Nine days before the 2008 presidential election, Congresswoman Diana DeGette found herself staring out at the sea of people overflowing from Civic Center Park. She had never seen 100,000 people, let alone spoken to that many, and though they weren’t here for her it was gratifying to see that many Coloradans at a Democratic event. A long line of politicians— including Governor Bill Ritter, Senator Ken Salazar, and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper—were eager to get on the stage, so DeGette only would get a few minutes to speak. Besides, she was just part of the warm-up—everyone was really here to see Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
DeGette was in a tricky spot: Though she represented many of the voters gathered for the speech, she had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary. She assured voters that Obama would make good on Hillary’s promises, encouraging them to help “turn Colorado as blue as the sky.” And with a one-two barrage, she swiftly pumped up Obama while reminding the crowd of her pet issue: “To pursue the miracle of stem cell research, to find cures to countless diseases giving hope to thousands of patients and their families—it is Barack Obama who will support this important research and allow it to go forward.”
Stepping off the stage, DeGette walked over to the VIP tent, where she made a beeline to Obama. The lanky candidate leaned in for a hug and a kiss, but DeGette was here to convert Obama to her cause.
“I wanted to tell you that I hope one of the first things you’ll do is reverse President Bush’s stem cell restrictions,” she told the not-yet-elected president. DeGette had passed two bipartisan bills supporting stem cell research in the past three years, only to watch George W. Bush veto them. Obama, DeGette said, would just need to ink his name on an executive order and stem cell funding would be restored.
“I’ll think about that,” said Obama, smiling.
Five months later, and only seven weeks after Obama was sworn into office, DeGette hovers over the president in the White House’s East Room. In his looping southpaw style, Obama signs his name on the executive order repealing Bush’s stem cell funding restrictions. All the politicians and doctors in the room applaud, but no one is louder—or happier—than DeGette. Later in the day, she tells the Denver Post: “Over 10 years of work trying to get sensible stem cell policy, and literally with the stroke of a pen it happened.”
This has been a good year for DeGette. With the retirement of Senator Wayne Allard in January, she became the seniormost Colorado lawmaker on Capitol Hill—the dean of the state’s delegation. In February, President Obama signed into law another of her favored projects, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which extended health insurance to four million uninsured children. And when the president chose Denver as his backdrop to sign the federal stimulus package, DeGette was at the airport to pick him up and ride in the presidential motorcade.
Sitting in her Washington, D.C., office on a winter day, DeGette is more relaxed than her more rehearsed C-SPAN persona. Dressed in a turtleneck and blazer, she jokes with an aide and hops up to check her cell phone in case it’s her 15-year-old daughter, Frannie. The office, in the Rayburn House Office Building next to the Capitol, has the historic walnut desk and guest seating area you’d expect from a member of the party’s leadership. It’s also filled with tokens of DeGette’s greatest hits: a collage of newspaper clippings about the stem cell debate, a picture of Obama speaking at the 2008 Denver Democratic National Convention at Invesco Field, and a framed copy of one of her most successful (and infamous) bills—the so-called “Bubble Bill.” Passed more than 15 years ago in the Colorado Statehouse, the legislation created a safe, harassment-free zone around health and abortion clinics, and was later challenged, unsuccessfully, in the Colorado Supreme Court.
DeGette isn’t a flashy headline-maker—she leaves that to the Nancy Pelosis and Barney Franks of America. She’s a behind-the-scenes operator; as one of the chief deputy whips, she’s charged with counting and securing the votes to ensure passage of Pelosi’s and the Democrats’ legislation. Her difficult days of serving in the minority are long gone, but even now, with a firm majority in the House and Obama in the White House, she acknowledges the challenges of passing legislation as the ruling party.
“In some ways the whipping job becomes more difficult because we do have to pass an agenda, and we have to have pretty good discipline to do that,” DeGette says. “And if members think ‘Well, we’re in the majority, I don’t have to vote with the caucus,’ or [they] get overconfident, then we start to really lose our grip on the majority.”
Although DeGette is a proud liberal, she’s also a numbers person, cognizant that a hyper-liberal agenda isn’t going to get passed by Republicans—or even centrist Democrats. “To be a Western whip in the Democratic leadership you have to be a little more moderate, more independent,” says Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. “They have to be a little more interested in the unaffiliated voter. So my sense is if you really dig down you’ll find that, while [DeGette’s] clearly a liberal, she is a pragmatic politician in that she knows how to count votes, and she knows how to get votes. That’s how you become a whip.”
DeGette clearly relishes whipping the votes. After the November election, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) stepped down as the chairman of the Democratic Caucus to serve in the Obama administration; DeGette was asked whether she was interested in becoming vice chairman. It’s a prestigious job, in line to become chairman, the fourth most powerful position in the House. But it also requires a partisan tact, helping Democrats across the country get elected. She declined the opportunity. “I don’t really want to be the chairman of the caucus,” she says. “I really want to be the Whip.” That’s “whip” with a capital “W”—as in head whip, House Majority Whip, the third most powerful member of Congress. Why, after all, line up for the fourth spot when you’re gunning for third?
A week after Thanksgiving in 1995, DeGette was sitting in her car in the parking lot of Children’s Hospital in Denver (her daughter, Raphaela, had sprained her wrist) when she got an unexpected phone call: Congresswoman Pat Schroeder was retiring. It was a shock—Schroeder was a Colorado institution, having represented the first district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 24 years. DeGette, only in her second term in the Colorado House of Representatives, hadn’t considered a career in national politics—it seemed like Schroeder would be in the House forever.
For DeGette, it was a shot at the big time. A graduate of South High School and Colorado College, she had gone to New York University’s law school with dreams of being a civil-rights attorney. While at NYU, she met her future husband, Lino Lipinsky, and eventually convinced him to follow her back to Denver after graduation, where the newly minted law-school graduate found a job in the Appellate Division of the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office before moving to a small civil litigation firm, and, eventually, starting her own firm. She took commercial clients to pay the rent while she pursued her legal passion, volunteering to represent prisoners for the American Civil Liberties Union and pursuing wilderness litigation for the Sierra Club. DeGette got her first taste of politics volunteering for Richard Lamm’s 1983 gubernatorial campaign; later, she volunteered for Federico Peña’s mayoral campaign. She became the vice president of the Denver Young Democrats, and within a few years, she was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives and appointed assistant minority leader. She pushed legislation supporting women and children, earning recognition—in some corners, notoriety—when she helped pass her “Bubble Bill.”
Congress, though, was a much larger commitment. She and Lipinsky had two young daughters, and Denver was a long way from D.C. They talked it over. She decided to run—it’d be the chance to take the beliefs she fought for in court and in the Statehouse to a national stage.
DeGette took the 1996 primary with 55 percent of the vote, and her future was set—barring scandal, she could have a seat for life in liberal Denver. Still, her first term was challenging; she was chastised by the Rocky Mountain News and Westword for bad behavior when she was denied a speaking roll at a Broncos event, and the Denver Post called her out for not matching the legislative pace of fellow freshman Bob Schaffer. The sentiment was that DeGette was no Pat Schroeder.
Come re-election time, though, DeGette had righted herself. The Kiplinger Report touted her as an up-and-comer, and both local papers endorsed her, the Post writing: “It’s a truism that new arrivals in Congress require a period of adjustment before they can begin to have a political or policy impact. DeGette has now been through that initial learning curve and is starting to locate those issues on which she can make a real difference.”
Since then, she’s steadily climbed the congressional ladder, first serving as a regional whip before becoming a chief deputy Democratic whip in 2005. In 2007, she leapfrogged several more senior congressmen for the coveted vice chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “She’s able, smart, and decent,” says Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who, as then-chairman of the committee, appointed her. “She works very, very hard, looks after her district. She worries about Colorado, and she’s a good negotiator.”
Dingell points to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which requires toys to be tested for lead, as an example of DeGette’s bargaining skills. To get it through the House and Senate with Republican support, she had to deal with some difficult senators—or, as Dingell puts it, many “curious senatorial egos.” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), then the ranking Republican member of the committee, said she deserved the “Henry Kissinger award” for her work in getting the bill passed. Says Dingell: “She suffers fools well, and she’s great at negotiating.”
DeGette’s dogged, by-the-book climb in the House made her short-lived January bid to take Ken Salazar’s open Senate seat very surprising. Sure, every congressperson dreams of being a senator, but DeGette had never publicly expressed an interest in statewide politics, nor had she taken up any statewide issues or joined any Colorado-centric House committees. (In other words, she was no Mark Udall.) Add to that a public perception that DeGette is a liberal’s liberal, and you could almost hear the 2010 Republican attack ads: She’s cochair of the pro-choice caucus. She’s the lady who wants to use your tax dollars to fund the destruction of human embryos for research. She called vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin an “insult to women.” And she contributes to the Huffington Post!
But DeGette seemed irked that the papers and pundits weren’t mentioning her as a candidate along with Mayor John Hickenlooper, State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, and Congressman Ed Perlmutter. It was a venerable boys’ club—and she had been in the political game longer than any of them. So there she was, talking to the editorial board of the Denver Post, making an impassioned defense of her candidacy. “Colorado has never had a woman senator or a woman governor,” she said. Wringing and waving her hands, DeGette continued: “I think it’s kind of ridiculous that, after all these years, we’ve never had a woman in either of those positions.”
Just two weeks after jumping into the contest for the Salazar seat, she withdrew. She had made her point as a feminist and returned to Plan A: Remain vice chair of Energy and Commerce and keep moving up the Democratic congressional ladder with the goal of becoming House Majority Whip. And at a time when the Democrats need to keep all their members in line and voting for the party—not to mention trying to reach across the aisle to bring moderate Republicans over—DeGette’s negotiating skills are needed now, more than ever.
“If [Obama and Pelosi] are serious about bipartisan support, my sense is that DeGette would be somebody who could go out there and try to get it,” says pollster Ciruli. “I don’t think there’s any doubt she has the skill set to go out and bring people in.”
Minutes after President Obama signed the long-awaited stem cell executive order, DeGette was out working the press on the front lawn of the White House. It was a relatively mild and sunny March day in Washington, but the wind was whipping fast and furious, causing DeGette’s shoulder-length hair to blow every which way as the news outlets stood in line to hear her sound bite. CNN, Bloomberg—even Hardball host Chris Matthews was standing by on-the-air, waiting to interview the congresswoman. Obama’s signature was on that order, but the day belonged to DeGette.
DeGette informed reporters she wasn’t wasting any more time—she had planned a meeting with congressional leadership that afternoon to set up a timeline for legislation to complement the president’s executive order. As of press time, DeGette was hoping that it would be passed, by a bipartisan effort, by the end of spring.
By the time Matthews got a chance to interview DeGette, he had already spoken with Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who ripped the executive order as an abomination to the idea of life. DeGette countered: “Many pro-life advocates say [stem cell research is] the ultimate pro-life decision.” She rolled the words over, latching onto her new phrase, pleased at having turned her opponents’ words against them. In her next interview, with CNN, she told the anchor, “This is the ultimate pro-life decision.” And with that, the whip had found her latest angle.
Maggie Master is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and a frequent contributor to 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].