The Whip

Congresswoman Diana DeGette will adopt any tactic—negotiation, browbeating, or ego massaging—to get what she wants: her legislation passed.

May 2009

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."