Colorado’s Joe Neguse profiles ordinary Americans who blazed … –

The first question posed by a constituent to U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse at a recent town hall in Fort Collins got right to the point.

“Is there any chance that we could unite this country?” an older man wearing a Chicago Cubs shirt asked the Lafayette Democrat, evoking murmurs of agreement from the standing-room only crowd of more than 100 constituents packed into a classroom at Colorado State University’s Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory.

“Personally, I look around and what’s happening is, our country is so divided,” the man continued. “It’s not the country that I grew up with. It’s not the country where I got drafted and served the military. I’m losing faith in the Supreme Court, I’m losing faith in Congress. We don’t seem to be a united country, which scares the hell out of me. And what can we do to bring country together?”

After assuring the room that the question hadn’t been planted, drawing nods from numerous attendees — many likely came with the same question — and joking that the man was displaying bravery for wearing Cubs shirt in Colorado Rockies territory, Neguse noted that he grew up in conservative Douglas County and has lived in the state for most of his 39 years.

Neguse was elected in November to a third term representing Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers Boulder and Larimer counties, the Interstate 70 ski corridor and much of northwestern Colorado, including all or parts of Clear Creek, Gilpin, Grand, Summit, Eagle, Routt, and Jackson counties.

In December, Neguse won election as chairman of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, landing the No. 5 elected position in the party’s House leadership structure and making him the first Coloradan among the chamber’s senior congressional leadership in more than 85 years. He was named a House impeachment manager for former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial in 2021 and was the youngest impeachment manager in U.S. history.

“I do think our politics has become much more vitriolic and much more divisive,” Neguse told his constituents at the Sept. 1 town hall.

Even Colorado’s history of more collaborative politics, he added, has lately fallen prey to national trends.

“I have the honor of being your representative, which means, fundamentally, I have a responsibility to be reflective of the community that is sending me to Washington, and I remind myself, every time I’m in Washington, every time my team sends me a draft tweet to approve, that my obligation is to represent everyone in this congressional district, whether you voted for me or not, whether your share my ideological views,” said Neguse.

“I think unfortunately, so much of the sort of caustic nature or of our politics is driven by an incentive structure where it doesn’t really pay in the electoral sense to approach your job or your interactions with others with thoughtfulness and with intellectual curiosity and a willingness to have your mind changed, right?”

The ‘incentive structure’ of American politics

Neguse observed that if he tweeted “Great bipartisan town hall in Fort Collins!” that would never go viral, but if he posted “some outlandish thing,” there’s a good chance it would — potentially resulting in TV appearances on top of attention online.

“So, the incentive structure is designed to have the most kind of hysterical response in terms of public policy development, which I just think is a completely unhealthy way for our republic to function,” Neguse said, adding that diagnosing the problem is only the first step.

“I think the solution is Americans of good faith being willing to bring some level of intellectual curiosity to their own conversations and interactions with your neighbors and your coworkers and your colleagues and community members,” he said.

“And if you do that, my sense is it will change your representatives at the local, state and federal level, because they will see their jobs as far more requiring not to create enemies, but instead building partnerships and building bridges. At the end of the day, it requires society to also play a key role. I’ll continue to try to do my part, but it’s going to require all of us collectively.”

The hour-long town hall also featured questions on funding for education, measures to reduce prescription drug costs and conservation legislation pushed by Neguse and fellow Democratic members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, but variations on the topic raised by the veteran in the Cubs shirt came up repeatedly.

“You would be forgiven if you watch C-SPAN and came up with the inescapable conclusion that our politics is really broken right now,” Neguse said at one point. “This inability to talk to folks who have a different worldview than your own and find ways to build common ground has become incredibly difficult. I think there are broader reasons for that — you see some of that in society writ large and, of course, you see that in Washington, DC. We have tried — I’ve certainly tried to find paths to break through that logjam.”

Among the approaches Neguse pointed to were founding a pair of bipartisan congressional caucuses devoted to preventing wildfires — surely a topic that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can agree deserves attention.

After describing the caucuses — comprising an equal number of Democrats and Republicans — Neguse added: “So, my hope is that perhaps these caucuses could provide us with kind of a path forward in trying to punch through the political divides. It won’t be easy, and it’s going to require not just members of government — local government, state government, federal government — leaning in, but it’s going to require us as citizens to do some of that leaning in as well.”

Insisting that he wasn’t assigning his constituents any homework — “It would be presumptuous to do that at my own town hall,” Neguse joked — the congressman still had a suggestion.

“Part of this, as we try to heal our body politic, is going to require and involve each and every one of us finding ways to build partnerships, to talk to people who might disagree with us completely about a particular issue but nonetheless are just as passionate about protecting our republic and building a brighter future for our community,” he said. “So, I would encourage you to do that, and I’ll certainly continue to try to do that in Washington.”

‘Ordinary people doing extraordinary things’

While Neguse didn’t mention that he recently became a published author, the same sentiment underlies his first book, “Courage in The People’s House: Nine Trailblazing Representatives Who Shaped America,” published on Aug. 1 by Simon & Schuster.

Described as “a well-written addition to the history of Congress” in a review by Kirkus, the 288-page collection of biographical profiles and political analysis tells the stories of influential former members of the Capitol’s more populous chamber.

Courage in the People's House by Joe Neguse cover

The cover of “Courage in the People’s House” by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, subtitled “Nine Trailblazing Representatives Who Shaped America,” is pictured. The book was published on Aug. 1, 2023, by Simon & Schuster.

Inspired in part by John F. Kennedy’s enduring “Profiles in Courage,” which took the same approach to U.S. senators — Neguse told Colorado Politics that he treasures the dog-eared copy he’s had since high school — the new book brings to life lawmakers Neguse argues exhibited bravery at pivotal points in the nation’s history from the 1870s to the 1990s. 

While some of the House members will be familiar to even casual students of congressional history — Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Shirley Chisholm of New York and Barbara Jordan of Texas — Neguse noted that others have unfairly fallen mostly into obscurity.

Among the figures Neguse hopes to elevate are pioneering labor advocate William B. Wilson of Pennsylvania and Adolph Sabath of Illinois, who advanced the rights of immigrants.

“Most Americans are not going to know most of the names in the book,” Neguse told Colorado Politics. “It was a very fascinating exercise for me, because you learn so much about these individuals who did incredible things, who have largely been forgotten — ordinary people with the right timing and the right passion and commitment to the country.”

“His judicious selection of subjects will give some readers hope,” Publishers Weekly writes in a pre-publication review.

Neguse said that he wanted to highlight “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” — by rising to the occasion in the face of grave political risks, sometimes amid unfathomable opposition.

“I think our democracy has rarely been at greater risk or, in my view, in more desperate need of Americans of good faith to step forward and to help save it, and simultaneously, today’s a very different time, and I would never compare this book to ‘Profiles in Courage,” Neguse said.

“Today is, of course, a very different time than 70 years ago, and we have diminished the stature of government so substantially in the minds of the public that, as I say, in the book, one would be hard-pressed to find many that would believe that serving in public office is an honorable profession, much less a place in which you can demonstrate courage and improve our union. And that cynicism, that skepticism, can be very easy in this day and age. And so my hope is that this book can help guard against and push back against that cynicism.”

“Essentially,” he continued, “we are kind of refreshing those muscles, by recalling some of our best examples and by sharing the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things and can help reconnect the fabric, the tissue that connects us as Americans, and perhaps re-inspire us to do everything we can to protect our republic, which is precious.”

Neguse said he also wants the book to serve as an antidote to what he termed “an institutional bias of sorts against the House.”

“There are plenty of incredible books that have been written about the giants of the Senate, and of course the presidency occupies much of the public’s imagination and attention, and the judicial branch as well,” he said. “I have enjoyed any number of enthralling, captivating books about every level of government, but there are very few that have been written about the House. And as I began thinking about this, it occurred to me that perhaps there was a gap there that I might be able to provide some material that could be of benefit to the American public in terms of better understanding what we colloquially referred to as the People’s House.”

Noting that he was approached by publishers following his turn in the national spotlight as an impeachment manager in early 2021, Neguse said he decided against writing a memoir, like some publishers had proposed.

“I thought that this would actually be far more valuable, perhaps in terms of kind of inspiring young folks, in particular, to consider a career in public service and perhaps a run for the People’s House,” he said. “As is made clear in the Federalist Papers, it is the institution, the branch of our government that is closest to the people. That’s why the framers, in their wisdom, devised a system in which House elections would be every two years and, at least, in our country’s infancy, a system in which the only unit of government that would be elected directly by the people would be the House. As a result, it would be far more reflective of the diversity and breadth of our country, in terms of the many people and their talents.”

Neguse opens the book by recounting the first time he met John Lewis, the towering civil rights leader from Georgia who served in the House from 1987 until his death in 2020.

On a chilly evening in November 2018, just days after his election to represent Colorado’s 2nd district, Neguse and his wife, Andrea, walked into the Library of Congress for new member orientation.

“Neither of us had ever visited the Library of Congress before,” Neguse writes. “And we were both transfixed with a fundamental sense of awe — not simply for the historic buildings, but for what they represented — the world’s oldest and greatest constitutional republic. Not our nation’s perfection, as I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t think it could be improved, but rather, the exceptional and unique idea of a republic that America’s founders and framers had wisely created. As a son of African immigrants and a daughter of Mexican Americans, both firmly middle class with big dreams, we had somehow found our way here, to this extraordinary place, imbued with a real chance to do our part to try to make our country better.”

Suddenly, Neguse writes, they were face to face with Lewis, who greeted the member-elect warmly.

“Hello, young brother, how are you?” said the historic figure, who went on to praise the wisdom of the Colorado voters who had broken a barrier by electing Neguse, the first Black member to represent the state in Congress.

Neguse marvels at considering himself among a long line of pioneers, describing some of the lawmakers he profiled in the pages that follow.

The son of Eritrean immigrants, Neguse served a six-year term on the University of Colorado Board of Regents and was executive director of Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies before winning election to the House in 2018. He sits on the natural resources, judiciary and rules committees and is a former chairman of the public lands subcommittee.

“And with each of these history-making leaders whom Americans have sent to Congress — the first African Americans elected in the late nineteenth century; the first working-class White immigrants elected from crowded, polyglot cities soon thereafter; the first women elected to Congress in the twentieth century; and the late John Lewis himself — voters amended what it meant to be an American,” Neguse writes. “They changed us all by making our country’s promise truer and more open, and in that sense, helped shape our country, as every generation is called upon to do. This is an extraordinary legacy, and one about which most of us, myself included, know far too little.”

Fear is contagious, but so is hope

Neguse sets the theme of the book early on, recounting a chance encounter in the closing days of his first congressional campaign with a phrase that has stuck with him and become a mantra.

While touring Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora in late October 2018, he writes, the tour guide showed the group a wall where patients at the hospital had posted inspirational quotes.

“On that wall,” Neguse writes, “I saw the sentence ‘Fear is contagious, but so is hope.’”

“To me, the book is about one thing, and that’s hope,” he told Colorado Politics. “Hope has been a common theme and element of the work that I’ve tried to do in terms of giving Coloradans hope, giving our community hope.”

He said he hopes the book “will give readers and Coloradans and Americans a sense of hope, about the future of our country by reminding them of the brave, hopeful, optimistic public servants who helped shape our republic.”

Added Neguse: “Particularly in this current political environment, which is very vitriolic and there’s a — as I say in the book — a kind of jaded cynicism and skepticism about our ability as a country to take things and solve big problems. The core inspiration in writing the book was to try to give readers a sense of hope, to reassure them that, in fact, our country can do incredible things. And when we’ve done so, it has been by virtue of ordinary people, community members, incredibly brave, talented, courageous, insightful people who stepped forward, to serve their community, to serve their states to serve their country. And that’s really what inspired me to write the book.”

Neguse closes the book with a description of attending a joint session of Congress in House chambers on May 17, 2022 to hear an address he called “captivating” about the history and fate of democratic republics from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

“I can remember that vividly, because I remember sitting with my colleagues and thinking to myself that the last joint session that we had participated in was the joint session on Jan. 6, 2021, and I was in the chamber on Jan. 6,” Neguse told Colorado Politics.

“I don’t talk about it in great detail on the book, but I was on the House floor and was evacuated with my colleagues when a violent mob attacked the Capitol. So, to sit there and listen to the prime minister of Greece, who I thought did an incredible job articulating the threats that currently exist and that Western democracies like ours face, many of which are internal. And yet I was also feeling very pessimistic as I looked around and realized that many of my colleagues weren’t there to listen to this important speech. But that pessimism was balanced against the optimism that I was feeling, thinking about these different individuals whom I had profiled in this book, which I was still very much in the process of writing, this is last this is a year ago.”

Neguse said he was encouraged to realize that there are lawmakers currently serving in the House who are thinking about “the broader stakes for our republic, beyond any parochial bill.”

“I would say that certainly is true, particularly because of what our republic has endured in the last several years,” he said. “As I touch on in both the prologue and the epilogue, the reality is that we are facing unique threats to the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power that we simply have not faced in recent memory. And so that, of course, is one of the reasons why I was motivated to write this book.”

The service town hall 

Before kicking off the town hall in Fort Collins, Neguse and more than a dozen constituents engaged in the latest edition of an innovation he introduced a few years ago, the service town hall, which lets community members lend a hand on a local project before the questions and answers start flying.

In this case, that meant loading bales of hay for transport to a herd of bison that occupied a field behind the CSU laboratory, part of the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd.

Underway since 2015 in partnership with the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County and nonprofit groups, the project aims to restore bison derived from a herd in Yellowstone National Park that are genetically pure and free from a bacterial infection common in herds across the country. The project has distributed more than 100 bison to tribal communities and sent more than 60 of the animals to produce private and public herds.

It’s a step toward bringing people together with a common purpose.

After the town hall, Fort Collins resident Judy Mascaro, who moved into the district from southern Missouri nearly a year ago, said she’d been familiar with Neguse from afar and considered herself a fan “because he seemed like he was genuine and he really does want to improve our lives in this country.”

“My sister’s family, they’ve lived out here and we talked all the time about this,” she said. “I was very impressed with him, and to see him — this is my first town hall — and to see him actually engage with people and actually answer their questions, instead of deflecting or distracting, I was very impressed with that,” she said.

While she said she appreciated Neguse’s message not to abandon hope, Mascaro added that it’s a struggle.

“I think it’s pretty hard,” she told Colorado Politics. “He tried, didn’t he? Honestly, I’m glad that he has the hope because he’s the one up there fighting for us. It’s just hard in this environment now that we have, to see an end to this, but I’m very happy that we have someone as positive as he is up there representing us.”

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