In Colorado’s first congressional district, which includes the city and county of Denver and the suburbs of Glendale, Englewood, Sheridan, and Cherry Hills Village, two women are vying for the seat currently held by Representative Diana DeGette since 1997.
DeGette, 60, is a business-friendly, don’t-rock-the-boat Democrat who’s heavily favored to win. Saira Rao, 44, is challenging her by pressuring the Democratic Party to work less for corporations, and more for people of color.
Both women are graduates of NYU Law School: DeGette finished in 1982, and Rao, in 2002. Both supported Hilary Clinton wholeheartedly in 2016. And they share many standard-issue positions, such as supporting a woman’s right to choose. At first glance, it’s not clear what divides these women politically. What would a white-collar Hillary Clinton supporter find so objectionable about DeGette?
Rao, a mother of two, is a former Wall Street lawyer and co-founder of In This Together Media, a publishing company focused on creating diverse children’s books. She has never held elected office. But at least since December 2017, when she published a widely circulated break-up letter to the Democratic Party on The Huffington Post, she has been critical of what she views as a party beholden to corporate interests and insufficiently committed to racial justice.
According to Rao, the Democratic Party is “not much more woke in terms of race than the Republican Party, and that’s why we find ourselves in these situations where we allow black and brown communities to be ravaged by gun violence.” Rao also supports eliminating student debt, implementing single-payer health care, aggressively expanding federal support for affordable housing, passing the Marijuana Justice Act, and defunding US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
DeGette, who served as a health-care adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, has said in the past that single-payer is a nonstarter. “For over a year, I’ve been a co-sponsor of legislation supporting single-payer health care: the Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act. Once Democrats take back the House, we will be in a better position to move that bill forward,” she said in an issued statement.
DeGette wants to cap student-loan interest rates and supports loan forgiveness for those who go into “serving the underserved.” In 2015, DeGette said that it would be “difficult in the current political environment” to legalize marijuana nationwide, although she has championed a bill that would keep the federal government from preempting state laws on marijuana (Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational purposes in 2012).
The district the two candidates are running in is more diverse, urban, and liberal than the state of Colorado. It’s also more prosperous than most of the country; its median household income is $62,718 and its mean household income is $92,638 (the national median in the United States is $59,039 and the mean is $83,143). That isn’t stopping Rao from railing against congressional inaction on homelessness and affordable housing on the campaign trail: Rao says the 2016 election proved that voters, particularly voters of color, are disengaged—and she can see why.
“If you look back at what happened in November 2016, in addition to people voting for this lunatic white supremacist, a lot of people didn’t vote,” Rao says. “And who didn’t vote? Communities of color didn’t vote; young people didn’t vote; the Rust Belt didn’t vote; the Obama coalition fell apart. The status quo gave us Donald Trump.”
DeGette has blamed the media for Trump’s rise, as well as suggesting that he successfully tapped into the feelings of a subset of voters who are struggling financially and fear foreigners. Rao’s objection to this explanation seems to be that it fails to count voters of color among those the Democratic Party has taken for granted. “As a brown woman,” she wrote on The Huffington Post, the party has “taken my love, my money, my tokenism” and given nothing in return: “You married the white woman and hooked up with me on the side.”
Another topic on which Rao and DeGette don’t see eye to eye is the influence of corporate money on politics. Rao is adamant that corporate money is poisoning our democracy. “We don’t have a clean Dream Act because Dreamers don’t have a Super PAC,” she says. “We continue to trash our earth because the earth does not have a Super PAC. We can’t even get to the guts of what’s wrong and figure out a way to fix it because we have this dark black cloud of corporate PAC money hanging over Capitol Hill, and until and unless that’s out we can’t get in and fix the stuff that’s broken.”
The only solution is to vote out “every single person in Congress, Republican and Democrat, who is taking corporate PAC money.”
That, presumably, would include DeGette. Between 2017 and 2018, DeGette took more than $84,000 from the pharmaceutical and health-products industry, 97.6 percent of it from industry PACs, and more than $39,000 from the real-estate industry. About 7 percent of the money she raised in that period came from small individual contributions of $200 or less.
Reached by phone, a DeGette campaign spokesperson said, “Congresswoman DeGette discloses all contributions, whether from PACs or individuals, and does not allow any contribution to influence her voting.” According to DeGette herself, she has “spearheaded inquiries that have called pharmaceutical industry leaders to account…and supported legislation that the industry has fought.” The Center for Responsive Politics confirms that she has indeed, fully disclosed the source of all of her campaign contributions; whether or not she has allowed the money to influence her is up to the voters to decide.
Although Rao has sworn off corporate PACs, her campaign has been funded in large part by sizable individual contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, only $65,049 (roughly 14 percent) of the $450,819 Rao has raised is from small individual contributions of $200 or less. Nearly 67 percent of the money she raised came from large individual contributions: people who can afford to write a check for $200 or more. That may be a simple byproduct of running in a well-heeled district. Unlike DeGette, Rao has incompletely or not at all disclosed the source of around $7,900 in campaign contributions.
It’s odd to hear a Wall Street lawyer who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 ranting with the zeal of a freshman who just cracked open A People’s History of the United States about how the Democratic Party is a shameful bastion of “white feminism.” Then again, Trump’s election did wake a lot of people up to the classism and racism embedded in American politics.
And then there’s her opponent: Rao has been clear about what she disdains about DeGette. Even so, challenging another woman in a shared political party isn’t the easiest move, given the now decades-old conversation about getting more women in government. Does Rao have a responsibility to support other women who (broadly speaking) share her politics, or at least to avoid tearing them down?
“When people talk about ‘women in office,’ no one ever talks about the intersectionality of that,” responds Rao. “To assume that a white woman is going to represent brown and black women is just false.” Representation matters, she says, because women of color don’t “otherize” the black and brown children who are victims of government-backed racist policies, like separating children from their families at the border, and unchecked race-based police brutality. “I see those people in me,” she says. “If you’re white, you absolutely don’t see yourself there.”
Rao’s anger at local party apparatchiks, whom she accuses of “coded racism,” is decidedly not coded: it’s overt. She acknowledges that some local party officials would have supported her in a run against GOP Senator Cory Gardner, but didn’t want her to challenge a fellow Democrat. “I have been told by people locally I need to sit down, I need to wait my turn…. people who are super pro helping women of color, [but apparently only] when you’re not running against a white woman.”
Health care, says Rao, is another area in which the Democratic Party has failed. This is less controversial; correctly sensing its popularity, plenty of Democrats are suddenly eager to support single-payer health care. DeGette, too, says she wants single-payer “once Democrats take back the House.”
“Saying it’s too confusing and complicated to get health care for all is not true,” Rao says. “It’s too confusing and complicated because we haven’t agreed that health-care equity is the goal and because Democrats are lining their coffers with money from health-care companies and Big Pharma, period.” That’s a fair point. But Hillary Clinton, whom Rao volunteered and voted for, certainly wasn’t championing single-payer health care—or turning down money from Big Pharma—between 2015 and 2017.
Rao says she stands for reproductive justice, and not just pro-choice politics, because simply being pro-choice “doesn’t address the access issue.” DeGette has a strong pro-choice record for which she has earned praise from the CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. DeGette has also been an outspoken critic of both the Hyde and the Stupak-Pitts amendments, which make it difficult and often impossible for poor women to access abortion care.
On the topic of her three and a half years on Wall Street, Rao is defensive. “My opponent has used this as a bad thing that I did, but I’m so proud of that. I’m a first-generation American; I worked my butt off to get there and the folks there have been really supportive of my campaign.”
After a long pause, she adds: “I think a big problem for the Democratic Party is vilifying things whole-hog. Like, Wall Street’s bad, tech is bad, this is bad, that’s bad. It doesn’t do us a great service. Is that even true? Everybody on Wall Street is bad? Everybody who works in tech is bad? It doesn’t even make any sense.”
Perhaps these sympathies account for Rao’s reluctance to fully embrace a more overtly left-wing economic position. Rao says she agrees “wholeheartedly” on all of Senator Bernie Sanders’s “economic stuff” (though she thinks he had “a race and gender problem”), but she shies away from calling herself a Democratic socialist.
“I’m not labeling myself as anything,” she replies carefully. “I consider myself a warrior for equity.”