Saira Rao of Denver, Colorado leads fund raising to take on 11 term Congresswoman

Democrat Saira Roa, a candidate in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, poses for a photograph at her Denver home on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. She's challenging U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat serving her 11th term in Congress, in a primary. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Saira Rao, a Denver Democrat, has announced that her campaign received contributions from more than 500 individual donors within a month of launching her primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, who is serving her 11th term representing Colorado’s 1st Congressional District.

“We are not taking any corporate PAC money,” Rao said in a statement. “Special interests are robbing people of their voices, and I am not going to play that game. We’re doing this the hard way — dollar by dollar, door by door.”

Rao filed paperwork to run in the heavily Democratic district on Jan. 10; her campaign logged its 500th donor last week, 28 days in, a campaign spokeswoman said. Rao has cleared “six figures” in contributions, her campaign manager, JoyAnn Ruscha, told Colorado Politics, but she declined to elaborate. Campaign finance reports covering the period are due to the Federal Election Commission April 15.

The entrepreneur and social justice activist has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars in less than three months, just from individual donors. She has vowed not to accept a dollar from any corporate political action committees.

The Indian American Rao had written in a Huffington Post op-ed piece: “I’m a Brown Woman Who’s Breaking Up with the Democratic Party.” The piece immediately went viral. And although Rao, 43, is a newcomer considered a longshot by analysts, she remains undeterred in taking on fellow Democrat and entrenched incumbent Diana DeGette in the 1st Congressional District.

Analysts have said her attempt to defeat the 22-year incumbent, who has continued to be re-elected with massive margins, is an exercise in futility. But Rao, an unabashed progressive, believes it is imperative to take on the Democratic establishment, which she calls indifferent toward towards minorities and people of color.

“This campaign is about bringing people together. I’m proud of the coalition we’re building of Democrats and independents who want a more representative government,” she said. “If Democrats are going to take back Congress, we need to build a party that answers to everyday people, not corporations. We can’t fight Trump’s anti-worker agenda if the same donors are funding both parties.”

Last month, her Congressional campaign turned in its petition for ballot access in District 1, having collected more than 1,700 signatures from registered Democrats. But analysts say it will take a miracle for Rao to upset DeGette in the June 26 primary. But they believe that, if she is victorious, she would be a shoo-in at the general election in November as District 1 is a safe Democratic seat, comprising all of Denver as well as parts of Arapahoe and Jefferson counties.

She would become the first Indian-American or Asian-American — and the first woman of color — to represent her state in the House of Representatives. Rao is co-founder of a media publishing company This Together Media, which publishes children’s books that feature diverse protagonists, especially kids of color.

Rao, raised in Richmond, Virginia, has several priorities on her agenda, from fighting the burgeoning racism and bigotry and xenophobia to controlling prescription drug costs, and eliminating student loan debt to passing a single-payer healthcare bill. She believes that entrenched Democrats in safe seats are apathetic toward disenfranchised and marginalized constituents and that’s why she opted to challenge DeGette.

Rao was endorsed last month by former Colorado Democratic Party Chair Buie Seawell, son of former North Carolina Attorney General Malcolm Buie Seawell. He is a longtime party figure and community leader, and a distinguished professor at the University of Denver. “She is not ‘the same old thing’ “ he said. “Saira Rao embodies the future.”

Rao has said she’s running the quintessential grass-roots campaign. “This campaign is about giving everyone a seat at the table and making Colorado a progressive leader in national politics,” she said. “I’m so grateful to everyone who helped make this happen, and I look forward to a robust primary and healthy debates on healthcare, criminal justice reform, and getting corporate money out of the Democratic Party.”

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