Rising star builds following on climate action, public lands

By Nick Sobczyk | 10/18/2019 07:19 AM EDT

ESTES PARK, Colo. — Back in April, before the summer heat had reached the high peaks here, Rep. Joe Neguse took his constituents out to do trail maintenance at nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in May.

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in May. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

ESTES PARK, Colo. — Back in April, before the summer heat had reached the high peaks here, Rep. Joe Neguse took his constituents out to do trail maintenance at nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.

The "service town hall" was meant as a way for the first-term Democrat to connect with the community and for constituents to air concerns all at once.

A conservative group had assigned him a tracker to attend and film his events back home, and Neguse and his staff were wondering how he’d cover it.


"He shows up, and we’re like, ‘Is he going to film us doing the yardwork?’" Neguse said. "But he joined us. The tracker did mulch work. He was in workout clothes and everything, and mulched with us for an hour!"

The incident exemplified the mix of environmentalism and retail politics Neguse has embraced in the well-to-do 2nd District, which is speckled with the glorious natural features of northwest Colorado.

In some ways, it’s a function of location. The district, which also includes Boulder, Vail and Fort Collins, leans heavily to the left, and more than half its area is public lands.

Estes Park sits at the foot of the national park and is a major hub for tourism in the summer, when waits to get into Rocky Mountain through the main entrances can run half an hour.

Colorado, more broadly, has a convergence of 21st-century environmental challenges, as both population and oil and gas production boom and its famous natural features are increasingly harmed by pollution and climate change.

The state’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, held Neguse’s seat for a decade and was a progressive staple of the House Rules Committee. He was elected the country’s first openly gay governor in 2018.

Neguse has firsts on his resume, too, in the increasingly blue world of Colorado politics. He’s the only African American ever to represent the state in Congress and the first Eritrean American to be elected to Congress, period.

At 35, he’s also one of the youngest members of the House, part of a class that helped Democrats shake up national politics in the 2018 midterms.

Green New Deal a ‘road map’

Like many of those younger members, he spends a large chunk of his time thinking and talking about climate change. He was an early co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, the progressive climate change policy outline that made waves when it was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) earlier this year.

"The Green New Deal provides a road map, a set of values that we all should — in our view — agree to as we map out the transition to 100% renewable energy," Neguse said. "The key now will be putting together the component pieces."

Neguse has deep roots in the state and the kind of political chops that make him an obvious choice for statewide office in the eyes of Democratic operatives.

Though he lost a statewide race in 2014, he has been seen as a rising star for years and was widely thought of as a candidate to run in 2020 against Republican Sen. Cory Gardner before former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) jumped into the race last month.

"Joe is definitely the candidate that I think a lot of Republicans had feared would run for Senate this time," said Tyler Sandberg, a GOP consultant and onetime staffer for former Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. "I think people put him, Hickenlooper and Mike Johnston as the three most formidable opponents for Cory Gardner."

During a recent town hall here in August, Neguse, a member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, opened with a 10-minute monologue about climate change and public lands issues. Afterward, he shook hands and spoke individually with every constituent who wanted to.

He knew many of them on a first-name basis. He enjoys town halls — he has had more than 20 so far — and said they are a "cornerstone" of his service. One man handed him an envelope that he said contained a letter about the Second Amendment, and Neguse promised to read it that day.

The Republican tracker who had followed him, an amiable and sweaty man in his early 20s, introduced himself briefly to reporters and said he agrees with many of Neguse’s stances on the environment.

"The best way to be responsive is to be present," Neguse said. "The best way to understand the challenges that face local communities like Estes Park or Boulder or Fort Collins is to be in the communities."

Star potential

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). Photo credit: Nick Sobczyk/E&E News
Neguse speaking with constituents during a town hall this summer. | Nick Sobczyk/E&E News

If he doesn’t run for statewide office, Neguse could translate that personable brand into a bid for House speaker someday, even in an era of hostile politics, said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, the state’s largest progressive advocacy group.

Case in point: Neguse was elected this year as one of two freshman class representatives in Democratic leadership, alongside California Rep. Katie Hill. He’s also a vice chairman of the House Progressive Caucus.

"Colorado has traditionally put boring white dudes into a lot of the offices on the federal level and on the statewide level, and it’s compelling to have a person who represents a different identity," Silverii said.

"I think Joe would be a compelling candidate for virtually any office," he added.

But in a statewide race, Neguse would also be running with a decidedly liberal record in a place where the oil and gas industry has plenty of clout and where progressives have sometimes had to moderate their stances to get elected.

The industry may not be popular in the 2nd District, but the state as a whole is the nation’s fifth-largest producer of natural gas.

In 2018, for instance, Polis opposed a ballot initiative that would have required oil and gas projects to be set back 2,500 feet from occupied buildings, which critics said would effectively have banned hydraulic fracturing. It failed, but Polis had supported a similar measure in 2014.

Colorado Republicans acknowledge Neguse’s ambitions and the nice-guy brand that he’s built up around the state, but they still think supporting initiatives like the Green New Deal will eventually hurt him.

They also point out that he narrowly lost his first bid for statewide office in a campaign for Colorado secretary of state against Republican Wayne Williams.

As Sandberg put it, "We’re a state where you’ll go out rock climbing and you’ll have a Halliburton frack operator next to a Sierra Club activist."

"I think there is a serious risk that he becomes so D.C. and so hyperpartisanized that he loses the brand that he built here that I think would make him a more formidable candidate," Sandberg said.

For now, Neguse maintains a liberal tone that fits his district. Kyle Kohli, Colorado communications director for the Republican National Committee, called Neguse "the furthest-left member of Colorado’s congressional delegation."

"Democrats cannot mount successful general election campaigns while pledging to eradicate hundreds of thousands of working-class jobs supported by the energy industry," Kohli said.

‘Changing the institution’

Neguse’s parents emigrated from Eritrea, on the north edge of the Horn of Africa, in the 1980s and eventually settled in Colorado.

He grew up going to Rocky Mountain National Park every year and would eventually propose to his wife, Andrea, on the side of the highway in Estes Park, as cars flew by honking their horns.

Neguse, like any politician, has talking points and a clear political persona. He was widely lauded by House Democrats and progressive groups for a fiery speech he gave on the floor in June, drawing on his experience as the son of immigrants to rebut Republican attacks on H.R. 6, House Democrats’ bill to provide a pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.

But that background, and his unusual youth for a member of Congress, also gives him an air of accessibility.

"My parents weren’t lawyers. They weren’t elected to public office. They came here with very little," Neguse said. "They worked incredibly hard to give me this opportunity to be able to do what I’m doing now."

In Washington, Neguse and the freshman class stand out in the overwhelmingly white hallways of Capitol Hill. His election last year was not the only first. Neguse noted that his class also includes the election of the first two Native American women in Reps. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.).

A benefit of being at the leadership table with Hill, Neguse said, is that he’s been able to meet and represent a hugely diverse freshman class.

"Obviously there’s going to be some friction, some tension, but I’ve got to say, I think we’re changing the institution from the inside," he said. "And that’s a pretty heartening thing for someone like me."

New Era Colorado

Neguse’s springboard to the public eye was New Era Colorado, a youth voter group he co-founded with a group of friends shortly after graduating in 2005 from the University of Colorado.

At the time, Neguse said, there wasn’t a real avenue in Colorado for young people to get involved in politics. New Era could represent something "exciting and new and different," something accessible for college students and young adults.

So Neguse and his cohorts drew on the clunky pop culture of the mid-2000s, holding events like candidate "Survivor" and candidate "Cribs" to draw in the class of MTV millennials who are now increasingly present on Capitol Hill and in progressive political movements.

The organization has inserted itself into some of the state’s biggest public policy debates. They include a recent campaign to create a municipal utility in Boulder as part of a push for clean energy, still in limbo as the city struggles to acquire Xcel Energy Inc.’s assets.

New Era has also registered 150,000 young voters around Colorado, according to Neguse, and became a state powerhouse, known for cultivating young political talent. The group has bolstered a wider political transformation in Colorado, from a state that voted twice for President George W. Bush to a reliably blue presidential state expected to host one of the most competitive Senate races in the country in 2020.

The upshot for Neguse is that he has name recognition and tentacles of influence all over the state.

Polis set records by spending more than $7 million to take the 2nd District seat in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, much of it in a hotly contested Democratic primary.

But when Polis announced his bid for governor in 2018, Neguse walked into the primary and cruised to more than 65% of the vote. He spent slightly more than $1 million in the entire 2018 cycle.

Now, Neguse is arguably the most successful of New Era’s co-founders, but all have gone on to political careers. Two are Democratic members of the state Legislature, including state Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg. Another, Lisa Kaufmann, is Polis’ chief of staff.

"They’re an absolute powerhouse and sort of a farm team for progressives in Colorado at all levels," Silverii said.

Neguse ruled out a run for Senate, even before Hickenlooper jumped into the race.

It would have been a run against two former bosses. After a stint with former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) — who is also running in the Senate primary — and getting his law degree from the University of Colorado Law School in 2009, Neguse served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies in the Hickenlooper administration.

‘Dramatic action’

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). Photo credit: Nick Sobczyk/E&E News
Neguse speaking this summer at the Solid Power Inc. battery factory in Louisville, Colo. Gov. Jared Polis (D) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) are sitting to the left. | Nick Sobczyk/E&E News

Like many politicians, there’s a duality to Neguse’s thinking.

There’s the politician who shook every hand at that Estes Park town hall and who brags that he’s introduced more bills — many of them bipartisan — and done more town halls than any other freshman. That Neguse built a reputation in Colorado that has both parties thinking about him as a statewide candidate.

He’s concerned about the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro population and the bark beetle infestation at Rocky Mountain, made worse by warmer winters that come with climate change, that has decimated tree populations in some of the park’s most iconic landscapes.

A member of the Natural Resources Committee, Neguse is the lead sponsor, with several other Colorado Democrats, of the "Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act," H.R. 823. The measure would designate about 73,000 acres of new wilderness and 80,000 acres of new conservation and recreation areas. It passed out of the Natural Resources panel in June on a 23-15 vote.

And as a climate change select committee member, he’s focused on the practical aspects of the clean energy transition, particularly those that can benefit his district economically.

He hosted the panel in August at the University of Colorado for a field hearing on state and local movements toward clean energy, featuring testimony from Polis. Committee members, including ranking member Garret Graves (R-La.), raved about it afterward.

Part of the reason leadership picked him for the select panel, Neguse said, is practical: He gives voice to the Mountain West.

But Neguse, like other progressives, is also thinking about climate change in terms of a "paradigm shift." That’s why he was among the first co-sponsors of the Green New Deal.

Later in August, Neguse toured a Solid Power battery factory with Polis and Gardner. Solid Power, which manufactures solid-state batteries for electric vehicles, had recently partnered with several major automakers and is based in Louisville, in Neguse’s district.

He used the opportunity to pitch the "Zero-Emission Vehicles Act," of which he is a co-sponsor with Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) and two dozen others, to industry insiders and the media. The bill would require 50% of new passenger vehicle sales to be zero emissions by 2030, ramping up to 100% by 2040.

It would likely represent a seismic change for vast Western states such as Colorado, where things are spread out and gas-powered cars become, for many, essential. On the same day the lawmakers toured the Solid Power factory, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued an ozone alert for the Boulder area and asked people to limit driving.

"There is no question that people in these communities are feeling the effects of climate change in a more visceral way than others," Neguse said, pointing to drought, wildfire and climate-related pest infestations that have plagued Colorado and much of the West in recent years.

"That is a reality that we’re living with here in our state, and it underscores the need to take dramatic action, in my view, at the federal level to meet the scale of the challenges before us," he added.

Neguse hosted Ocasio-Cortez in his district last month for a joint town hall on the Green New Deal and to visit with families affected by hydraulic fracturing. The countryside between Denver and Boulder is spotted with oil and gas development, but Neguse said he wants a transition as quickly as possible.

"I think we ought to be pushing on a timeline toward 2030 in which 100% of our energy in the United States comes from renewable sources and we’re net-zero carbon emitters," he said. "That’s the target; that’s the goal, and we ought to be focused right now on, how do we take as many proactive steps as we can to get to that place?"

‘Willing to put the work in’

There’s a certain irony to Neguse’s political persona: In an era defined by hostile politics, Neguse’s colleagues say he’s one of the nicest people on Capitol Hill.

And yet, that may be exactly what got him a spot leading the freshman class and what has many Democrats in Colorado thinking about him for statewide office.

"We did the climate hearing out in Colorado, and you can just see the love that he’s got out there everywhere we went," said Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), a fellow select committee member. "But just on top of that, he’s a good and thoughtful guy."

But Neguse’s political career, as ever, could simply end up being a function of where he’s from, and the 2nd District has a deep conservation legacy.

Neguse is the fifth person to hold the seat since 1975. Three went on to statewide office.

One is Polis, who this year signed a historic list of climate change bills into law aimed at achieving 100% clean energy in the state. The other two — former Democratic Sens. Tim Wirth and Mark Udall — are some of the most recognizable names in the environmental movement.

Wirth is perhaps best-known as among the first to spotlight climate change as a public policy issue. He was the architect of the 1988 Senate hearing with climate scientist James Hansen, which is widely credited with bringing the issue into the public consciousness for the first time.

But as a member of the House in the late 1970s, Wirth also penned an act creating the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, another expanse of protected wilderness and trails in the 2nd district.

Even if Neguse isn’t running for higher office yet, that legacy is on his mind. Indian Peaks Wilderness, after all, is where he went with his wife on their first date.

"He was elected post-Watergate, freshman congressman, came in and pushed and got Indian Peaks Wilderness passed in the United States Congress. That’s the reason we have Indian Peaks and we can go hike up there. That’s because of Congressman Tim Wirth," Neguse said.

It’s exactly what has Neguse motivated to motor around his district like a madman during congressional recesses, even in a polarized era and in a district where he could comfortably win reelection for years on end.

And it’s what’s made him an emerging staple of refreshed debates about climate change and natural resources on Capitol Hill.

"There’s a lot that you can do, and that’s why we’ve introduced so many bills; that’s why we’re pushing so hard on the ‘CORE Act,’" Neguse said. "You can get a lot done, but you’ve got to be willing to put the work in."