How the Breakout Star of the Impeachment Hearings Managed to Keep His Faith in Democracy

Tessa Stuart
·8 min read

Rep. Joe Neguse, a young Democrat from Colorado, rose to speak, full of an unfailing faith in American democracy. This moment was set to be one of the most important of his short career so far in Congress. At age 36, Neguse had only just been sworn in for his second two-year term, but already he’d distinguished himself enough among his 220 Democratic peers that he was enlisted to be part of the small team tasked with arguing against the objections Republicans were expected to raise to Joe Biden’s certification as president-elect that day, January 6th, 2021.

Neguse, father of a two-year-old baby girl, had spent the past several weeks on the phone and on Zoom, working through the holidays with his more senior colleagues — Reps. Jamie Raskin, Adam Schiff, Zoe Lofgren — as he polished his arguments. That morning, he’d come to the House chamber prepared for debate to stretch late into the night, through multiple rounds of objections and defenses. In that moment, Neguse says, “I was very focused on that task and, to be candid, was not aware, really, of what was happening outside of the Capitol.”

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He stood, and he began by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s famous address to Congress, delivered at the height of the Civil War. “We cannot escape history,” he recited. “We, of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.” (Grandiose? Sure, but it’s Congress. That’s kind of their thing.)

Neguse continued, in his own words: “We gather today, Madam Speaker, to ensure the survival of our grand American experiment: The greatest democracy this world has ever known. There are millions of people watching today’s proceedings. The eyes of the world are on us now, colleagues, [they’re] wondering if we will keep the faith — if our constitutional republic will hold.” Neguse sat down, and a Republican rose to speak, and as he was speaking, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, presiding over the debate, was hurried out of the chamber by her security detail, and a few minutes after that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, watching from just a few rows behind Neguse, was whisked away too.

Neguse relates what happened next in a flat, almost affectless, matter-of-fact tone. “Over the course of the next — I don’t know how much time — there were a series of statements from the Sergeant of Arms coming up to the podium and essentially informing all of us that the Capitol had been breached, that the rioters were in the building. And then another announcement that they were within the Capitol Rotunda and that tear gas had been deployed, and we needed to retrieve our tear-gas masks, and prepare to take cover. And then the chaplain offered a prayer,” he says quietly. “And at some point you could hear the rioters beating down on the doors outside the chamber. And then we were evacuated.”

“It was just clear that things had gone terribly wrong,” Neguse says. The grand experiment he’d praised moments before seemed to be imploding in his face. He texted his wife, told her he loved her and their daughter, and that everything would be all right.

The craziest part about it is that, even in that moment, Neguse still felt confident that everything would be all right. The son of an accountant and bank teller, Eritrean immigrants who came to the U.S. as refugees, Neguse was raised in Colorado. Either in spite of the fact that his parents had fled a country plagued by a decades-long struggle for independence — or because of it — Neguse has always romanticized politics. “I, at a very early age, enjoyed serving in student government and the notion of being part of a team, and serving others was just something that excited me — I enjoyed it!” he says with the earnestness of a man who was sixth-grade class president, senior class president, and later, student-body president at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

It’s not surprising that, after graduating from Boulder, and completing a law degree, Neguse would gravitate toward state and national politics. He ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state of Colorado before Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (essentially, the state’s consumer-protection arm, where Neguse tried cases of financial fraud, discrimination, banking and insurance regulation), before he ran for the seat vacated by now-Gov. Jared Polis, won the race by an overwhelming margin, and in 2018, became the first black American to represent Colorado in Congress.

What is surprising is that he’s managed to preserve that earnest, genuine enthusiasm for and faith in our political system even after two grinding years with a front-row seat to the most mind-numbing partisan hackery in memory. President Trump’s first impeachment made cynics out of a lot of Americans, but not Neguse, who, as a member of the Judiciary Committee that prepared the articles for that first impeachment, was intimately familiar with the machinations used to stall, obstruct, obfuscate, and deflect. The committee is still, to this day, litigating a subpoena to compel testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn.

None of that was enough to dissuade Neguse, or even dampen his enthusiasm, when Pelosi called and asked him to be a House impeachment manager. “We knew that it would be likely that we would receive threats and so forth. But it was important to us to do our duty, and to try to do our part to vindicate our Constitution,” Neguse says. “It’s sounds — what’s the word? maybe clichéd? — but I’ve always found the Constitution incredibly powerful, and interesting, and inspiring, and part of that, I think, largely comes from being the son of immigrants, and the fact that the Constitution of the United States is the sacred document that gives 300 million Americans the freedoms and opportunities to live their dream.”

With only 27 days to prepare for the second impeachment hearings, the process was short and intense: hours of virtual meetings to work through the case, debate legal and constitutional questions, strategize about the presentation of the evidence, before multiple in-person rehearsals to practice the precise delivery of every argument. That was just before the trial began. When it was underway, Neguse says, “every evening, after we concluded the trial we prepared for the next day, so up fairly late, working on scripts and editing and editing, rewriting.”

A cynic might say that for Neguse, personally, the work paid off — if not in a conviction, at least in a rising buzz about him and a breathless flurry of predictions about his future. One political observer likened Neguse’s opening remarks to Obama’s 2004 DNC speech. A TV critic compared his speech, favorably, to an Aaron Sorkin monologue. The author of the splashy Vanity Fair story that signaled the beginning of the end of Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 hopes predicted, “[Neguse] is gonna be a future star of the Democratic Party.”

But in the end, no amount of preparation, no amount of evidence or witnesses could overcome the deeply entrenched, lizard-brain loyalties of the majority of Republican senators. But despite it all — and even in the face of new threats to his safety for participating in the impeachment — Neguse sees reason for optimism in the outcome. “The fact that the minority leader of the United States Senate, who voted to acquit, nonetheless conceded that the president was practically and morally responsible for the events of that day and engaged in a disgraceful dereliction of duty is evidence that we had proven our case,” Neguse says. “I am grateful to the 57 senators who reached the same conclusion, and in particular, seven Republican senators who showed incredible courage, ultimately choosing country over party across the aisle and supporting our Constitution by voting the way that they did.”

If that sounds like a glass-half-full type of argument it’s nothing compared to the almost preposterous sense of optimism Neguse managed to maintain after the Capitol riot, after he and his colleagues were ushered back on to the House floor that night and forced to listen to the same set of arguments many Republicans had been planning to give before a woman was shot in the hallways a few feet away, before a Capitol police man was bludgeoned to death, and before Vice President Mike Pence just barely made it out alive. “The proceedings concluded at 4 a.m., and the Electoral College vote was certified. The next morning — I only got about two hours sleep — I woke up at six or seven, and I spoke with my dad and I said to him that it was my proudest moment serving in Congress, walking back and going back onto the floor and knowing that we had returned and that we would finish the job that we had started.”

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