NYU Law News: Two NYU Law alumnae face off in Colorado congressional primary

NYU Law News: Two NYU Law alumnae face off in Colorado congressional primary

Two NYU Law alumnae face off in Colorado congressional primary

On June 26, voters in the Democratic congressional primary in the First District of Colorado will have the chance to decide between two NYU Law alumnae: incumbent Diana DeGette ’82 and Saira Rao ’02. The seat, which represents Denver and its surroundings, has been held by a woman in the Democratic party since 1972—a tradition that will continue if either Rao or DeGette is elected to office in November.

DeGette has served as the district’s US representative since 1997, and is currently part of the Democratic leadership team in the US House of Representatives, where she is the chief deputy whip. Prior to her election to Congress, DeGette served two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives. Before entering elected office, DeGette was a Denver-based civil rights and employment law attorney. DeGette’s current campaign focuses on health care, the environment and climate change, reproductive rights, and consumer protection.

Rao, who previously worked as an associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, is the founder of In This Together Media, a publishing company focused on diversifying children’s books. Rao is also the author of Chambermaid, a novel that chronicles a young lawyer’s experience clerking for a federal judge. Rao’s campaign platform focuses on economic justice, civil rights, and reducing the influence of corporate donors on the Democratic party.

Both DeGette and Rao credit their NYU Law professors as formative inspirations. “So many of my professors—people like Burt NeuborneStephen Gillers [’68], and Claudia Angelos—really helped me think critically as a lawyer,” says DeGette.

“The greatest teacher I’ve ever had in my life was Bryan Stevenson. It’s wonderful to see everything he’s done since I graduated—he’s changing the world,” Rao says, referring to Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative and the recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.

And in the decision to run for public office, each woman says that her NYU Law experience was pivotal.  “Law school was probably the most mind-expanding, world-expanding experience I had in my professional life. Some of the smartest, most interesting, most socially conscious people I’ve ever known in my life, I met at NYU Law,” says Rao. “Having gone to NYU Law has given me the strength and conviction to follow a path I otherwise might not have… it was a very confidence-boosting time in my life.”

DeGette credits her time as a Root Tilden scholar with giving her the drive to pursue a career in public service. “My experience with NYU Law was the transformative experience of my career,” says DeGette, “I met all of these wonderful, civic-minded, committed law students, and then after I left NYU Law, I started a public interest law career…. But at some point, when I was practicing law, I realized that I could represent clients one at a time or I could be elected to office and pass legislation that could actually impact thousands or even millions of lives.”

DeGette encourages public service–minded young lawyers to consider running for office: “You really can use elected office to make a difference,” she says.

This article was originally posted June 6, 2018 by NYU Law and can be found here

Colorado Independent: Shaping the future of the Democratic Party

Colorado Independent: Shaping the future of the Democratic Party

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette faces primary challenger Saira Rao who wants to shape the future of the Democratic Party

The progressive vs establishment Democratic party struggle playing out in other races across the nation is percolating in the campaign to unseat DeGette

 

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?”

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Saira Rao Could Be Colorado’s First Woman of Color Elected to Congress

Saira Rao Could Be Colorado’s First Woman of Color Elected to Congress

Saira Rao Could Be Colorado’s First Woman of Color Elected to Congress

“We need loud, fearless voices — new leaders who . . . aren’t afraid to stand up to the establishment on either side of the aisle.”

Running! is a Teen Vogue series about getting involved in government. In this op-ed, Colorado congressional candidate Saira Rao explains why Americans need more diverse and progressive Democratic representatives who will focus on people over profits. If elected, Rao would be the first woman of color to represent Colorado in Congress.

In fourth grade, a boy asked me to “go with him.” Over the moon, I said yes. The next day, when he asked me to meet him in the library, I blushed. Did he bring me a Kit Kat, my favorite candy, or perhaps a Rubik’s cube? It was neither. He came bearing bad news: “Saira, we have to break up,” he said. “My mom says I can’t go with a black girl.”

I nodded, feigning comprehension that this was a logical parental demand — something his mom had to insist on, like a square meal and exercise. Later that day, my own mother came home from her job at the Veterans Administration to find me trying to rub the brown off of my skin with a stone. I was 9. That day in Richmond, Virginia, in 1983 is one of my earliest and clearest memories.

Last summer, in Denver, I came downstairs to find my 7-year-old son slathered in two tubes of sunscreen. When he saw me, he euphorically exclaimed, “Look Mommy, I’m finally white!”

Nothing has changed. And nothing will if we don’t shake up our country’s leadership and vote for equity — racial, social, and economic.

We elect the same people again and again, and innocent brown and black people continue to be killed by police and arrested for everyday things, like sitting in a Starbucks. We elect the same people, and the wealth gap continues to increase. We’re facing an affordable housing crisisacross the country, too many people can’t afford life-saving medications, our veterans come home to face homelessness and depression, Dreamers are being deported, and guns are taking our kids’ lives here, there, everywhere. Is this really America?

I don’t believe it is. That’s why I decided to run for Congress here in Colorado. I am running on a bold progressive platform that will tackle common-sense gun reform, a path to citizenship for all immigrants, a clean Dream Act, equity for all — including our LGBTQ friends and families — and health care that leaves no community struggling to figure out how to pay for their prescription drugs or medical bills.

But equally important, I am running to bring our government back to we the people. We hear a lot about how corporate money in politics is bad, but many of us don’t think too much about it. So here’s the basic gist: If a pharmaceutical company donates $50,000 to help get you elected, once you are in Congress, who will you answer to? That company, of course. If the National Rifle Association (NRA) gives you $100,000, you’ll probably answer to the NRA. This is why we’ve seen prescription drug prices rocket. It’s why gun violence continues to rip apart America. We will never have health care for all, affordable prescription drugs, or gun-free schools and streets until we demand that our representatives stop taking corporate money. That’s why I haven’t taken a penny from corporations or political action committees (PACs) in my campaign, and I won’t do so after I’m elected either.

And it isn’t enough to just elect a person because they identify as a “Democrat.” That’s all well and good, but what has that gotten us? Not much in terms of action in Washington. Not much in terms of fighting against the Trump administration. We need loud, fearless voices — new leaders who aren’t catering to corporate donors and aren’t afraid to stand up to the establishment on either side of the aisle. This isn’t just about flipping red to blue. This is about flipping blue to true blue.

I am not a politician. I started out as a lawyer, working on Wall Street. Then my little brown kids started reading books and watching animated television. I freaked out. Nothing had changed since my childhood. Most books featured white, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered boys. They say when you don’t see the book you want to read on the shelf, go write it. My friend Carey and I took that advice a step further and created an entire publishing company — In This Together Media — to diversify children’s books.

When we started out, we were told that we were crazy, that we didn’t understand the business, that we should just intern, and that “white boys sell.” White boys sell because that’s all that’s being offered, we countered. We persisted, knowing two things: Everyone needs to see themselves in a story to connect with the story, and representation matters. Six-and-a-half years later, In This Together Media is an extremely successful book-packaging company, having sold books featuring children of color, LGBTQ children, and immigrant children as central characters to the likes of Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Penguin.

When you look at our Congress, it looks an awful lot like the characters in kids’ books: overwhelmingly white and male. All nine members of Colorado’s congressional delegation are white. A woman of color has never gone to Congress from Colorado. I’m fighting to change that because, just like in children’s books, representation matters. When I started talking to people — from local elected officials to the party establishment — about running for this seat, I was told time and time again that I would lose and that this was an impossible task. I was told that 11-term incumbent Diana DeGette would “never lose and I should just wait for her to retire.” I was told that, without corporate donations, I’d never be able to compete with her in the Democratic primary. I’d heard such discouraging words before. I didn’t let them get me down in my publishing career, and I’m not now, either. I smiled, filed with the Federal Election Commission, and announced my run.

Three and half months later, I made it onto the ballot (no easy task here), and in the first quarter of 2018, I raised more money than Diana — all through donations from individuals, not corporations.

How did I do it? I didn’t. We are doing it — Americans, together. My experience so far has proved that people are tired of voting for the same politicians over and over again, and they’re ready for a change.

The November 2016 election was an indictment of the status quo if ever there was one. I, like so many other first-time candidates, have jumped into the ring to provide voters with an alternative to corporate Democratic candidates. With profits out, we can focus on people; and once we focus on people, we can have the hard conversations and build solutions. I want to have those conversations, beginning with the Colorado Democratic primary election on June 26.

I would never forgive myself for not trying if my grandchildren — the next generation — tried to rub the color off their skin or tried to cover up their brownness with cream.

Change is coming.

Colorado is a vote-by-mail state, and ballots drop in early June. For the first time, unaffiliated voters not aligned with a specific political party will be able to vote in the primary. The primary is June 26th. For more information visit justvotecolorado.org.

From NBC News: Safe seats? Anti-Trump wave may wash out some Democrats, too

Safe seats? Anti-Trump wave may wash out some Democrats, too

Some long-serving Democrats are facing primary challenges for the first time ever as the party looks to counter President Donald Trump.

by Alex Seitz-Wald and Leigh Ann Caldwell / 

Image: Caroline Maloney, Michael Capuano and Diana DeGette

From left, Democratic Reps. Caroline Maloney of New York, Michael Capuano of Massachusetts and Diana DeGette of Colorado.Getty Images; AP; AP

WASHINGTON — When Rep. Mike Capuano won his Boston-area congressional seat two decades ago, he had good reason to think of it like a Supreme Court appointment: For life.

The low-profile Democrat cruised to re-election nine times, never dropping below 80 percent of the vote, while casting reliably liberal votes that earned him perfect ratings from Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Then Donald Trump got elected, and the liberal base began to demand more from its leaders than a party-line voting record.

Now, Capuano is facing his first-ever primary challenge — and he’s not alone, with a small but growing number of entrenched Democrats watching as insurgents out-fundraise them with a sense of urgency fueled by President Donald Trump and an unwillingness to follow the old rules of deference to party elders.

Just as the Tea Party revolution culled some deadwood Republicans on its way to retaking the House, an anti-Trump wave may wash out some of the Democrats’ longest-serving members.

Image: Ayana Pressley
Ayana PressleyCourtesy of Ayana Pressley campaign

“I understand that this is uncomfortable for many people,” said Ayanna Pressley, Capuano’s challenger. “These are different times and it requires our being disruptive.”

Pressley, the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, has been dubbed the future of politics and fêted by Emily’s List, the Democratic women’s group, with a prestigious “Rising Star” award.

Even though she’s upsetting the applecart, Pressley has won support from major unions and a tacit nod from members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, who made the unusual decision not to support their colleague and sit out the race.

Unlike a recent Illinois primaryfought over abortion rights, or the 2016 presidential primary, Pressley and Capuano hold virtually the same political views.

What sets them apart is volume, not pitch, with Pressley saying these times require “activist-leadership” from people with a wider ranger of life experiences.

“We have an opportunity here,” she said of the Trump era. “It can be a moment where we grow and build the most progressive movement of our times.”

Democrats are no stranger to messy primaries in open seats or ones held by Republicans. But they almost always defer to their congressmen once elected.

Since the Tea Party wave uncorked the bottle in 2010, Republicans have been significantly more likely to face primaries than Democrats, according to the Brookings Institution. Only two House Democrats lost their seats to friendly fire in the last election.

“Beating an incumbent of your own party is one of the hardest thing to do,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who defeated an eight-term incumbent on his second attempt two years ago.

That hasn’t stopped Adem Bunkeddeko, a 29-year-old Harvard grad and child of Ugandan refugees, who says Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Democrat, has done not enough to promote affordable housing in her rapidly gentrifying district. “At the end of the day, it’s about getting things done,” he said.

And nor has it stopped Jonathan Lewis, a historian and businessman in a neighboring district, who is trying to oust senior Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. “If I told you there are nations in the world where people are running for election after election completely unopposed, you might wonder what country that is,” Lewis said.

Even Barack Obama, perhaps the greatest politician of his generation, failed to oust an entrenched Chicago lawmaker.

But this year, challengers hope the super-charged Democratic base and widespread frustration with elected officials will let them catch incumbents sleeping.

“We have a big split in the party I don’t know that the party establishment has fully wrapped its mind around it,” said Saira Rao, who is challenging Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

In hipsterifying Denver, the first-time candidate outraised DeGette, a member of Democratic leadership and a 23-year incumbent.

Rao volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, but grew frustrated with the Democratic Party for taking the votes of women of color like her for granted.

So she wrote an essay on “Breaking Up with the Democratic Party” that went viral, and the overwhelming response compelled her to run for office.

“We have a window (to save the country). It’s closing pretty soon. We don’t have until 2020 and I have zero faith that the corporate Democrats in Congress will do a damn thing about it,” Rao said. “Thank you for your service Nancy Pelosi, but we need new leadership.”

The odds are stacked against upstarts, and what few polls exist have shown them behind. Voters in safe districts don’t typically pay attention to congressional primaries, with some big city districts posting single-digit turnout in the past.

Suraj Patel
Suraj PatelSuraj Patel for Congress

That’s a shame, says Suraj Patel, a 34-year-old Obama campaign alum and New York University professor challenging Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., an institution in Manhattan politics.

“No party should be satisfied with 6 percent turnout,” said Patel. “We don’t just need to elect Democrats, which we do, we need to elect better Democrats.”

Patel has raised nearly $1.1 million, outpacing Maloney two quarters in a row, and built a massive campaign team for a congressional race, with 25 staffers and 49 interns.

As he sees it, Democrats should be using the safety of deep blue seats in progressive major cities to take risks on new policy ideas and champion a bold agenda.

“We’re really wasting an incredible opportunity to lead from districts like this,” he said.

Saira outraises her opponent without corporate PACs

Saira outraises her opponent without corporate PACs

Incumbent and Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Diana DeGette was outraised by progressive newcomer, Democrat Saira Rao

Denver, CO, April 16, 2018 – Less than 100 days ago, Saira Rao announced her candidacy for Colorado’s 1st Congressional District. She is challenging incumbent Rep. Diana DeGette for the seat. Since then, she’s met with hundreds of people, hosted and attended dozens of events, and raised over $250,000 from individual donors in her 1st Quarter, outraising DeGette’s numbers.

Saira will be placed on the ballot for the Democratic party’s primary election, a nomination she earned by petitioning on the ballot and participating in the party’s assembly process. Rao has shown she has the right message and fire to unseat DeGette in the June 26th primary.

The establishment in Denver is taking notice of Rao’s success thus far, as has her opponent, Rep. DeGette. In two emails sent over the weekend to her supporters, DeGette stated, “I have good news and bad news. First, the good news: I am officially on the ballot for the Democratic primary in June. The bad news: my opponent outraised me last quarter. I urgently need support to fuel our grassroots field effort.”

Colorado’s first Congressional district, which encompasses Denver and parts of Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, has grown dramatically in the last few years. Said Rao, “Primaries define the future. We, the Democratic party, already know what we’re against, but what are the values we won’t compromise on? What we are for?”

“Our road to Washington has just begun and I promise to fight FOR the values and issues you care about. Our grassroots campaign is funded by the people and FOR the people. I will not take a penny from corporations. This campaign is about social, racial, and economic equity for all. We need a clean Dream Act now; Dreamers are human beings, not soundbites. We need single-payer healthcare and affordable prescription drugs, which means standing up to Big Pharma. The elimination of crushing student loan debt is one of my top priorities.”

DeGette has accepted corporate PAC money since she was first elected to Congress in 1997. As of January 2017, she has accepted $303,700 from “other committees”, many of which are corporate PACs. Rao is running on a progressive agenda where she believes everyone deserves a seat at the table. Among other things, she has not taken a single donation from corporate PACs. Change is coming to Washington and her name is Saira Rao.