Some people would say a congressional seat held for 11 straight terms by the same legislator is a determinant mark of establishment politics. But if you ask Diana DeGette, the woman who’s been holding that seat in Colorado’s 1st Congressional district for 21 years and counting, she’ll say it’s the mark of experience.

As November draws near, in the midst of a sharply scrutinized midterm election cycle—one that’s already seen 11 Democratic and 28 Republican House Representatives announce their retirements from Congressit seems even the safest seats could be up for grabs. But, despite the changing tide in districts across the country and a wave of new candidates promising fresh perspectives, Colorado’s longest-serving representative is pressing onward.

“I’m not a quitter,” DeGette says when asked why she’s seeking a 12th term in Congress. “I think someone needs to stay there and fight.” Beyond that, in an era in which new lawmakers are bringing exuberance and bold ideas to the House floor, DeGette sees an increasing demand for representatives who already understand the job. “It’s important to have people who know what they’re doing. Who know how bills work. Who know how to bring a bill to the floor and who know where to look for the pitfalls,” she says. “We’re going to have a lot of great new members, but most of these people have never even drafted a bill, much less gotten it through committee and passed it.”

While she says it’s “wonderful” that an influx of fresh faces will be heading to Congress next year, she argues her district—and the country broadly—will be better served by having a polished leader like herself sticking around. To DeGette, Democrats regaining the majority in Congress at the midterms is less a matter of “if” than it is “when.” There’s no doubt, in her mind, that November’s elections will give way to sweeping blue victories. And “when” that happens, she says, her leadership position—Chief Deputy Whip—will be of paramount importance. “I’ll be one of the most influential members of Congress,” she says. “Chief Deputy Whip in the majority means I’m not going to be playing defense. I’m going to be playing offense, passing bills.”

Still, before she can get back to Congress, she’ll have to secure reelection in November. And this year, that task may prove even more challenging, as she faces Saira Rao—a first-time, anti-establishment candidate—in the June 26 primary. Rao has been outspoken in her disdain for the Democratic establishment, and though she did not refer to DeGette specifically when we spoke in April, she noted that, if elected, she would never never hold the seat for more than five terms because the country needs new leadership. The Democratic primary for Colorado’s 1st Congressional district, at least to a small extent, reflects the broader political tensions that led to political upheaval in the 2016 election, when a coalition of voters—Republican and Democrat—demanded a shift away from establishment candidates in favor of political outsiders.

If Diana DeGette is worried, she’s not showing it. This isn’t the first time she has been challenged in a primary; in 2016, she garnered 87 percent of the vote against opponent Charles H. “Chuck” Norris (no relation to the legendary actor). In fact, she says, she welcomes the challenge. “I don’t think you should just elect people because they’ve been there a long time,” she says. “I get rehired every two years. And I should have to make my case for people rehiring me.”

Her case goes something like this: Throughout her career, she’s positioned herself as a fierce defender of women’s reproductive rights, civil liberties, and environmental stewardship. In 2016, she spearheaded a bipartisan effort to pass the 21st Century Cures Act, which aims to accelerate medical breakthroughs. (Critics argue the bill eases too many restrictions on the pharmaceutical industry, though it helped her earn the Jacob K. Javits Prize for Bipartisan Leadership.) As a ranking member of the House Oversight and Investigations committee, she’s grilled CEOs of drug distribution companies about their culpability in the country’s opioid epidemic. And in April, as part of the same committee, she questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he testified before Congress about how his company allowed user data to be manipulated. Cecily Strong even once played DeGette during an episode of Saturday Night Live. 

While DeGette’s opponent positions herself as further to the left, there appear to be few chasms between the two candidates when it comes to general policy. But looking closer, they do disagree on some key issues, such as corporate money in politics. Rao, who is not accepting PAC money to fund her campaign, made headlines when she out-raised DeGette in the first quarter of 2018. Rao has gone as far as to say that established Democrats are bought by corporate money—specifically the pharmaceutical industry—and that it’s eroding the soul of the party. DeGette, however, is quick to defend her reliance on PAC money.

Candidates who are not independently wealthy, or those who don’t have wealthy friends, would struggle to raise enough money to run a serious campaign, she told a group of political science students during a roundtable discussion recently at the University of Denver. “People ask me, ‘Diana, do you take PAC money?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I do, because I don’t have the personal ability to fund my campaign,’ she says. “The issue is not really do you take PAC money. The issue is whether that PAC money influences the way you vote.” She told the students she’s personally not swayed by corporate money, and she doesn’t think many of her colleagues—on either side of the aisle—are influenced by it. Rao doubts this is true, and studies have shown it’s unclear to what extent lawmakers are influenced by PAC contributions.

Maybe it’s because of the PAC money, or maybe it’s because she served as a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary (Rao also supported Clinton, though her stance has since changed), but after 11 terms in Congress, it can be tough to avoid being seen as part of the D.C. establishment. Still, DeGette pushes back on that distinction. “Being a child of the 70s, the word establishment has never had a very positive connotation,” she says. “I think sometimes people confuse experience with status quo politics. I think they’re different. You can have experience and still be open to new ways of doing things and be nimble and receptive to your constituents.”

DeGette still embraces some of the old stereotypes that come with two decades of public service. When we met on campus at the University of Denver in May, the congresswoman was briefly sidetracked by a professor’s infant child. Holding the small girl close to her chest, she joked, “Ah, nothing like a baby for a politician first thing in the morning!” She then turned to me and admitted she’s a “wanna-be grandma.”

The 60-year-old congresswoman doesn’t have grandchildren, but she does have a close-knit family that pulls her out of Washington whenever possible—including her husband, attorney Lino Lipinsky, her two grown daughters Raphaela and Francesca, and perhaps most importantly, her 12-year-old Border Collie, Charlie. DeGette is a fourth-generation Coloradan. Though she was born in Japan while her dad was serving in the armed forces, she was raised in Denver and attended South High School before studying political science at Colorado College and law at New York University (coincidentally, the same law school Roa attended). After graduating from NYU, she came back to Colorado, worked as a public defender, and eventually started her own firm. She then served two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 1996. 

Early on, with two young daughters, DeGette moved her family to Washington D.C. and would visit her Denver constituents on the weekends. But after only a couple years, the family moved back to Denver and DeGette would travel to D.C. to be in the House chambers on weekdays. “She loves her job,” says her older daughter, Raphaela Lipinsky DeGette, who recently finished medical school and now lives in San Francisco. “If she hadn’t loved what she was doing, not being with us 24/7 may not have been worth it.”

Even now that her daughters are grown, DeGette says she comes home most weekends. “My husband wouldn’t be too pleased if I didn’t come home, but the one who would be really mad is my dog, Charlie.” Despite the fact that she’s back in Denver often, she’s still been accused of spending too much time in D.C. “I’ve been kind of puzzled because my opponent has been saying that I never come home,” she says. “Actually, after the debate, I said to Saira, ‘I wish you’d stop telling people that I don’t live here because it makes my husband really upset.’” Her younger daughter, Francesca Lipinsky DeGette, was also puzzled by the assertion. “[The claim] that my parents don’t live here is just extremely confusing to me,” she says. “It’s so blatantly untrue that I just don’t get it…My mom makes me dinner at least once a week. We have joint custody of the doggo [Charlie lives with Francesca when her mom is away].”

Her daughter also notes that, because her mom so enjoys the work, she doesn’t see her giving it up anytime soon. “I think the only time she will actually leave,” Francesca says, “is when she no longer thinks she’s serving the public well.” Or, of course, if voters elect a different representative. But the Congresswoman doesn’t see that happening—at least not this year. When I asked what would happen to her district if she isn’t reelected to a 12th term, DeGette interjected before I could finish the question: “I will be.”

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.