Saira Rao with her family. From left to right, Rao's daughter Lila Govindan, her husband Shiv Govindan and her son Dar Govindan.

Sam Brasch/CPR News

After representing Denver and its closest suburbs for over two decades, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is facing her most serious challenger in years.

Saira Rao, a 44-year-old book promoter and an Indian-American mother of two, has mounted a primary bid in Colorado’s most Democratic congressional district. While she’s never held elected office, Rao has used her candidacy to question the priorities of a party that hopes to retake Congress in November. Her main charge is that corporate influences have drowned out the voices of minority women.

“I’m not here to criticize Diana DeGette,” said Rao at a campaign event. “As a woman of color surrounded by other women of color, we feel like we have been left out of the dialogue and have been ignored.”

Rao’s decision to jump into the race began with a kind of break up. She describes her early political life as a romance with Democrats. The courtship started with her first vote for Bill Clinton in 1996 and a ficus plant named Hillary.

Her party commitment continued after she gave up being a Wall Street lawyer to start In This Together Media, a company that promotes children’s books by diverse authors. Each election cycle, Rao knocked doors and fundraised, doing her best to lift her fellow Democrats. In 2016, she supported Hillary Clinton and even canvassed for Diana DeGette.

That all changed after the election of President Donald Trump.

“Post 2016, it became clear to me that the corporate wing of the Democratic Party wasn’t interested in my issues, specifically, so issues of racial justice,” she said. “I was asking, ‘What are we doing about DACA? What are we doing to make communities of color feel safe?’ And it was crickets.”

Those feelings led Rao to publish a breakup note with the Democrats in the Huffington Post. It declared the party had married white women while hooking up with women of color on the side. After her story went viral, Rao realized she had a choice: either walk away or do something about it.

She entered the race in mid-January of 2018.

A Newcomer Ready To Listen

It won’t be easy for Rao unseat DeGette. The incumbent demolished her 2016 primary opponent, defeating geologist Chuck Norris with 87 percent of the vote.

Rao has mounted a much more ambitious campaign than Norris. She out-fundraised DeGette in the first quarter of 2018, bringing in $255,000 to DeGette’s $240,000 — all while declining to take any corporate PAC money.

Rao has embraced policies she said mainstream Democrats have neglected, like the issue of police brutality.

“There’s very little attention paid to our needs. It’s largely become a party of white feminists,” Rao said of the Democratic Party. “Women of color have very specific needs outside of what white women need.”

Pressing for a more aggressive stance in defense of immigrants, she supports defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rao believes the agency “is just terrorizing communities of color” and is the product of xenophobic panic in the aftermath of 9/11.

For her, Democrats have dropped the ball when it comes to protecting undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S as children. She said the party should have killed itself to pass a clean DREAM Act, which would have guaranteed permanent residency for immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. President Trump ended the program and Congress has been battling to find a solution.

Her progressive positions on bread-and-butter financial issues include the elimination of all student debt, a single-payer health care and more aggressive federal affordable housing support.

Those policies helped Rao attract the support of Xochitl Gaytan, a Mexican-American woman from southwest Denver and a former candidate for Denver School Board. While Gaytan likes Rao’s stances, identity matters as much as policy.

“The simple fact that she is a woman of color and gets what it’s like to live on the margins of society, to me, that made a huge difference,” Gaytan said. “I know that through her, my voice will be heard.”

Over two decades living in west Denver, Gaytan said she’s only managed to meet Rep. DeGette once. For her, that’s evidence that the congresswoman has largely tuned out communities of color.

Rao has pledged to hold an in-district town hall once a month. She claimed DeGette has only done an average of once a year, an allegation the congresswoman said was “just simply, patently untrue.”

DeGette’s office claims she has held 10 in-person district town halls or listening session during her current term. It counts an additional 10 Facebook town halls or telephone town halls. Those events were either advertised or reported on DeGette’s social media accounts.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette hugs supporter Ann Ferrell at an ice cream social in Denver's Cherry Creek neighborhood.

Sam Brasch/CPR News

After being contacted by CPR News, Rao campaign manager Jordan Bresson said they would stop making claims about DeGette’s total number of town halls. She said that doesn’t change the broader point that DeGette could be more accessible.

Lisa B. Cohen, a DeGette spokeswoman, said the discrepancy is proof of Rao’s inexperience.

“Having never served in elected office or worked for an elected official, she’s in no position to determine what a town hall is,” Cohen said.

A Party Stalwart With A Long Track Record

At an ice cream social in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood, DeGette made her case for an 12th term in Congress before dozens of supporters. She touted some of her accomplishments from a long career: passing the 21st Century Cures Act, defeating the recent Republican farm bill and defending reproductive rights.

DeGette noted her advocacy has not been limited to reproductive issues relevant to white women. As co-chair of the pro-choice caucus, DeGette has fought for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for abortion.

“What it says is wealthy women can use insurance or their own money to get abortions, but poor women, they can’t get one,” she said. “And it really hurts poor women and women of color.”

The primary has divided the pro-choice community within Denver. Dusti Gurule, executive director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, has thrown her personal support behind Rao. Gurule said Rao’s candidacy represents to a chance to bring a new perspective on women’s issues to Colorado’s delegation. Leaders of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado support DeGette.

The congresswoman said she has the seniority to be effective if Democrats retake the House. If that happens, she’ll retain her position as chief deputy whip. DeGette would also take over as chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee.

While many Rao supporters see a need for fresh blood, DeGette said seniority is nothing to scoff at.

“The question: Do people want to elect somebody who will be one of the most junior members of Congress? Or elect somebody who knows how to introduce and pass a bill?” she said.

As for Rao’s argument that Democrats have neglected women of color, DeGette said it’s past time that her party addresses race in a “thorough and unvarnished way.” It’s a discussion DeGette thinks she is well-prepared for since she began her career as a public defender, often representing young men of color. She said her commitment to equality has continued during her long tenure in politics.

“And I don’t think my opponent has that same record that I do,” she said.

Voters will have their say in the June 26 primary. The outcome may be a strong indication of where Coloradans want to steer the Democratic Party.