U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette will face a Democratic primary challenge from Denver resident Saira Rao, the only other candidate nominated to face the incumbent representative during Friday’s 1st Congressional District Assembly at South High School.
DeGette, an 11-term congresswoman from Denver, received support from 270 delegates (62.65 percent), while Rao, a former attorney and co-founder of a children’s publishing company, received 161 (37.35). The results were tabulated about 30 minutes after delegates heard from the candidates and submitted ballots. No other candidates were nominated.
The 1st Congressional District covers the Denver metro area and has been a blue seat since the 1970s, when it was represented by former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder.
Rao had already qualified for the June primary after successfully petitioning in March. Still, Friday’s results are promising for Rao, who will need to convince enough unaffiliated voters now eligible to vote in the party’s primary that she’s better suited for Washington to have a shot at unseating DeGette. She’s hoping to become the first woman of color to represent Colorado in Congress.
Unlike Rao, DeGette did not submit petitions and was relying solely on the assembly to earn a spot in the primary. As the incumbent, she’s a heavy favorite who will look to continue serving in Congress and said she hopes Democrats take over the U.S. House during this fall’s midterm elections.
Both candidates are running on progressive platforms.
Each candidate received 10 minutes to address delegates.
Rao went first. She discussed her late mother, Sybil Rao (“Greenie,” to her family), who came to the United States from India and later worked as a doctor at a VA Hospital. Rao said her mother would refuse to stop wearing a sari, a traditional Indian garment, even after facing racist and sexist comments.
“It was only recently that I realized what that sari was,” Rao said. “It was Greenie’s resistance, it was her unwillingness to let go of herself, of her core, and I stand here tonight before you because of my mother.”
Surrounded by dozens of her supporters, including her children and Holocaust survivor Fanny Starr, Rao spoke about her campaign’s goal of inclusion. Among her goals in Washington would be fighting big pharma, pushing for single-payer healthcare insurance, passing a clean DACA act, the environment and social justice.
“I know who I am, I know what I stand for and I know who I stand for — and I stand for all of you,” Rao said. “We are Democrats. We stick together. We lift each other up. And we never have to leave anyone behind.”
DeGette, who has served in Congress since 1997, said she committed herself to the pursuit of justice after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. She was raised by a single mom who worked as a kindergarten teacher at Denver Public Schools.
DeGette would later graduate from South High School and earn a degree from the NYU School of Law. Following her legal studies, she returned to Colorado and worked as a public defender and embarked on a career representing underrepresented groups.
“People who had been discriminated against in their jobs for civil rights,” DeGette said. “And at some point, I thought to myself, you know, I can do this one case at a time, or I can run for office and do things that will actually help everybody.”
DeGette touted past legislation she said has helped her constituents, including legislation protecting women’s rights.
“Guess what, we’re going to take the U.S. House of Representatives,” DeGette said. “And when we do, you’re going to have a congresswoman who will be there in leadership to make these things happen.”
Before a single delegate cast their vote in Friday’s assembly, some political drama started unfolding.
DeGette’s campaign claimed Rao had been contacting delegates and urging them not to attend Friday’s assembly. The move, DeGette’s campaign claims, was an attempt to “silence the voice of voters.”
During the assembly, the party announced prior to the ballot submissions that at least 80 percent of eligible candidates had participated Friday.
DeGette’s campaign issued a statement to Denverite Friday afternoon (about four hours before the assembly’s scheduled start) saying DeGette’s and Rao’s former opponent, David Sedbrook — who announced Friday he was backing DeGette — said his own delegates had been contacted by Rao’s campaign and telling them not to attend.
Rao’s campaign spokesperson JoyAnn Ruscha said Rao’s campaign had done no such thing.
“Our campaign isn’t playing dirty tricks,” Ruscha said. “If someone called a delegate and told them to stay home, they should be ashamed of themselves. This campaign has bent over backwards to include people.”
Ruscha said that Rao’s campaign has been contacting delegates to remind them about the assembly and to offer transportation, child care and meals.
“We’ve done everything we can to get people to the room to vote,” Ruscha said.
Sedbrook said during the assembly that DeGette was the first person to call him after he dropped out of the race. He repeated what he said earlier Friday in a statement, adding that his endorsement was prompted by DeGette’s commitment to progressive causes. He alluded to the allegations when he nominated DeGette during Friday’s assembly.
“I will leave you with this thought,” Sedbrook said. “The bedrock of our democracy are elections and assemblies. And as Democrats, we must stand up and fight against any whispers of voter suppression.”