Diana DeGette: After 11 Terms in Congress, She’s Here to Stay

Feb 7, 2018
In The News

WASHINGTON — Diana DeGette just completed her 21st year as the Democratic congresswoman representing the district that includes the heart of Denver, making her the most senior member of the Colorado delegation and a force not to be overlooked in Washington’s hard knocks politics.

While a host of big-name Democrats — Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran and state Sen. Angela Williams among them — are said to be biding their time for a shot to take DeGette’s place in D.C. as the biennial shoo-in, the congresswoman has no plans to move on after 11 terms.

“As long as, No. 1, I feel like I’m effective and, number two, my constituents want to rehire me, I plan to continue doing this,” DeGette said.

She inherited the congressional seat from fellow Democrat Pat Schroeder, who stepped down after 12 terms. Longevity of tenure is an apparent fact of life in Colorado’s CD1.

In 1996, when she first won, DeGette was riding the notoriety of her state legislation to safeguard women arriving to get abortions from protestors. DeGette beat former Denver City Councilman Tim Sandos 56-46  in the primary, then whipped Republican Joe Rogers in the general election, 57 percent to 40.

She’s never looked back. She is, what top Colorado Republican Dick Wadhams calls, an unapologetic liberal.

Some Colorado politicos wonder more than two decades in Congress has turned DeGette into a Capitol Hill insider, long-distanced from her Rocky Mountain roots. They cite her lack of presence in her district. She’s not like, they note, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the neighboring and highly competitive 6th Congressional District who’s constantly making the rounds.

DeGette pushes back on that perception.

“I’m not a state-elected official,” she said. “I’m a federal-elected official. People are always trying to get me involved in state issues. I really can’t have an impact on that, unless there’s federal funding involved or some kind of federal statute.”

She says she doesn’t ignore her constituents; she just knows the boundaries of her authority.

“Sometimes people call me and say I need a fence variance and I give them the phone number of their local city council,” she said.

Her status as a long-time Washington insider is again likely to be a talking point.

There are three Republicans and three fellow Democrats hoping to knock her off.  Five of the six are newcomers, but one of her new Republican opponents, Casper Stockham, was the only Republican in the race two years ago. His campaign is laser-focused on local issues, he said.

“She has been in office for over 21 years and has lost touch with the people and issues in [Congressional District 1],” Stockham told Colorado Politics. “My platform focuses on homelessness, veteran issues, jobs and gentrification. My opponent does not focus on any of those things. Her focus is on demand abortions and making sure her special interest donors like Planned Parenthood are well taken care of.”

With little financial help for the state or national party, Stockham lost to DeGette by 40 points in 2016. He says now the time is right for a populist appeal to challenge DeGette establishment reputation.

“Ninety percent of the people I speak to in [Congressional District 1] like what I have to say,” Stockham offered.

However, there’s no indication yet that Stockham will have the money or campaign organization necessary to take down an incumbent in a safe district with all the campaign money she’ll need to defend her seat in what’s expected to be a strong year for Democrats in a backlash to President Trump.

Stockman isn’t the first to use the “lost touch” argument against DeGette. But it hasn’t worked so far.

DeGette holds one of the safest seats in Congress. In her last four general elections, she has enjoyed an average 39 percent margin of victory over her Republican opponent without a great deal of campaign expense or effort.

At her peak of power, she held an impressive position as the House Democratic chief deputy whip and vice chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In 2011, however, when Republicans gained majority control of the House, DeGette lost her committee vice chair job.

She held on to her post as chief deputy whip and the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

Bipartisan leadership

Regardless of the criticism by would-be foes, DeGette has undeniable achievements.

In October, she was awarded the Jacob K. Javits Prize for Bipartisan Leadership by the foundation named for the former New York senator known for trying to unite Republican and Democratic efforts.

“I just got it this year for my 21st Century Cures,” DeGette said after she pointed out the rounded glass trophy sitting on the desk of her Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C. “I would argue that I’m probably the most bipartisan member of the Colorado delegation.”

Her three-year effort to join the support of diverse factions in Congress behind her bill to revamp medical research came together on Dec. 13, 2016, when the 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law by President Obama.

DeGette calls the legislation the proudest achievement of her 25-year political career.

Most of the $6.3 billion the law authorized is going to the National Institutes of Health for research and development projects. It won wide support from pharmaceutical companies, patient advocates, medical associations and research organizations but opposition from consumer groups.

Supporters said it would streamline the approval process for new drugs and medical devices, thereby bringing the latest treatments to patients more quickly.

Opponents warned that drugs and devices would be brought to market before they were proven safe and effective. They said patients would be turned into guinea pigs with possible devastating results.

After the House passed the bill last year, DeGette said in a statement, “This is a watershed moment in this country for biomedical research. With this bill, we bring hope to millions of patients who suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and a host of other ailments.”

Her pride still showed in a recent interview.

“It was a high-wire act at the end,” she said as she described the perilous process that came together for a final vote. “I would say that far and away that has been my biggest accomplishment so far.”

Most recently, as the #MeToo movement has pushed across the political landscape, DeGette stepped out front in the national spotlight when she accused former California congressman Bob Filner of trying to kiss her in an elevator when they served together, among other times she alleged she was a victim of sexual harassment.

Environmental advocacy

DeGette authored the Voluntary Cleanup and Redevelopment Act, which absolves Colorado owners of contaminated land from regulatory penalties if they voluntarily clean up their property.

She continued her advocacy for environmental protection in Congress.

Since 1999, she has introduced and reintroduced the Colorado Wilderness Act, which would protect 32 wilderness areas from development.

Two of the sites that overlap the Gunnison River and the Dolores River are pictured on her office wall.

“These are very pristine areas with pristine characteristics,” DeGette said about the 715,000 acres listed in the congressional bill. “Many of them already are being damaged.”

A proposal in the Colorado Wilderness Act to set aside 1 percent of the state’s land as wilderness has won support from 14 of Colorado’s counties and municipalities. It never has reached a vote in Congress.

Kids as accomplishment

She counts her children as her greatest personal accomplishment.

“I have to say that raising two smart, engaged and independent daughters is at the top of the list,” she said. “I have also immersed myself in Japanese culture and politics, have been to Japan many times and am even learning Japanese.”

DeGette was born July 29, 1957, in Tachikawa, Japan, while her father served in the U.S. armed forces. She is a fourth-generation Coloradan who graduated from Colorado College with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She earned her law degree from New York University in 1982.

Afterward, she returned to Denver to practice law. Many of her cases touched on civil rights and employment litigation.

DeGette was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1992 and became assistant minority leader after she was re-elected in 1994.

In 1993. Colorado became the first state to protect women’s access to abortion clinics after DeGette  authored what came to be known as the Bubble Law that effectively created a “floating bubble” of 8 feet of separation between anyone entering health care facilities and abortion demonstrators. Other states followed.

Conservative groups challenged the law’s criminal sanctions and separation requirement. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in its 2000 ruling in Hill v. Colorado.

In this past term, DeGette has turned her attention to the emotional issues around insuring children and reforming federal immigration policy.

The Children Health Program Plus, or CHP+, in Colorado is a program administered jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and state health departments It provides matching grants to states to offer health insurance for pregnant women and children of families whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to purchase insurance.

It covers about 2 million children and pregnant women nationwide and 75,000 in Colorado.

The program expired in September but won a short-term reprieve from Congress Dec. 21 to continue until March. Colorado lawmakers contributed another $9.6 million after the state notified families that receive the health insurance their benefits might run out soon.

Skirmishes with Republicans

DeGette put most of the blame for the current state of D.C politics, on Republicans for dragging their feet on the controversy over taxpayer-funded health insurance.

“I just think that’s irresponsible,” she said.

She expressed similar sentiments about federal immigration policy.

The longer we fail to address this issue, the more families we have with really serious problems,” DeGette said. “You have the mother who is a U.S. citizen and the father is undocumented and then you have the kids who might be Dreamers. Some of them might be citizens. The effect of this immigration policy, which is a do-nothing policy, is that it is tearing apart families.”

Although she wants the controversy resolved, she acknowledges, “I don’t have a particular plan.”

The “Dreamers” she mentioned refers to the children of illegal immigrants who could qualify for permanent residency if they meet requirements of the DREAM Act. DREAM stands for “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.”

“Obviously we need to keep the Dreamers here,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette speaks at a Hands Off My Birth Control rally at U.S. Capitol. (Photo courtesy of DeGette’s press office)

Her critics express concern about what they perceive as her liberal politics. They include her pro-abortion rights leadership as co-chair of the congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

DeGette prefers to call herself “mainstream.”

“My positions tend to be shared by a majority of Americans,” she said. “I believe my views are reflective of mainstream America and I believe that they’re certainly reflective of my constituents.”

Tough critics

Nevertheless, her critics have been harsh.

The National Right to Life Committee gave her a zero percent rating to underscore its animosity toward her stance in favor of abortion rights.

In 2013, in the wake of horrific shootings in an Aurora movie theater and at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., DeGette was the lead sponsor of a proposed federal ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, a top priority, she said.

But at a gun control debate in Denver, she didn’t seem to understand how magazines work, shifting the focus off guns and onto her.

“I will tell you these are ammunition, they’re bullets, so the people who have those know they’re going to shoot them, so if you ban them in the future, the number of these high-capacity magazines is going to decrease dramatically over time because the bullets will have been shot and there won’t be any more available.”

Gun rights advocates were quick to correct her: magazines can be reloaded. The conservative Newsmax responded in a headline. “Diana DeGette on Guns: Colorado Democrat Can’t Keep Foot Out of Mouth.”

The National Rifle Association’s response was even more direct, “Two words — pretty stupid.”

A DeGette spokeswoman later said the congresswoman “misspoke.”

When she’s not skirmishing in Washington, DeGette’s pastimes are closely tied to Colorado.

“I love to hike and horseback ride,” she said. “I love music and to sing in my church choir. I love hot springs. I have a great time going to Broncos and Rockies games and I avidly follow Division 1 Hockey with the DU Pioneers and the Colorado College Tigers.”