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.