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The list of issues Democrat Brittany Pettersen hopes to make progress on during her time in Congress is long. From housing to water conservation to health care, the topics in the newly minted congresswoman’s portfolio are a big part of what comes with representing the state’s 7th Congressional District—a large one that includes Denver’s northeastern suburbs as well as mountain towns in places like Park County.
The role of legislator is something Pettersen is familiar with. During her time as both a state Senator and state Representative, she helped pass numerous pieces of legislation, like the red-flag law and the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. “At the state level here in Colorado, we worked together to pass lots of bills,” she says. “I was very proud to be a part of a legislature like that.” Still, she knows that the step up to the federal level comes with different challenges, not the least of which is Democrats’ minority showing in the House of Representatives.
At the start of her two-year term, we caught up with Pettersen to chat about some of what she hopes to accomplish and the wild start to the 118th Congress.
5280: What was it like to have your first week consumed by the speaker of the House vote?
Pettersen: That was a whirlwind and not a great way to start two years of leadership. I was on the side during the almost-brawl. Everybody started yelling and crowds started formulating. I am used to long debates on the floor from the state House and Senate, but I had never seen any physical action. That was a first for me. It’s worrisome how a small minority of very right-wing members held the whole process hostage. It sets a bad precedent for the next couple of years.
It sounds like the whole thing took away from the swearing-in ceremony as well.
Yes, my son and my husband had already flown home. I was by myself at 2 a.m. when we were ultimately sworn in. There were some members who had their little ones there. I can only imagine what it was like getting them there.
You are taking over representation of Colorado’s 7th Congressional District from Democrat Ed Perlmutter. What are the benefits and challenges of taking over for someone who is in your own party?
Ed helped me and other Democrats running up and down the ticket because he did the job well. He never forgot why he was doing that job. He was always back in the district connecting with the community. That made it easier for Democrats to step up. It was only supposed to be a four- to six-point advantage for Democrats. I am grateful that people connected with my story and I was able to win by such a big margin. I feel proud that people supported me in my run.
You’re coming off of a successful run as a state legislator here in Colorado. How do you anticipate you will have to change how you operate at the federal level?
I recognize that the ability to pass things may not be the same at the federal level, especially being in the minority [party]. At the federal level, it will be more about long-term planning but also being ready to leverage a moment to get things done. Since we do have the Senate [majority] and Joe Biden as president, we do still have some negotiating power with Republicans, though. There are still going to be many ways to get things done.
One of your major accomplishments in the state legislature was helping pass a bill that protected access to abortion in Colorado. That was a big topic in this November’s election after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. What do you hope to accomplish on that front in your new role?
Unfortunately, [most of] the Republicans in the Senate are way out of step with the American public. I think it is our job to tell the stories of people across the country whose [healthcare choices] have been cut to make sure we’re highlighting the need for change at the federal level. I think only 10 Republicans supported the bill that came to the floor last year to guarantee access to birth control, which is mind-blowing. What I hope to do is what we’ve done in Colorado: make sure these decisions are between you, your doctor, and your family. Reproductive health care is health care, and it needs to be covered by Medicaid.
You also did a lot of work in the state legislature related to opioids and fentanyl. How do you hope to attack that at the federal level?
I am deeply concerned about the Republican rhetoric on this, an issue that we need to all come together on across the country and globe. Fentanyl has taken over global drug supply chains. It is more potent and more deadly. And we need to all rise to the occasion, so that we are not losing large amounts of people unnecessarily like we are today.
I saw this firsthand with my mom. She overdosed 20 times, and the medical bills that the federal government and Colorado paid to keep my mom alive in ERs were over $1 million. When she was stable enough to leave, she would be denied treatment. It was fiscally irresponsible because we were burning money on things that were just keeping people alive when they were in the ER instead of providing the care they actually needed, which was cheaper. We have to start building up our capacity with things like Medicaid that allow us to actually cover care.
Beyond the things we already talked about, what are the most pressing issues facing this Congress?
I think most immediately is the debt ceiling. That’s something that I wake up thinking about in the middle of the night—whether we are going to put politics over people and risk not passing the funding necessary. A lot of people talk about the debt ceiling and don’t realize that we are just paying for the legislation that we’ve passed. If we want to change things, we should do that through legislation and not through holding our government hostage.
For my district, it is about continuing to recover from the pandemic. That includes access to child care services. We saw women having to drop out of the workforce at two times the rate of men because of the lack of consistent child care and help at school. That [is still affecting] communities across the district, especially in mountain communities. [Recovery] also includes supporting small businesses and [working on better] immigration [policies]. We know that part of why our economy has been stifled is because [businesses] are unable to fill openings. This is devastating for small businesses because they’re unable to meet the needs, and it is also hurting our education system and health care system. So much of this is built up from years of failed immigration policy.
You are going to be spending a lot more time out of the state with the new job. What will you miss most about Colorado?
I have been lucky to call Colorado my home for my entire life. There is no place like Colorado. Most importantly, my family is here. It is really important to us that our son grows up in Jefferson County, where I grew up. So I think the thing I miss the most is, of course, my husband and my son. There is nothing better than returning home to Colorado and getting to be with them.