How To Be A Citizen: What It Takes To Run For Office With Joe Neguse

Originally published on May 24, 2021 9:19 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This year, as you may know, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ALL THINGS CONSIDERED broadcast back in 1971. That is 50 years of doing our best to inform the public, which in turn, we hope, will help you be a better citizen. So today we're starting a series featuring conversations with different people, some of whom are very well-known, others not household names. And we're going to ask them why they got involved in whatever it was they chose - school, political campaigns, a food or diaper bank - but equally important, how they got involved. And we're going to ask what they think it means to be a good citizen in America.

Our first guest is Congressman Joe Neguse. He is a Democrat from Colorado. He is the first African American to serve in Congress from his state. You might remember he was one of the House impeachment managers during Donald Trump's second impeachment trial earlier this year. Congressman Neguse is 37 years old. And as you might imagine, he got involved in politics kind of young. So we invited him to tell us more about how all that came about.

JOE NEGUSE: You know, I certainly never thought that I would ever be in Congress as a young child. But at a really early age when I was younger, probably around 11, 12 years old, I think I made a decision to get involved and thought that I'd like to be able to pursue a career in public service. I don't know that there was a particular moment in time that motivated me. It was something far more gradual and in large part due to my parents background, to my family's background and my parents' journey to the United States.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, you know, your parents are originally from Eritrea. They came to the United States in the early 1980s. You've described them as refugees. You're not just the first African American that Colorado has sent to the U.S. Congress; you're also the first Eritrean American member of Congress in history. So I do - I want to apologize if this comes off as a bit of a stereotype, but sometimes when people come from a place that's had a lot of conflict and seen a lot of turmoil, the advice they give their kids is lay low. Like, keep your head down. Don't get involved. It's too risky. And sometimes it takes a while for a generation to feel safe enough to get involved in political life.

So I just wanted to ask you if, without being too personal, but if you don't mind my asking, like, was there some message to you that you got either explicitly or implicitly about what being a public person might be like? Did they have feelings about it? And how did you think about it given their experience?

NEGUSE: Well, they're certainly proud of the work that I've done in my public life, but they are not particularly political people. And so I think the implicit and explicit messages that I received from them at a very young age had less to do with politics and more to do with service. And it was really anchored in this notion that, you know, they had given a whole lot. I mean, they had sacrificed a whole lot to give me and my sister, you know, the type of middle-class lifestyle that they never had growing up. And because of the freedoms and the opportunities that we have here in the United States that are unlike any other in any other country in the world, they were able to make it and live the quintessential American dream. And at a very early age, they taught me and my younger sister how important it was for us to not take for granted those freedoms and those opportunities, to recognize just how incredibly fortunate we were to have been born in the United States of America.

And so, you know, at a very early age, I think there was an implicit recognition for me personally that I had an obligation to try to pay it forward, to try to help the community that I was in and the country that had given me so much. And that has been an animating driving force for much of my life.

MARTIN: What's the best thing about being in Congress? And, like, what's the worst? Because you hear a lot of people these days say, look; I just don't - well, I'll put it this way. I heard former President Obama - he was on one of the late night shows the other day. And the interviewer - I think it was James Corden - asked him if he thought either of his daughters would be interested in following his - in his footsteps and going into public life. And he said, you know, I think they've seen too much. You know, they've seen just how mean people can be. And I'm just - he says they want to be of service, but I think they're going to find some other way to do it. They've just - they've seen too much, is basically what he said. And, you know, so what's the best thing about it, and what's the worst thing about it?

NEGUSE: Well, I'd say a couple of things. With respect to the worst thing, there's no question. The worst thing is the travel. I love Colorado. I've lived here almost my entire life. And getting on a plane every week and leaving my wife and my young daughter is certainly difficult. And that's the part of the job that's the worst.

The best part of the job is you're reminded on a near daily basis that a member of Congress and your congressional office can have an incredibly profound impact on the daily lives of folks in your community. And it generally is not something that you read much about in the newspapers or see on TV, but every day our staff and the staff of countless other members of Congress are having a real impact, helping, you know, an individual secure Medicare benefits or Social Security benefits or processing a claim through the VA for a veteran whose sacrificed so much for his country or her country. You know, those cases, they motivate you. And it reminds you that - certainly for me, anyways. I still very much think of public service as a noble profession.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, the question we're asking everybody, what do you think it means to be a good citizen, whatever age you are?

NEGUSE: I think being a good citizen means being an active and informed member of your democracy. It means engaging in whatever way you can on the defining public policy issues of our time. Some folks do that by running for office. Some do it by writing an op-ed in their local newspaper. Others do it by voting and by contributing their time and their resources to, you know, local community organizations that are incredibly important and keep our communities thriving. And I think every single one of those are ways in which you can be a good citizen. And I would certainly encourage all of your listeners to do their best to do the same.

MARTIN: That is Congressman Joe Neguse of Colorado. Congressman Neguse, thank you so much for talking with us.

NEGUSE: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.