Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette is having a moment — and President Donald Trump, whose impeachment she supports, is largely responsible. DeGette's bill to prohibit the sale of vape juices, combined with her campaign to reduce teen use of electronic cigarettes, made her a go-to source this week when the Trump administration announced a flavored e-cig ban. The boost in her national profile is exemplified by her appearance yesterday, September 12, on CNN.
But while such face time is good news for DeGette, she can't rest easy. Despite representing the 1st Congressional District, regarded as one of the most reliable in the state for a Democrat owing to its inclusion of liberal Denver, she's facing a primary challenge in 2020 from former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Crisanta Duran, whose announcement earlier this year shocked the political establishment. Now, all Duran's got to do is pull off an AOC.
That's a reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who took on what initially seemed to be a fool's errand — entering the 2018 primary against Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, a ten-time winner in New York's 14th Congressional District. Her victory and subsequent election to Congress put longtime Democratic officials in supposedly secure areas on notice that they could be knocked off by one of their own, particularly if the angle of approach was from the left.
Does DeGette's record make her vulnerable? Ryan Brown, her spokesperson, portrays her legislative accomplishments as bulletproof, while independent political analyst Eric Sondermann sees them as solid but not always especially showy. Still, Sondermann points out that DeGette has beaten back seemingly difficult primary opponents before, including last year, when she bested fellow Dem Saira Rao by a wide margin. For him, the question is whether "there's an appetite for change where, in the past, there just hasn't been that kind of appetite."
DeGette has been in office even longer than Crowley, AOC's target. She was elected in 1996 after Pat Schroeder, her predecessor in CD1, decided to step down after serving for a dozen terms, and next year, she'll attempt to equal that mark by running for the twelfth time. As noted by Sondermann, "Even for a lot of longtime Denverites, there've only really been two congresspeople from the first district in their memory: Pat Schroeder and Diana DeGette."
There doesn't seem to be a lot of space between Duran and DeGette when it comes to the issues. When Westword asked Duran to name major policy differences, she came up with just one: She favors the Green New Deal, which DeGette hasn't embraced thus far. But Duran, who ran for state rep in 2010, a position she held for eight years after serving as associate counsel for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 — a union for which her father, Ernie Duran Jr., served as president — is much more stylistically brash than DeGette, albeit not quite as verbally incendiary as AOC.
"This is not a time to be safe, it's not a time to be shy," Duran told us. "It's a time to be bold. We need a leader in Congressional District 1 who has the political courage to take on the tough issues and move forward with a bold, progressive agenda for all the communities in the district."
For her part, DeGette is the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations affiliate — a significant role, but arguably a comedown from her previous leadership gig as Chief Deputy Whip, which she lost after making an unsuccessful bid for the Majority Whip position last November. Still, spokesperson Brown stresses that she remains as busy as ever.
"It’s hard to point to any one legislative accomplishment as Representative DeGette’s most significant," he maintains via email. "Most everything she does is important to somebody, for some reason." Earlier this year, for example, "the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] announced it is providing millions of dollars in new federal funding to help states identify deaths caused by childbirth complications and to find ways to prevent them from occurring again. The funding that the CDC announced is a direct result of legislation representatives DeGette and [Washington Representative Jaime Herrera] Beutler authored and championed through Congress last year to help lower the nation’s maternal mortality rate. In fact, here’s a story from the New York Times about the bill, known as the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act."
In addition, he goes on, the federal government has "announced new rules it put in place to speed up the approval process for small hydropower electrical projects, up to 40 megawatts. Those rules were put in place as a direct result of the bills Representative DeGette authored and Congress passed in 2007 and 2017, known as the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act."
Other DeGette-authored or co-authored bills/laws cited by Brown include the Every Kid Outdoors Act, a 2019 offering that makes public lands in National Parks free to all fourth-grade students; the 21st Century Cures Act, from 2016, which sped up the approval time for medical innovations and provided $4.8 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health, former Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moon Shot and the fight against opioids; and an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act that designated additional revenue for infrastructure improvements at Denver International Airport — money that's definitely needed given cost overruns and construction delays that led to the termination of its $1.8 billion Great Hall renovation contract last month. And that's not to mention her efforts as Chief Deputy Whip to win support for measures such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program and negotiate assorted details in the Affordable Care Act. "These are just some of a long list of accomplishments that are a direct result of Representative DeGette’s work in the House," Brown affirms.
The roster of bills collected on Congress.gov under DeGette's name is a more scattered lot and a bit misleading, given that it only includes legislation on which she was the first-named sponsor. But of the 188 listed since she took office, only two not named by Brown are marked by the term "Became Law": the EPS Improvement Act of 2017, which "amends the Energy Policy and Conservation Act to exclude from energy conservation standards for external power supplies any power supply circuit, driver, or device designed to power light-emitting diodes (commonly known as LEDs) or to power ceiling fans using direct current motors," and the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Organ Transplant Authorization Act of 2008, which boosted services provided by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
"If she's made a mark legislatively, it's been in the realm of medical innovation and medical technology," Sondermann says. "That's been one of her main areas of focus, or at least one that's made a lasting impression."
Of course, successful bills are only one way to measure the effectiveness of a congressional member, Sondermann acknowledges. He points out that much of DeGette's work has been done behind the scenes, in contrast to the rep who held the CD1 seat before her.
"Pat Schroeder and Diana DeGette are both white, female and from the left flank of the party, but certainly not the hard left," he says. "But they have very, very different approaches. Pat Schroeder was a national personality. Her power didn't come from legislative deal-making within the halls of Congress, but from her ability with a sound bite, her ability in front of a camera, her ability to drive an issue simply through force of personality and media savvy. Diana DeGette is more of an inside player. She devoted a lot of effort early in her tenure to currying favor with the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party."
Judge DeGette's prowess on the tube for yourself via her aforementioned CNN appearance:
The bid for the Majority Whip position confirmed DeGette's ambitions, but it didn't pay off.
"She has been in the House for two decades, and after the Democrats took control last year, she may have felt that if she was ever going to propel herself into the upper ranks of leadership, this was her window," Sondermann theorizes. "I think this was a bet that the troika of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn wouldn't all survive, and she may not have been able to pick off the top person, but she could pick off the number-three person. It turned out to be a very ill-considered bet for a couple of reasons. Number one, Clyburn has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is a very substantial caucus that was going to rally to his defense. And secondly, DeGette doesn't have that many reflexive followers among the Democratic caucus. There's not a cadre, even a small cadre, of her peers who are going to walk through hell or high water for Diana DeGette."
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Within the 1st Congressional District, however, DeGette has had more than enough juice to turn back two primary challengers who were both female and people of color. In 2002, she faced former Denver City Council member Ramona Martinez, "who had a real base in the Latino community," Sondermann says; DeGette won by 73-27 percent. As for the Indian-American Rao, "she didn't have a major political pedigree," he allows, "but she had a fair amount of fuel in the highly activist wing of the party. I don't think a lot of people expected her to dethrone DeGette, but when the votes were counted, she had very little traction." The margin was 68.2-31.8 percent in DeGette's favor.
As for Duran, Sondermann feels that "she had been playing largely a mainstream Democratic Party game by putting herself in position for the right opportunity — and the ground rules for that particular game don't usually call for a high-profile primary challenge to an incumbent."
In Sondermann's opinion, that leaves Duran with "three possible outcomes. One, she succeeds and becomes the Colorado AOC. The future is bright for her. The second scenario is that she doesn't succeed, but it's a very credible challenge. DeGette has to sweat and Duran finishes at 45 percent or some number in that vicinity — so she's not a member of Congress, but she's still enhanced her profile, and maybe she's effectively sent the message to DeGette that the clock is ticking and it might be time to consider how long her tenure should last. And the third outcome is that she becomes the 2020 version of Ramona Martinez or some of the other people who've challenged incumbents and gone nowhere. If DeGette has to deal with the challenge but never really has to break a sweat, then I think it could be an existential threat to Duran's political career."
In other words, the stakes could hardly be higher.