By CAPA JRC reporter Andrew Dai
[Joe Jefferson was the first Chinese-American mayor in Colorado history. He has served on the Englewood City Council of Englewood, CO. He was elected as Englewood’s Presiding Municipal Judge in 2017 and was reelected in 2021.]
Q: As the first Chinese-American mayor in Colorado history, how do you think that your identity as a Chinese-American shaped your future? Were there any unique challenges that you faced as a result of your identity?
You know, I think I talked about it very briefly, about my mother’s influence on my life and cultural values, Chinese and Asian values, like humility, focus on education, focus on family values. These types of things, I felt kept me very grounded as a younger person thinking about [my path in life.] I didn’t have a lot of the problems my friends faced, trying to stay on “the right path.” Part of it was because when I was very young, I didn’t really have a chance to stray too far off the path, because [of] my Asian mother…I think that really just gave me a great guiding light in life, overall.
Some of the [challenges] I faced were stereotypes. Stereotypes are basic human behavior, trying to make life easier around you and trying to simplify, or oversimplify issues, and so stereotypes come from oversimplification of your views, or people’s views of different types of culture. I think having to overcome that view of “Hey, I’m not just an Asian-American, I’m also an individual” [was a challenge,] and the negative side of that [also] includes forms of discrimination. There’s a reason why there hadn’t been a Chinese-American mayor in Colorado before me.
Q: You stated before that your mother had a large influence on your early life. Would you say that she was also a large influence behind your decisions to become a judge or mayor?
100%. Like I said, I didn’t have much of a choice when I was younger, because she would keep me on the path. But when I got older and had my choice, I realized that what she pushed me to do was exactly what I wanted to do when I had my choices as an adult.
As far as why I want to serve more publicly, I think what she realized was, she’s an immigrant to the United States with very little money, who went to an area in Colorado, where there weren’t a lot of Asian people. But the American community, the diversity in America, embraced her and supported her, supported her business, [so] she lived the American Dream. [Thus my mother] feels like we have a duty to the community to support them, because they support us. And so she pushed me at a young age to think about how we can give back to repay that favor and to also support that next generation of opportunity, which I think pushed me more towards civic engagement and leadership.
Q: Throughout your career as a judge, what were some moments that you felt marked a major milestone in your career or that were important to you?
The moment that everyone’s about to go to college, I feel like we all meet these kinds of crossroads in our lives. There’s moments where you could go right or you could go left, and sometimes you look at successful people and their career path, and you think “Oh, they had everything planned out” and that they accomplished each step incrementally and in order. But the reality is, at any given moment you just have to evaluate yourself and the opportunities in front of you, and then go right or left. You can’t really know where the road is going to fork or when it’s going to fork, so I think you just have to be ready for those opportunities when they happen.
And I think a lot of people have those crossroads when entering college, of “Where am I going to go?” or “What am I going to study?”, and a big crossroads for me was when I got accepted into Cornell University. I didn’t think that I was going to get into an Ivy League school and so there was this moment of opportunity. There was this moment of thankfulness to my family, because I grew up in a Chinese restaurant and spent a lot of weekends bussing tables, which I resented [in the past], because my friends would be partying and I would be bussing tables. And I realized that it was through that sacrifice and opportunity that I had a greater opportunity to get accepted into Cornell University. I had some story to tell, I had some struggle or perseverance. An interesting story to tell, even at a younger age.
And then later in law school there was a similar kind of crossroads. I graduated from Cornell, went to Morgan-Stanley and I worked on Wall Street for a while, and I realized that I could add more value to people around me, relationships around me, transactions around me, if I’m more educated and more skilled. And so I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. At the time I didn’t think I would be a practicing lawyer, much less a judge, but it’s kind of funny how life works out like that.
Q: How were you able to manage both going to school and running for office?
Well, law school is kind of interesting in that in the first year, you’re very busy, almost failing out, but then in the second year it gets a little bit easier, and by the time you get to your third year, you have a little more free time, and so it’s less challenging and you get a chance to figure out what you want to do.
In my mind, [running for office] was just a resume opportunity, but then it just turned into a lot more, and then as I learn more about civics and law, I think “Oh, I’m even more capable of being mayor". Even as the mayor, I had my own little law firm and defense and a lot of different private practice stuff, and then our judge retired. It wasn’t even until he retired that I thought about being a judge. I realized that I could see some problems and I could see the solution, and when you see problems and you have the solution, you have a duty to fix the problem. And so I felt like I had a duty to become a judge, but originally I was just thinking “Oh, it’ll be good for me, I’ll try it, it’ll be fun” and then I realized that it’s not all fun and games. I felt some duty to improve, to change people’s lives, to improve the system, not just for me or for Asian people, but for everyone.
Q: As a judge, what kind of changes to the legislative system, if any, do you think are necessary to create a better system?
I think at its core, the American legal system truly is the best one, and it is because it is built on fundamental principles that it has withstood the test of time. Equal protection under the law, these ideas of fairness are embedded into the founding documents of our country.
Part of the challenge is really just living up to those ideals is not so easy. It begins with the right people and the right intent. I think from a policy perspective, reasonable people can disagree, and there’s a lot of judicial reforms and criminal justice issues out there, and I don’t necessarily want to advocate for any one of them necessarily, but I think over the last decade, there’s been pretty wide recognition on both sides of the isle, from a partisan perspective, of some over-incarceration issues in the United States disproportionately impacting people of color, as well as some historical shortcomings of legal systems.
How those issues are addressed or how those are perfectly resolved, I think is a subjective decision. What needs to happen to try and fix those things, I guess I’ll leave to the next generation to define.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone looking to have a career in law or public service?
I guess I would start with just getting engaged and just start learning as much as you can and absorbing as much as you can. It’s through that education that you’ll be able to identify the issues I’m talking about, because until you have those experiences you can’t really identify the problem and you can’t identify the solution either. Once you have those experiences, your own ability to identify those problems and solutions is going to grow substantially, but for now I think you should continue to educate yourself, get experience, find out about life, find out about law, find out about society and how that all works, and then you’ll be able to make your own decisions about what’s important and what’s wrong and what’s the solution.
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.