How Colorado Freshman Rep. Joe Neguse Has Managed Congressional Friendships With Pelosi, AOC — And Ken Buck

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16min 46sec
Joe Neguse
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Boulder Democrat, at the CPR News studios Friday Dec. 20 2019.

Unlike some of his peers in Colorado's congressional delegation, Joe Neguse was an early supporter of Nancy Pelosi's bid to become Speaker of the House. And that has borne fruit — to the point where the Boulder freshman representative has become a trusted and visible lieutenant.

But at the same time, Neguse has maintained his cred with the House's younger, more progressive wing. He was an early supporter of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal, for example.

Neguse said he approaches relationships in Washington much in the same way he did when he served on The University of Colorado Board of Regents. That ethos also allows him to (largely) buck the partisan morass in Congress. This is evidenced by his burgeoning friendship with fellow Rep. Ken Buck, even though the two share very little common ground philosophically in areas like the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

"I think we have a different way of doing things in Colorado," Neguse said. "We can disagree without being disagreeable and that, at the end of the day, we can try to approach each other in good faith and not question or impugn other's motives."

"We disagree on a lot of policy matters, but that doesn't mean that we can't be kind to each other... I haven't gotten any blowback about that, but I've only been in Congress for 12 months — I suppose we'll see."

Interview Highlights

On representing the freshman class on the House Democrats' leadership team:

"My task there is to advocate for all 62 democratic freshmen in the United States Congress at the leadership table and provide a bridge between them and speaker Pelosi and the majority leaders. So, a lot of my work again, is trying to build big coalitions and on some issues, they're going to be robust areas of disagreement and that's healthy... We ought to be in a party that welcomes the discussion of different policy platforms and ideas and then hopefully get to a place where we can reach consensus."

On attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Spain with Pelosi and delivering a message contrary to that of the Trump administration:

"I think the Congress and the Speaker of the House has a role to play in reassuring our international partners that there are various sub-national governments in the United States, that is to say cities and states that are taking a lead on climate change...I thought that it was incredibly important that we be there, to assure our international partners that the United States is still a partner and that ultimately we will play a leadership role."

On the idea that Trump's impeachment was a biased process by Democrats:

"I would say that there are a number of Republicans and unaffiliated individuals who have spoken out in favor of supporting the action that the House took... I was disappointed in so many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who were unwilling to put country over party at the end of the day... The inescapable conclusion is that the president abused his power and that he obstructed Congress. And so I, I felt in a number of my colleagues felt like the president had really left the Congress with no choice."

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: Welcome back to the program.

Rep. Joe Neguse: That's great to be with you, Ryan. Thanks for having me.

RW: I want to explore this most interesting year for you. In February, you aligned with another first-year representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in announcing the Green New Deal. This is an ambitious package to fight climate change, certainly one that democrats don't see eye to eye on. Speaker Pelosi has said, "I can't say we're going to take that and pass it", and yet you two are closely allied. How do you navigate some of the rather stark differences within your own party?

JN: Well, my approach has always been to try to build partnerships with others who are approaching in good faith the work that's before us in terms of solving problems. And so, I've been very lucky to have developed friendships and partnerships with representatives like representative Ocasio-Cortez, also other members of the freshman class who are from more conservative districts. As you know, I represent the freshman class as part of the leadership team, and so my task there is to advocate for all 62 democratic freshmen in the United States Congress at the leadership table, and provide a bridge between them and speaker Pelosi and the majority leader. So a lot of my work again, is trying to build big coalitions and, obviously as you mentioned on some issues, they are going to be robust areas of disagreement and that's healthy. We ought to be in a party that welcomes the discussion of different policy platforms and ideas and then hopefully get to a place where we can reach consensus.

RW: I mean in a way that mirror is the democratic primary for president, don't you think?

JN: It's a fair point. I have not, to be candid, have not followed the presidential race as closely as maybe perhaps as I should but, because we've been so focused on the legislative work. But yes, you're right. I mean again I think the Democratic Party is having a very big and robust debate right now about the policy priorities for the Democratic Party writ at large, and that's healthy and I imagined that we'll get to a place where there is some consensus and we can push forward.

RW: In September, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came to Boulder to speak at a dinner at CU and she accompanied you to meetings with youth climate activists. You're one of more than a hundred house democrats backing the Green New Deal, do you place more hope for the Green New Deal on the presidential stage deciding who wins in 2020 more so than you do for instance in the current Congress?

JN: I think that, that's right. I mean right now obviously we're in a time of divided government, and so I don't have any illusions that this current president would sign the type of comprehensive legislation that one, like myself believes we need to ultimately fight the existential threat of climate change. And so, I think ultimately to take the kind of steps that we're going to need to take, given the very short runway as detailed by the IPCC report and many other empirical studies that have been done-

RW: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

JN: Yeah, that's right, precisely. That ultimately we're going to need a different precedent. But at the end of the day I will tell you Ryan, that one of the most heartening developments for me personally in the last few years has been to see the youth activism that has developed, demanding that Congress and that policy makers take this issue seriously and treat it with the respect it deserves.

RW: But is the youth movement as partisan as the adult movement? In other words, are you seeing young conservatives on that bandwagon or is it sort of more of the same?

JN: I don't think it's monolithic. I have seen some young conservatives, just to give you an example, one of our focuses has been regenerative agriculture, leveraging the carbon sink in the soil to ultimately help the fight against climate change.

RW: The ground can be a reservoir, if you will, for carbon so that it's not released into the atmosphere and adding as a greenhouse gas you're saying.

JN: That's precisely right, and there are a lot of liberal farmers, conservative farmers, farmers of all political stripes or no political stripes at all, that are very interested. That's one area, we actually had an event in Boulder with a republican congressman from North Dakota who came to the district and spent some time with some farmers who are engaged in this type of work. So look, at the end of the day, I'm going to try to legislate wins where I can.

RW: OK, in December you accompanied Speaker Pelosi to Spain for the Global Climate Change Summit, given what some would call a loss of U.S. leadership on the issue, how do you convince your peers from around the globe that the U.S. is an even vaguely effective ally?

JN: Well, I think it was why that trip, the high-level delegation that you mentioned, was so important. To tell our international partners that not withstanding the efforts by the Trump administration to roll back all kinds of regulations to protect our environment and obviously their attempted exit out of the Paris Climate Accords, that there are millions of Americans who still feel deeply that the United States has to play a leadership role in the fight against climate change. So we were really there to deliver that message.

RW: At best that's a confusing message, at worst you're undermining the president's agenda.

JN: I don't agree. I mean, I think that obviously one could say that the message that we were delivering is different, but look, the congress and the speaker of the house has a role to play in reassuring our international partners that there are various sub-national governments in the United States, that is to say cities, states that are taking a lead on climate change. Colorado and the various cities in my district are great examples of this. I spent a lot of time talking about Boulder and Fort Collins and the other cities that I represent that have committed to 100% renewable energy, not withstanding this president's efforts to curtail climate action. So no, I thought that it was incredibly important that we be there. I will tell you, I left the conference, the COP25, with a distinct sense of just how desperate the international stage is for leadership from the United States. And that is to say I-

RW: You sense a hunger for that?

JN: That's precisely right. And there's a vacuum there, and I am hopeful that we will rise to the occasion and fill it.

RW: Speaker Pelosi did not immediately send the articles of impeachment to the Senate for a trial. She wants to see what she sees is fairer rules there. I want to take this a little further, is there any discussion of democrats waiting until after the 2020 election in hopes they reclaim the Senate and that if President Trump is still president, the impeachment might move forward that way? Is that an idea you're even vaguely acquainted with?

JN: No.

RW: No.

JN: No.


JN: Yeah, I'm not familiar with that.

RW: OK. OK, that's speculation on my part I grant. What is your thought about not having immediately sent the articles over to the Senate?

JN: I think ultimately it's going to be the speaker's decision, and so I would defer to her judgment on that question. I will say, I think there are a number of us in the democratic caucus, and frankly I think the American people as well, who are deeply disappointed by the statements made by the Senate majority leader who has indicated that he's not going to approach this at an impartial or fair way, an objective way. I think it's reasonable to expect that the Senate would be able to forge a consensus on a bipartisan basis in terms of developing rules that would enable the articles to be considered fairly in an impartial way.

RW: Yeah, did that-

JN: In 1999-

RW: Yeah, go ahead.

JN: ... just by way of example, during the impeachment of President Clinton, the Senate by 100 to 0, so every United States Senator, voted in favor of a bipartisan set of rules.

RW: Do you think that the rules were fair in the house? In other words, are democrats asking for something in the Senate that they didn't give republicans at the front end?

JN: No, I don't think that's the case. I thought the process in the house was fair. I thought it was consistent with the way in which impeachments in the past had been conducted. Both President Clinton's as well as President Nixon's, one can see that there was robust due process provided to the president. The president chose not to participate, as you know, that was his decision. At the end of the day I still believe that the process was a fair one, so.

RW: You say the impeachment against Nixon, of course that never actually occurred, but the rules had been drafted.

JN: Precisely and by that I mean the judiciary committee's process. As you may know, articles were approved-

RW: Right.

JN: ... but ultimately he resigned….

RW: I want to share just a few thoughts from Herman Utecht of Hudson, Colorado. After impeachment he continues support the president. I just want to quote him here, "It doesn't change a thing. Those democrats haven't gotten over him beating Hillary. It's been that way since day one. I wish they would just drop it and be done with it and move on". Speak to Herman and folks like him who have a hard time believing that this isn't a deeply partisan move, and who see a man that they voted for under attack constantly and say, "Well, this is just one more iteration."

JN: A couple of things. I mean one, while I respect his opinion, obviously I do disagree and I would say that there are a number of republicans and unaffiliated individuals who have spoken out in favor of supporting the action that the house took. Ultimately as you know, there were no republican members of congress, but there was, in fact, an independent member of congress, Justin Amash, who used to be a republican who felt compelled to vote in favor of both articles of impeachment. He had come out in support of an inquiry many months ago, and after doing so, ultimately had to leave the Republican Party. I would just say I was disappointed in so many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who were unwilling to put country over party. At the end of the day, if one reviews the evidence that was compiled by the intelligence committee and compares that against the legal standards as explained by the constitutional scholars that testified in front of the judiciary committee that I serve on and applies that evidence against those standards, the inescapable conclusion is that the president abused his power and that he obstructed congress.

RW: Why don't we take a quick break and then return to my conversation with Congressman Joe Neguse of Boulder, freshmen and an influential one at that in his first year in office. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.

RW: You're back with Colorado Matters from CPR News, I'm Ryan Warner and let's rejoin my conversation with Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse, part of our year end series of interviews with members of the congressional delegation. You mentioned the judiciary committee, you serve on that with Ken Buck, Congressman Ken Buck from Colorado. It was recently reported that you've developed a close friendship with Buck. I'm not sure how you'd interpret this, but in an interview with the Denver Post, Buck said you were sort of a democratic Cory Gardner adding that, "You're just a fun person to be around". Obviously the two of you have taken starkly different positions, certainly when it comes to impeachment, but it only seems to last for as long as you're on the floor, I guess. What has made that work from your perspective?

JN: I've spent most of my life in Colorado, I grew up here, and I think we have a different way of doing things in Colorado. There is an ethos in our state that we can disagree without being disagreeable, and that at the end of the day we can try to approach each other in good faith and to not question or impugn other's motives. And so, while I disagree with my colleagues on any number of important policy matters, and in some cases vociferously disagree-

RW: And on issues by the way, like climate change and impeachment, which I gather you see as almost existential.

JN: Yeah, I mean certainly as we've talked about climate change, in my view is in fact an existential issue. I think about it in the context of my daughter who's now 15 months old, and the world that she will inherit. But look, again what I would say is turning down the temperature of our politics, I think treating people with respect, even if one disagrees, those are principles that I would hope people would want to see in their public servants. That is the hard work of governing. So, from my perspective, it's why I'm there and I'm lucky to, to have the opportunity to be able to engage in those conversations with my colleagues.

RW: Keeping that line of communication open, are there times you want to just shake Ken Buck or he wants to shake you?

JN: I'll let you ask him that question.

RW: Uh-huh (affirmative). Well let me ask you, are times you want to shake Ken Buck?

JN: No look, I get it. We disagree on a lot of policy matters, but that doesn't mean that we can't be kind to each other.

RW: Do you have interactions in Washington where you sense that people are not often acting in good faith with you?

JN: There's certainly been instances in which one doubts whether or not a member who's approaching you on co-sponsoring a given bill is, in fact, approaching you in good faith. If they have an actual cogent policy basis to pursue the legislation that they are pursuing, or if it's just simply to make a political point in-

RW: That's fascinating. In other words, someone approaches you and then you start going, "What's your angle? What's your motivation"? Do you find yourself having to rely on this kind of spidey-senses a lot in Washington?

JN: Well, I think it's just part and parcel to why it's so important to assemble a good team. So, I end up relying, not just on my spidey-sense, but frankly my team, my legislative director, and the staff that we've assembled in Washington, who are very good at deciphering as proposals come across and kind of understanding the full holistic context of a bill presented to us. But for me personally Ryan, again, I would go back to the statement I made around questioning one's motives, because I think when I talk about approaching someone in good faith, it's not questioning one's motives as to the policy proposal they're making, and by extension not questioning the motives of someone who might disagree with you, who might oppose the policy because it's not in the best interest of their constituents.

RW: Yet it's trust, but verify, I guess is what I hear you saying.

JN: I think that's right.

RW: Uh-huh (affirmative).

JN: Yeah.

RW: Earlier this month you worked with Colorado Senators, Michael Bennett and Cory Gardener on bipartisan bills to expand Rocky Mountain National Park, which is in your district, wholly, partially?

JN: Yeah, completely in my district.

RW: Completely, OK.

JN: Yes.

RW: The congressmen for Rocky Mountain National Park [crosstalk 00:14:40]. So this came after former NASA astronaut Vance D. Brand donated some acreage to the park. You also helped shepherd the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, the CORE Act, to passage in the House. That bill would help protect 400,000 acres of Colorado land. Your office says it's the only bill to pass in the Senate or House this year that has the word Colorado and it, what are the prospects for passage in the Mitch McConnell republican controlled Senate of the CORE Act?

JN: So a couple of things, I would say we've been leading on a number of different public land bills and working very hard on that front. Four of the bills that we introduced this year, the provisions of those bills will become law and all four of them relate to public lands. With respect to the CORE Act, as you mentioned, it was an omnibus large piece of legislation. It would protect about 400,000 acres across our state. It was the first major statewide Colorado wilderness legislation to pass the United States House in over a decade. And so it, in my view, is long overdue. I am hopeful, I'm an eternal optimist that the bill will see action in the United States Senate. I think-

RW: I'll say, we spoke with Senator Bennett and it's dicey. It's dicey over in the Senate for the CORE Act.

JN: Yeah, no. I mean I am a realist as well, and so recognize that in this Senate with Mitch McConnell as the majority leader, as you know, there are over 400 bills that the House has passed many of them bipartisan and none of them are getting consideration of the United States Senate, where really the chamber has become a legislative graveyard of sorts. And I think that's a tragedy and a shame because there's so many positive policy priorities that would move the needle for the American people, including bills that we've authored, like the CORE Act, that deserve at least a hearing in committee.

RW: I mean, I think in the CORE Act's case, you don't even have Senator Gardner on board.

JN: He has not expressed a support yet for the bill, we continue to have conversations with him. There were five republican members of congress who voted for the CORE Act.

RW: None from Colorado, correct?

JN: That's right.

RW: Uh-huh (affirmative).

JN: And it's unfortunate because so many of the local communities impacted by the bill, county commissioners across the state and across the western slope who expressed strong support for the bill-

RW: Some Republican.

JN: Some Republican, that's precisely right. So, I would hope that this would be an area where we could actually forge some compromises and get the bill done. We're going to continue to work at it.

RW: Thanks so much, congressman. I appreciate your time.

JN: Thank you Ryan.

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity. This story is part of a series of conversations on Colorado Matters with members of the Colorado congressional delegation.