Ahead of what is expected to be a pivotal midterm election, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, the longest-serving and only female member of Colorado’s congressional delegation, is facing a primary challenge by a political newcomer who represents anti-establishment angst within the Democratic Party.
“Blue isn’t working. We’ve got to go true blue,” that challenger, Saira Rao, a 43-year-old Indian-American mother of two, said Monday at a campaign event in Denver.
Rao, who has never held elected office, says the Democratic Party nationwide has failed to represent people of color. Here in Colorado, central to Rao’s campaign is being the state’s first woman of color elected to Congress.
Rao, a former Wall Street lawyer who owns a children’s and young adult’s book packaging company that focuses on diversity, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But in December 2017, she penned a viral op-ed in which she said she is “breaking up with the party,” by which she says she means the corporate establishment side of the party. Afterward, she said readers told her to run for office. In January, she jumped into the race to unseat DeGette.
When asked by The Colorado Independent whether breaking up with the party meant eventually leaving it to become an independent, she said she hasn’t thought much about it and that people can call themselves whatever they want.
“All this talk about party is not useful,” she said. “I will never put any party above people.”
“True blue,” she says, is about representing people. During her fundraiser at the Punch Bowl Social on Broadway in Denver, she described what it’s like to be a woman of color. When she was nine years old, she said she tried to scrub the brown skin off her body with a stone after a boy broke up with her for being “black.” And last year, she said her 7-year-old son, Dar, covered himself in sunscreen and told her that he was finally white.
She says the party is not doing enough to end a “national epidemic” of police brutality against African Americans and disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color. She also wants to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and to defund U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Rao also says corporations are buying votes from Democrats through campaign contributions. As part of her campaign, Rao has pledged to not take any money from corporations. And so far, she has narrowly outraised DeGette this year pulling in $255,000 to Degette’s $240,000. A little over a third of Rao’s donations came from Colorado donors.
Most of this money so far has been spent on staff, gathering signatures to petition onto the ballot, and printing yard signs, which Rao said her children help make. She has spent seemingly no money on television ads, but has bolstered her name recognition by writing articles for national publications. She was recently featured in a New York Times opinion piece and Bitch Media story.
But despite her fundraising gains and grassroots groundwork, unseating DeGette will be an uphill battle.
DeGette has controlled the Denver district seat for 22 years, ever since Democrat Pat Schroeder, the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, stepped down after a 24-year House career. And since DeGette was elected in 1996, she has faced only two primary challenges. She crushed her last primary opponent in 2016 by 73 percentage points.
DeGette, a chief deputy whip who is responsible for rounding up votes and keeping the House Democrats in line with party leadership, has established a reputation among supporters as a smart and pragmatic lawmaker. They credit her for finding avenues for compromise at a time when partisan gridlock has caused the government to shut down twice this year, albeit only for hours the second time.
Michael Feeley, a Denver attorney, who served in the legislature as Senate Minority Leader from 1994 to 2001, which overlapped with DeGette’s time as a state representative, said DeGette is a quiet consensus builder.
“Why would we squander the good will, the seniority and experience that Diana has built over two decades now?” Feeley said. “People can genuinely disagree and still work together instead of throwing bombs from the left or right.”
Congressional District 1, which includes Denver and a section of the Columbine Valley as well as the Denver International Airport, is the state’s safest congressional seat for Democrats; Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 45 to 17 percent. Unaffiliated voters account for 35 percent. While still politically Democrat, the city has changed since DeGette was first elected. The state has seen a population boom, driving up rent and the cost of housing, making it harder to afford to live in the city and causing some neighborhoods to experience gentrification.
“Diana’s done some great things. But I think it’s time for a change,” said Nita Lynch of Denver, who was a Bernie Sanders national delegate and who is now backing Rao. “I want some new blood in there.”
DeGette, a 60-year-old mother of two daughters, started out her political career in Colorado’s House of Representatives from 1992 to 1996 before she ran for Congress. Among her accomplishments was the passage of the 1993 “bubble law” which gave protections to abortion clinic patients and doctors from protestors. This came during a time when the House and Senate were controlled by the GOP.
Now in Congress, DeGette serves as co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, a group of lawmakers supporting reproductive rights for women, including abortions. One recent battle came over the Affordable Care Act, which ultimately included a provision that would prohibit federal premium subsidies for private health insurance plans that offered abortions. This was known as the Stupak amendment, named after Michigan Democrat Rep. Bart Stupak, an abortion opponent.
Vicki Cowart, CEO and president for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, praised DeGette for her work on women’s health issues. She says DeGette fought the Stupak amendment and has pushed back on similar efforts to limit access to abortions, which she called “Stupak tendrils.” DeGette is also an outspoken opponent of the Hyde Amendment, a law that bans federal funding for Medicaid coverage of most abortions. She sponsored the EACH Woman Act, which would effectively repeal Hyde.
“It’s that kind of day in and day out kind of dogged hard work that she does,” Cowart said. “I know there is a lot of appetite for new and fresh, but boy, this woman knows what’s she doing.”
DeGette says one of her proudest accomplishments while serving as a representative is the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which increased funding for disease research. Congress passed the bill and it was signed by former President Barack Obama in 2016. This legislation helped DeGette earn the Jacob K. Javits Prize for Bipartisan Leadership.
But liberals seem uninspired by consensus making. Rao points out that Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sanders of Vermont claim the law eased regulations and was essentially a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. One of DeGette’s top donors this year is AbbVie, a publicly traded biopharmaceutical company.
But DeGette stands firmly behind her voting record, saying that she does not have the money to self-finance her campaign nor does she have wealthy friends to help pay for it. As for the Cures Act, she said many of the concerns raised by liberal lawmakers were due to “incorrect information” and that she addressed the concerns in the final version of the law.
Rao’s supporters also criticized DeGette for having voted for Hillary Clinton as a superdelegate at the Democratic National Convention when Sanders won the Colorado caucus. The independent senator from Vermont was running on a more liberal platform whereas Clinton was labeled as a moderate.
DeGette said she thinks it’s counterproductive to be continually reexamining the 2016 election. The congresswoman repeatedly has said the party should remain united, especially if it takes back the majority this year. Currently, Republicans control the House, Senate and presidency.
During a Colorado Young Democrats debate earlier this month, DeGette had the chance to ask one question of Rao. She mentioned the fact that Rao did not vote in the 2014 and 2016 Democratic primaries since moving to Denver five years ago from Richmond, Virginia.
“I think it’s important that active Democrats attend the party functions, including the party caucuses,” she told The Colorado Independent in a phone interview later.
Rao said the prior to November 2016 election, she was happy to support the candidate that emerged from the primary and tow the party line. But she has since been transformed, she says, and now understands the importance of primaries. She added that she does not understand why her voting record as a private citizen even matters. And she criticized DeGette for what she says is a light voting record in Congress. DeGette says some of her missed votes were due to overlapping committee assignments and time with her family.
But Democratic strategists, including Steve Welchert, a consultant for congressman Ed Perlmutter’s reelection campaign, say there is more DeGette could be doing to help Democrats raise money and get out the vote. Turnout in places like Denver is especially important to earn Democrats spots in statewide office in the November elections, including the governor’s mansion.
“You can always do more,” Welchert said. “I suspect Diana could do more as well.”
The Colorado primary is on June 26. For the first time, unaffiliated voters will be able to participate without first choosing to be a member of a particular party. Ballots will be mailed out in less than two weeks.
It would be a major upset election if DeGette loses her seat. But the final vote could offer a glimpse into whether Colorado Democrats are leaning toward non-politicians over political pedigree.
“If she wins, it’s a national message,” said Daniel Ford of Denver of Rao, who he supports. “On the concept of a safe seat: When did that become part of democracy?”
Update: We updated this story on Friday with a response from Rao on her voting record in the Colorado primaries.