative for the Second Congressional District. But the entire time I was there, I served on a Republican board where the Republicans had a majority. Which meant if I wanted to get anything done, I needed to convince and control and persuade my colleagues to ultimately help pursue some of the policies that I wanted to enact. So I'd like to export some of that pragmatism, that approach to Washington, D.C. I think we'd be well better served if that were the case."

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Orientation for new members of Congress last week was anything but perfunctory. Freshman Democrats found themselves taking sides in a leadership battle that includes Representative-elect Joe Neguse of Lafayette. The former CU Regents and the son of refugees, he's the first African American from Colorado elected to Congress and Congressman-elect welcome to the program.

Joe Neguse: Thank you for having me Ryan. Great to be here. 

RW: So on Monday we learned the longest serving member of the delegation Diana DeGette had withdrawn her bid to become Majority Whip in the House, citing internal pressure to get behind current leadership. That of course includes speaker Nancy Pelosi. Also Monday, 16 House Democrats released a letter saying the chamber needs new leadership. Your fellow freshman Jason Crow of Aurora didn't sign that letter, but he says he won't back Pelosi. Will you?

JN: Well so I think it's important for every member to make a decision that they believe is in the best interest of the constituents in their district. I thought it was important for me to keep an open mind during the first week of orientation so that I could actually visit with the existing leadership and with my fellow freshman and members elect. Talk to them about their vision for the future of not just our caucus, but of our country and-

RW: Ultimately what did you hear and what have you decided?

JN: So ultimately where I landed is that I would support Nancy Pelosi to be the next Speaker of the House for a variety of reasons. I think it's important that we have steady leadership. I also would just say I found it to be quite interesting that this question was sort of asked so often when there are no other candidates that I'm aware of that are running against Leader Pelosi. But in any event, I also thought what was pretty heartening for me, there was some signals from the leadership office this last week that made it pretty clear that the leadership team was going to ensure that there are diverse voices at the table. So what do I mean by that? Leadership made a commitment to create a diversity office in the next Congress which was a very important step and also a commitment to members of the Progressive Caucus that the Progressive Caucus would be represented on key exclusive committees which, again, I thought was important. So ultimately decided that that's where I landed.

RW: Help us bring this beyond the Beltway. Why does this matter to, this decision you've made to support speaker Pelosi. Why does that matter to the people of your district?

JN: Well, I mean, I would say it does matter although ultimately this issue has probably received a lot more attention then perhaps I would give it. I think what's far more important for us as a party and as a caucus is to discuss the policy matters that we're going to push on when ultimately the 116th Congress is sworn in. 

RW: So you are convinced that perhaps members of Congress of color and Progressives will have a louder voice in this Congress?

JN: I think so. That's certainly my hope.

RW: Okay. Besides leadership another issue that's been widely reported on with this new Congress is climate change. According to Politico, a group of younger representatives wants the Democratic party to take more aggressive action, perhaps expanding the scope of the committee that already exists on this issue.
Another first year member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is behind that push. You backed her tweeting, "As a millennial I firmly believe climate change is the defining issue of our time. Proud to join her and others in pushing for a select congressional committee." Given who is in the White House and that the Senate is in Republican hands, what can you achieve on the issue of climate change?

JN: Well I would say a couple of things. So you know first and foremost given the quote that you just repeated, I do think that this is an existential threat. I see this as the defining issue of our time and so it's important in my view to have a select congressional committee that ultimately has the tools to really get a grasp on the public policy solutions that I think we should ultimately be adopting. 

That need to be very, very significant in scope to ultimately move the needle in a tangible way. Now as you said we do have a Republican president or Republican Senate. I am not naïve enough to think that this president will sign the kind of far reaching, comprehensive legislation that I believe is warranted to ultimately deal with the planetary crisis that we're grappling with. But I do think there's an emerging bipartisan consensus on some potential solutions. You've heard a number of Republicans and Democrats talk about pricing carbon. There are a variety of different ways to do that, whether you are doing a carbon tax that then includes a dividend that is paid back to the American taxpayer or using those dividends to reinvest in renewable energy. I actually think you see a lot of thought leaders on the left and the right talking about the need to think thoughtfully about some policy prescriptions on this issue. 

So I think it'll be important to find consensus where we can. All that being said, we will have another election in two years where we will have an opportunity to potentially flip the Senate as well as retake the presidency. Much of the work we will do in this next two years is also to set a governing agenda that hopefully, the next administration, which I hope will be in Democratic hands can ultimately enact and implement. 

RW: In a way this is about saying, this would be our agenda if we had full control of governments. If not achieving actual results in the next two years. 

JN: I think that's right but I would say that we should also legislate where we can, right? I don't think that those two goals are mutually exclusive. I think we can do both. 

RW: I just want to know, that you received significant contributions this election cycle from leading attorneys at a Denver firm called Brownstein Hyatt. Several outlets have reported that it does business with the Saudi government, the contract of about $125,000 a month. Given the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, do you have any reservations about that firm supporting you?

JN: I would say I disagree with the premise of the question around significant contributions. I think it's, the lawyers that you referenced donated one to two percent of the total amount that we've raised. The vast majority of campaign donations-

RW: $20,000 total from these attorneys. 

JN: That's right, out of about $1.3 million raised. Most of the money that we raised was from small donors from across our state. But, yes. There were some prominent attorneys like Stan Garnett. He's a former Boulder district attorney, Boulder community leader who works at the firm that you referenced who supported our campaign. At the end of the day, I guess I'm far more concerned about taking action at the policy level in the Congress to ultimately hold Saudi Arabia accountable, which is something that I'm certainly very supportive of. Representative Ro Khanna, out of California, recently introduced a resolution to end the United States' support for the war in Yemen which Saudi Arabia has been engaged in. Unfortunately, the House Republicans blocked that resolution five days ago. But, fortunately, in the 116th Congress, we will have a Democratic majority that can actually act on that issue and on many others. That's where my focus is. 

RW: Okay. Any reservations at all about taking the Brownstein Hyatt's money?

JN: Again, as I said, my focus is ultimately as a policy matter, holding folks accountable. That's what I'm going to be focused on. 

RW: You're not answering that particular question. I just want to be clear.

JN: I guess what I'm saying to you is that fundamentally I think the way in which we should judge candidates and public officials is how they choose to legislate and how they choose to act out in policy terms. From my vantage point, I think it's pretty clear, I'm a very passionate advocate for holding the kingdom of Saudi Arabia accountable for this incredibly ghastly action that they've, an atrocity that they committed. 

RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we are speaking with Congressman-elect Joe Neguse from Colorado's Second Congressional district. He's a Democrat, a new face in congress. There are more than 60 new members of Congress. We mentioned Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described socialist who, at 29, is the youngest woman ever elected. The group also includes a former NFL player. A one-time rapper. There's Donna Shalala of Florida who was the Health and Human Services Secretary for Bill Clinton. Let's talk about you in more depth. You're 34, do I have that right?

JN: Yes, yeah.

RW: The son of refugees from Eritrea in East Africa. We mentioned you're a former CU Regent. You've been critical in encouraging young people to vote through an organization you co-founded called New Era Colorado. What made you want to serve in Congress, whose approval ratings I'll note are around 20 percent, Joe Neguse. 

JN: That's pretty low. My wife and I last year, last summer, thought long and hard about whether or not to ultimately take the plunge and to throw my hat in the ring. Ultimately, we landed on doing it because we both were so deeply concerned about the direction that this country is taking with this current administration. And in particular, for me, being the son of immigrants and witnessing, seeing this administration's dehumanizing rhetoric around immigrants and refugees, the draconian policies that they've pursued with respect to immigration, the actions on our southern border, separating children from their parents, ultimately led me to conclude that my voice would perhaps be a unique one that could add to the debate in a substantive way and that I might have a role to play to serve this district and this state. So ultimately, decided to throw my hat in the ring.

RW: Put differently, would you say that you are now in Congress because of Donald Trump? 

JN: I think that's right. I certainly have always been passionate about public service. As you mentioned, serving as a regent, serving in Governor Hickenlooper's cabinet for several years as the head of our state's Consumer Protection Agency. But I don't know that I would have run for Congress, were it not for the really kind of unique situation we found ourselves in this last two years with a president, that obviously I vehemently disagreed with on quite a lot.

RW: So you will hold the seat that the state's new governor, Jared Polis had. Again this is the Second Congressional District. I spoke with Polis last week and he said, "Listen, Colorado functions better than Washington D.C., largely because the partisanship in D.C. is so entrenched." You've already been exposed to the infighting among Democrats. How do you try to navigate all of the politics and actually get things done for constituents?

JN: So I think the governor-elect is right, that we do things differently here in Colorado. There is a certain ethos here in our state. You've had Governor Hickenlooper on your program many times, and he always made it clear to the Cabinet, when I was serving under him in state government, that there was no margin of making enemies, that it was important to work across party lines to try to get things done for the people of Colorado. And that's certainly been my approach here in the state when serving on the Board of Regents. I was the Democratic Representative for the Second Congressional District. 

RW: That's right.

JN: But the entire time I was there, I served on a Republican board where the Republicans had a majority. Which meant if I wanted to get anything done, I needed to convince and control and persuade my colleagues to ultimately help pursue some of the policies that I wanted to enact. So I'd like to export some of that pragmatism, that approach to Washington D.C. I think we'd be well better served if that were the case. I'm not naïve enough to think that's going to happen overnight. But I would say, in my conversations with the freshman class over the course of the last week and a half, it's pretty clear to me that America in the aggregate has sent a new generation of, particular young folks, who are just very eager to get to work and are willing to listen to people who might see the world a little differently than they do. You see this, of course, in my friend and colleague, Jason Crow, who's also, will be joining me in Congress.

RW: From the Sixth Congressional District, Aurora.

JN: That's correct. And so I'm excited. I am an eternal optimist, as my wife always tells me. So there's a lot to be hopeful about, and I'm hopeful that we can actually get some things done. 

RW: Very briefly, to wrap up, you're in a safe Democratic district at this point. How long do you imagine serving?

JN: That's a great question. 

RW: That doesn't mean you couldn't be primaried, but I'm just saying that it's likely that a Democrat will be re-elected in this district. 

JN: Well, so, I would say this. It's an incredible honor to represent this district. I am grateful to the people of the Second District who have put their confidence in me to represent them and, of course, who have made history in the process for our state and our country. Obviously, there are sacrifices involved. My wife and I just welcomed our first child into the world. We have a baby daughter. Her name is Natalie. She is three months old. 

RW: My goodness! This is a time of no sleep for you, for many reasons. 

JN: It was a big year. So the travel back and forth is obviously, is taxing on the family, and so I can't imagine that, I'd like to serve for a limited period of time in which I can actually look back and say that I got something done for the people of my district and delivered for the constituents in the Second District. And then ultimately go on and serve in a different capacity. I think that's what our democracy is all about. 

RW: So you don't envision a career, congressional stint.

JN: No. I do not. 

RW: Okay. Thank you for being with us. 

JN: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Ryan.

RW: Democrat Joe Neguse was just elected to Congress for the Second District in Colorado. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.