Saira Rao was at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. A third-year law student at New York University, she was coming up the stairs at the base of the buildings when terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the top of the north tower. She vividly recalls hearing the impact, seeing the plane on fire, and running across the street to buy a disposable camera at a bodega. She snapped a few pictures of the wreckage above her, and then a sense of urgency struck. She dropped everything—her backpack, computer, and the newly acquired camera—and ran, with countless others, for a frantic mile before she stopped.

Her law school classes were cancelled for a month. It was at least two months before she felt comfortable going out in the city. During those idle days, she remembers thinking “some amazing leader is going to show up and make us all feel safe.” But to hear her tell it, that never happened. “The opposite happened,” Rao says. “Republicans took fear, bottled it up, and sold it to their base. Then Democrats sold the fear of Republicans to their base. Anytime we talk about September 11, it reminds me of the day America succumbed to its worst self.”

Nearly 17 years after the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history altered the psyche and direction of the country, she is done waiting for that amazing leader to show up. Saira Rao—the daughter of Indian immigrants, a Wall Street lawyer turned diverse children’s book publisher and political activist—believes she can be that leader.  That’s why in January she launched her campaign for Colorado’s first congressional district, which covers all of Denver and parts of Arapahoe and Jefferson County. But if she is to appear on the ballot in November, she’ll first have to win a primary against incumbent Rep. Diana DeGette, the long-time Democratic legislator who has held the seat since 1996.

As the June 26 primary approaches, Rao is taking a different approach than her opponent. She’s running without the blessing of the Democratic establishment, she’s refused to take corporate campaign contributions (yet she has still raised more than $255,000 in the first quarter of 2018, exceeding the haul of DeGette’s campaign), and she’s trying to inspire a new generation of minority candidates—especially women of color—to seek elected office. And as her campaign gathers steam, her supporters see an opportunity to infuse District 1 with more progressive leadership.

Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza, who endorsed Rao’s campaign in early April, admits that she “came out of left field.” But he notes that because District 1 is historically held by Democrats, “It’s important that we turn it up a notch on the progressive side,” something he believes Rao is more capable of doing than DeGette. Espinoza admits that when he first endorsed Rao, he thought she had long odds at beating DeGette. “Had you asked me [her chances] at the time I made the endorsement, I would have said ‘that is a tough row to hoe,'” he says. “But she’s managed to build a coalition that shows me there is an appetite for a shift in representation.” If that coalition pushes her to a primary win and she’s ultimately elected in November, Rao will have done it in the face of the Democratic establishment. 

Rao has not been shy in distancing herself from the establishment wing of her party. In December, she penned a viral Huffington Post piece titled “I’m A Brown Woman Who’s Breaking Up With The Democratic Party.” In it, she calls out the party for turning its back on her. “You’ve never recognized me, as a brown woman. You’ve taken my love, my money, my tokenism, with nary anything in return,” she wrote. “You are a party of white feminists. Of white feminism, the kind of feminism that focuses on the struggles of white women.”

She was an avid supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and worked as an intern for Bill Clinton in the late 90s. She knew the party establishment, was familiar with it, worked for it. But in hindsight, she says, she was too often exploited by it. Over the past year, she’s concluded that establishment Democrats are bought by corporate money—particularly the pharmaceutical industry—and don’t really respect its minority members. “Essentially, it occurred to me that, as a woman of color, I literally don’t matter,” she says. “The only thing I matter for is knocking on doors, phone banking, votes, and money.”

In her Cherry Creek home she still displays photos of herself locked arm-and-arm with the Clintons, but she now believes Hillary was “ground zero for white feminism…a product of it.” To be clear, Rao is still a Democrat. “I’m breaking up with the Democratic Party establishment,” she clarifies. “I am breaking up with the neoliberal segment of the party, the corporate Democrat segment of the party.” What she wants is a return to Democratic ideals that preceded the influx of dark money in politics. “I’m fighting for the soul of the party,” she says. “We can either be what we used to be—which is the party of the disenfranchised, the sick, the disabled, the people of color, or we can be the party of big pharma and healthcare companies.” (Worth noting: While unlike Rao, DeGette is using PAC money to partially fund her campaign, she also co-sponsored a bill that aims to diminish the impact of corporate money in politics. And as co-chair of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, DeGette is leading an inquiry into the rising costs of insulin.)

If Rao beats DeGette in June, Colorado will lose its most senior member of the House of Representatives—the only thing that gives Espinoza pause. But because her “skillset would translate well to doing the work that needs to be done in Washington,” he doesn’t worry about losing that legislative experience.  Her election would be a beneficial shakeup, in his eyes. “It’s not going to be welcome in Washington,” Espinoza says. “And frankly, I don’t care.”

Twenty-two years ago, around the same time Denver residents elected DeGette to her first term as a U.S. Congresswoman, Rao was seeing the Mile High City for the first time. A recent graduate of the University of Virginia, she had embarked on a cross-country road trip from the East Coast to San Francisco with three friends, thinking she’d end up settling in the Bay Area. But San Francisco wasn’t for her. On the way back, Rao came through Colorado and was taken by the Mile High City. She nearly stayed in Denver, but an opportunity to work at a news station called her home. She’d ultimately pursue a career in law in New York City, meet her husband, Shiv, and have two children—a girl and a boy.

Then on June 4, 2012, Rao’s mother died—which thrust her into a cycle of grief that led her back to Colorado. New York, she decided, was too big; her friends were all at least an hour-long train ride away, and amidst her grieving, she needed a tighter community. She recalls one evening in 2012 when Shiv came home from work and she told him they were moving from New York to Denver. He said he was willing to go wherever she needed to be. So, five years ago, the family moved west, where they bought a posh home near Denver Country Club.

“It’s the best decision we’ve ever made. I feel like in so many ways [Denver] has healed me,” she says. “And part of why I wanted to [run for Congress] is that I feel like I need to give something back.”

While she hasn’t been in Colorado nearly as long as DeGette, she sees an opportunity to be even more connected to the community than her opponent. “My kids will still be in school here. My husband will be here,” she says. “I’ll be here every week and hold monthly town halls.” Among the many issues she wants to address, one is a problem few Denverites can escape: affordable housing. She sees minority, poor, and homeless communities being crushed by the lack of affordable housing and hopes to lure more federal funding to help what she considers a crisis in the city. She also wants to address Denver’s looming infrastructure problems (she’s particularly critical of the I-70 expansion, a project she calls a “debacle”). If federal funds are made available—and spent responsibly—she thinks Denver has an opportunity to be the progressive beacon of the country.

But paramount among Rao’s concerns—and the main reason she’s running for Congress—is the way minority communities are treated in the United States. She remembers clearly the first boy—a white boy—she tried to date in fourth grade. He asked her to go out with him, to which Rao agreed. But the next day, the boy came to school and broke things off. He told her that he was sorry, but his mother wouldn’t let him date a “black girl” (which is inaccurate, as Rao is Indian-American). “I remember coming home and taking a stone and trying to rub off the color of my skin,” she says.

Just last summer, that memory came back to her in a searing way when her seven-year-old son walked into their kitchen completely lathered in sunscreen. Rao asked him what he was doing, to which her son replied: “Look mom, I’m finally white!” In that moment it occurred to her that little had changed in this country since she was a fourth grader. She wants to go to Congress in hopes that the next generation of immigrant children can be proud of their heritage. “I can’t fathom witnessing my grandchild standing somewhere trying to put sunscreen all over his or her body,” Rao says. “I would feel like an utter failure if I didn’t try at least do something to stop that from happening.”

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