WASHINGTON — Diana DeGette just completed her 21st year as the Democratic congresswoman representing the district that includes the heart of Denver, making her the most senior member of the Colorado delegation and a force not to be overlooked in Washington’s hard knocks politics.
While a host of big-name Democrats — Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran and state Sen. Angela Williams among them — are said to be biding their time for a shot to take DeGette’s place in D.C. as the biennial shoo-in, the congresswoman has no plans to move on after 11 terms.
“As long as, No. 1, I feel like I’m effective and, number two, my constituents want to rehire me, I plan to continue doing this,” DeGette said.
She inherited the congressional seat from fellow Democrat Pat Schroeder, who stepped down after 12 terms. Longevity of tenure is an apparent fact of life in Colorado’s CD1.
In 1996, when she first won, DeGette was riding the notoriety of her state legislation to safeguard women arriving to get abortions from protestors. DeGette beat former Denver City Councilman Tim Sandos 56-46 in the primary, then whipped Republican Joe Rogers in the general election, 57 percent to 40.
She’s never looked back. She is, what top Colorado Republican Dick Wadhams calls, an unapologetic liberal.
Some Colorado politicos wonder more than two decades in Congress has turned DeGette into a Capitol Hill insider, long-distanced from her Rocky Mountain roots. They cite her lack of presence in her district. She’s not like, they note, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the neighboring and highly competitive 6th Congressional District who’s constantly making the rounds.
DeGette pushes back on that perception.
“I’m not a state-elected official,” she said. “I’m a federal-elected official. People are always trying to get me involved in state issues. I really can’t have an impact on that, unless there’s federal funding involved or some kind of federal statute.”
She says she doesn’t ignore her constituents; she just knows the boundaries of her authority.
“Sometimes people call me and say I need a fence variance and I give them the phone number of their local city council,” she said.
Her status as a long-time Washington insider is again likely to be a talking point.
There are three Republicans and three fellow Democrats hoping to knock her off. Five of the six are newcomers, but one of her new Republican opponents, Casper Stockham, was the only Republican in the race two years ago. His campaign is laser-focused on local issues, he said.
“She has been in office for over 21 years and has lost touch with the people and issues in [Congressional District 1],” Stockham told Colorado Politics. “My platform focuses on homelessness, veteran issues, jobs and gentrification. My opponent does not focus on any of those things. Her focus is on demand abortions and making sure her special interest donors like Planned Parenthood are well taken care of.”
With little financial help for the state or national party, Stockham lost to DeGette by 40 points in 2016. He says now the time is right for a populist appeal to challenge DeGette establishment reputation.
“Ninety percent of the people I speak to in [Congressional District 1] like what I have to say,” Stockham offered.
However, there’s no indication yet that Stockham will have the money or campaign organization necessary to take down an incumbent in a safe district with all the campaign money she’ll need to defend her seat in what’s expected to be a strong year for Democrats in a backlash to President Trump.
Stockman isn’t the first to use the “lost touch” argument against DeGette. But it hasn’t worked so far.
DeGette holds one of the safest seats in Congress. In her last four general elections, she has enjoyed an average 39 percent margin of victory over her Republican opponent without a great deal of campaign expense or effort.
At her peak of power, she held an impressive position as the House Democratic chief deputy whip and vice chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In 2011, however, when Republicans gained majority control of the House, DeGette lost her committee vice chair job.
She held on to her post as chief deputy whip and the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
Regardless of the criticism by would-be foes, DeGette has undeniable achievements.
In October, she was awarded the Jacob K. Javits Prize for Bipartisan Leadership by the foundation named for the former New York senator known for trying to unite Republican and Democratic efforts.
“I just got it this year for my 21st Century Cures,” DeGette said after she pointed out the rounded glass trophy sitting on the desk of her Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C. “I would argue that I’m probably the most bipartisan member of the Colorado delegation.”
Her three-year effort to join the support of diverse factions in Congress behind her bill to revamp medical research came together on Dec. 13, 2016, when the 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law by President Obama.
DeGette calls the legislation the proudest achievement of her 25-year political career.
Most of the $6.3 billion the law authorized is going to the National Institutes of Health for research and development projects. It won wide support from pharmaceutical companies, patient advocates, medical associations and research organizations but opposition from consumer groups.
Supporters said it would streamline the approval process for new drugs and medical devices, thereby bringing the latest treatments to patients more quickly.
Opponents warned that drugs and devices would be brought to market before they were proven safe and effective. They said patients would be turned into guinea pigs with possible devastating results.
After the House passed the bill last year, DeGette said in a statement, “This is a watershed moment in this country for biomedical research. With this bill, we bring hope to millions of patients who suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and a host of other ailments.”
Her pride still showed in a recent interview.
“It was a high-wire act at the end,” she said as she described the perilous process that came together for a final vote. “I would say that far and away that has been my biggest accomplishment so far.”
Most recently, as the #MeToo movement has pushed across the political landscape, DeGette stepped out front in the national spotlight when she accused former California congressman Bob Filner of trying to kiss her in an elevator when they served together, among other times she alleged she was a victim of sexual harassment.
DeGette authored the Voluntary Cleanup and Redevelopment Act, which absolves Colorado owners of contaminated land from regulatory penalties if they voluntarily clean up their property.
She continued her advocacy for environmental protection in Congress.
Since 1999, she has introduced and reintroduced the Colorado Wilderness Act, which would protect 32 wilderness areas from development.
Two of the sites that overlap the Gunnison River and the Dolores River are pictured on her office wall.
“These are very pristine areas with pristine characteristics,” DeGette said about the 715,000 acres listed in the congressional bill. “Many of them already are being damaged.”
A proposal in the Colorado Wilderness Act to set aside 1 percent of the state’s land as wilderness has won support from 14 of Colorado’s counties and municipalities. It never has reached a vote in Congress.
Kids as accomplishment
She counts her children as her greatest personal accomplishment.
“I have to say that raising two smart, engaged and independent daughters is at the top of the list,” she said. “I have also immersed myself in Japanese culture and politics, have been to Japan many times and am even learning Japanese.”
DeGette was born July 29, 1957, in Tachikawa, Japan, while her father served in the U.S. armed forces. She is a fourth-generation Coloradan who graduated from Colorado College with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She earned her law degree from New York University in 1982.
Afterward, she returned to Denver to practice law. Many of her cases touched on civil rights and employment litigation.
DeGette was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1992 and became assistant minority leader after she was re-elected in 1994.
In 1993. Colorado became the first state to protect women’s access to abortion clinics after DeGette authored what came to be known as the Bubble Law that effectively created a “floating bubble” of 8 feet of separation between anyone entering health care facilities and abortion demonstrators. Other states followed.
Conservative groups challenged the law’s criminal sanctions and separation requirement. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in its 2000 ruling in Hill v. Colorado.
In this past term, DeGette has turned her attention to the emotional issues around insuring children and reforming federal immigration policy.
The Children Health Program Plus, or CHP+, in Colorado is a program administered jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and state health departments It provides matching grants to states to offer health insurance for pregnant women and children of families whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to purchase insurance.
It covers about 2 million children and pregnant women nationwide and 75,000 in Colorado.
The program expired in September but won a short-term reprieve from Congress Dec. 21 to continue until March. Colorado lawmakers contributed another $9.6 million after the state notified families that receive the health insurance their benefits might run out soon.
Skirmishes with Republicans
DeGette put most of the blame for the current state of D.C politics, on Republicans for dragging their feet on the controversy over taxpayer-funded health insurance.
“I just think that’s irresponsible,” she said.
She expressed similar sentiments about federal immigration policy.
The longer we fail to address this issue, the more families we have with really serious problems,” DeGette said. “You have the mother who is a U.S. citizen and the father is undocumented and then you have the kids who might be Dreamers. Some of them might be citizens. The effect of this immigration policy, which is a do-nothing policy, is that it is tearing apart families.”
Although she wants the controversy resolved, she acknowledges, “I don’t have a particular plan.”
The “Dreamers” she mentioned refers to the children of illegal immigrants who could qualify for permanent residency if they meet requirements of the DREAM Act. DREAM stands for “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.”
“Obviously we need to keep the Dreamers here,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette speaks at a Hands Off My Birth Control rally at U.S. Capitol. (Photo courtesy of DeGette’s press office)
Her critics express concern about what they perceive as her liberal politics. They include her pro-abortion rights leadership as co-chair of the congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.
DeGette prefers to call herself “mainstream.”
“My positions tend to be shared by a majority of Americans,” she said. “I believe my views are reflective of mainstream America and I believe that they’re certainly reflective of my constituents.”
Nevertheless, her critics have been harsh.
The National Right to Life Committee gave her a zero percent rating to underscore its animosity toward her stance in favor of abortion rights.
In 2013, in the wake of horrific shootings in an Aurora movie theater and at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., DeGette was the lead sponsor of a proposed federal ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, a top priority, she said.
But at a gun control debate in Denver, she didn’t seem to understand how magazines work, shifting the focus off guns and onto her.
“I will tell you these are ammunition, they’re bullets, so the people who have those know they’re going to shoot them, so if you ban them in the future, the number of these high-capacity magazines is going to decrease dramatically over time because the bullets will have been shot and there won’t be any more available.”
Gun rights advocates were quick to correct her: magazines can be reloaded. The conservative Newsmax responded in a headline. “Diana DeGette on Guns: Colorado Democrat Can’t Keep Foot Out of Mouth.”
The National Rifle Association’s response was even more direct, “Two words — pretty stupid.”
A DeGette spokeswoman later said the congresswoman “misspoke.”
When she’s not skirmishing in Washington, DeGette’s pastimes are closely tied to Colorado.
“I love to hike and horseback ride,” she said. “I love music and to sing in my church choir. I love hot springs. I have a great time going to Broncos and Rockies games and I avidly follow Division 1 Hockey with the DU Pioneers and the Colorado College Tigers.”
Harry Reid may have masterminded one of 2016’s biggest statewide Democratic sweeps as he headed toward retirement, but the Nevada congressional delegation he left behind has lost much of its legislative leverage as a result.
In fact, only two delegations have less collective influence at the Capitol this year than the six lawmakers from the Silver State, the newest Roll Call Clout Index reveals.
That makes Nevada the biggest underperformer in the 115th Congress, as measured by the difference between its institutionalized sway on Capitol Hill (tied for 47th) and its ranking among the states in population (34th, with 2.9 million residents as of last summer). Just two years ago, when Reid was finishing a decade as the Senate Democratic floor leader, the state’s spot on the 2015 Clout Index and its position on the population table were virtually the same.
Nevada’s dramatically quick loss of stature illustrates how — especially among the smaller states — formalized power on the Hill can rise or fall significantly when a state gains or loses premier positions of influence, veteran lawmakers choose to stick around or depart, and elections change a delegation so it aligns with, or gets disconnected from, the Capitol balance of power.
In the main, the biggest delegations from the biggest states tend to have clout commensurate with their size. As reported last week, all but one (Virginia) of the 12 most populous states finished in the top dozen on the 2017 Clout Index.
And for every smaller state freshly relegated to punching below its weight, there is one that can newly boast about overperformance.
Idaho, for example, shot up five places to No. 30, or nine notches ahead of where its 1.7 million people are in the population ranking, principally because in January, both its Republican senators were rewarded for their seniority with new committee gavels, Michael D. Crapo at Banking and Jim Risch at Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
Total membership, collective tenure, majority-party representation, partisan leadership assignments, top positions on committees and membership on the most influential panels are what Roll Call has used to gauge each delegation’s clout since 1990. So the score for Idaho, for instance, does not take into account the less-than-quantifiable influence exerted by Rep. Raúl R. Labrador as a spokesman for the combative conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus.
For Nevada, the huge plummet in sway came about because Reid, after deciding against seeking a sixth term, instead put his vaunted political machine to work, trying to elect as many Democrats as possible across Nevada. The partisan payoff was enormous. Not only did the senator’s handpicked successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, get swept into office, thanks to the huge Hispanic turnout Reid’s team helped produce, but Democrats also took two of the state’s four House seats from the GOP and won control of both halves of the state legislature.
The downside is the Hill delegation lost more than the benefits of Reid’s enormous individual power. It also shed four decades of collective seniority and shifted from being mostly majority Republican to mostly minority Democratic, with no chairmen and just one premier panel member: Mark Amodei, who’s a lowly 23rd in Republican seniority on House Appropriations.
Indiana may have produced plenty of new executive branch clout in the form of Vice President Mike Pence, but its legislative stroke has weakened considerably since Dan Coats left the Senate with 18 years’ seniority and, in trying to succeed him, a pair of fellow Republicans (Todd Young, the winner, and Marlin Stutzman) had to trade away plenty of House tenure and good committee assignments.
The Hoosier delegation’s clout now ranks 27th, or 10 notches below the state’s population position. Three other states are underachieving to a similarly significant degree.
The gap between Colorado’s clout (32nd) and its population (21st) is understood by realizing that, while the delegation has a 5-4 Republican edge, no member from the GOP majority is assigned to a premier panel, only one from either party (Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette) has been in office longer than a decade and the only one with a chairmanship is Cory Gardner — at the Senate GOP’s 2018 campaign committee.
The challenges are similar for Arizona, which has soared to 14th in population (6.9 million and growing) but has a middle-of-the-road clout ranking of 24th. Being among the most outspoken Republican critics of President Donald Trump affords a special sort of influence to both senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake. But the state’s only chairmanship belongs to McCain at Senate Armed Services, five of the nine House members have been in office less than 50 months, and only a single Arizonan (Rep. David Schweikert, newly assigned to Ways and Means) sits on a committee with top-flight policymaking jurisdiction.
Although 40th in population, Hawaii brings up the rear of the Clout Index this year just as it did for the 114th Congress — principally the result of the all-Democratic delegation of four people undergoing a total changeover, and then some, in the past five years. Brian Schatz, a Senate appropriator, is the only one on a premier committee.
Thanks to high levels of delegation turnover and a few Democratic gains, Virginia, Louisiana and New Hampshire are the other states with the biggest disparities (eight or nine notches) between their populations and their more modest clout.
Conversely, modestly populated Republican strongholds dominate the roster of states with lawmakers positioned to deliver the goods at levels disproportionately better than their number of constituents.
Alaska has been the biggest overperformer, almost without exception, in Clout Indexes going back more than two decades. This year is no exception. It may have dipped to 48th in population but its three GOP lawmakers combine for 33rd in influence — mainly because, during her 15th year as a senator, Lisa Murkowski is chairwoman of both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
Don Young has finished six-year terms chairing two legislative committees, but next month, he’ll mark his 44th anniversary as the state’s solitary House member — more time in office than that of 20 states’ entire House delegations.
Mostly because their senators are well-positioned, four other states this year have Clout Index positions 10 or more spots ahead of their population rankings.
Wyoming is the nation’s least populous state, with 586,000 people, but it stands 37th in clout mainly because both its Republican senators wield gavels at major committees, Michael B. Enzi in his second term at Budget and John Barrasso newly installed at Environment and Public Works, and Barrasso also has a seat at the leadership table as chairman of the Senate GOP’s policy committee.
Mississippi (No. 32 in population, No. 19 in clout) is an overperformer because its GOP senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, have a combined 66 years of congressional experience; because Cochran is chairman of not only the Appropriations Committee but also its Defense Subcommittee; and because the House delegation of just four includes the House Administration chairman (Gregg Harper), an Energy and Commerce member (also Harper), a GOP appropriator (Steven M. Palazzo) and the top Democrat on Homeland Security (Bennie Thompson).
Kentucky (No. 26 in people) has more than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to thank for being No. 15 in sway. Three of the five GOP House members have prestige committee postings, including Harold Rogers as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee directing foreign aid. And the only Democrat in the delegation, John Yarmuth, has the party’s top seat on House Budget.
Vermont is an exception here, because its clout (No. 36) significantly outdistances its population (No. 49) even though all three lawmakers align with the Democrats. But both senators (with 68 years in Congress between them) are ranking members on important committees, Bernie Sanders at Budget and Patrick J. Leahy at Appropriations; and after a decade as the state’s lone House member, Peter Welch is a senior member of Energy and Commerce.
Neighboring Massachusetts (15th in population) is the biggest state with nothing but Democrats in Congress (11 of them), but it nonetheless managed to advance in the influence rankings more than any other state this year — up eight spots, to No. 20, thanks mainly to Rep. Richard E. Neal’s ascent to his party’s top slot on Ways and Means and Katherine M. Clark’s posting to Appropriations. It still has a long way to go, however, before returning to the roster of overperforming delegations, where it was for so much of American history, with a Top 10 performance as recently as six years ago.
In contrast, neighboring Rhode Island is one of the right midsize or small states with spots on the Roll Call Clout Index that are no more than two places away from their population rank. The others are Washington, Oklahoma, Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, West Virginia and Delaware.
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Topics: 2017congressional-affairsdemocratshawkingshouseleadershippoliticsrepublicanssenateAlaskaAppropriationsArizonaBennie ThompsonBernie SandersBrian SchatzBudgetBusinessCampaignsClout IndexconservativesCory GardnerDan CoatsDavid SchweikertDefenseDelawaredemocratsDiana DeGetteDon YoungDonald J. TrumpElectionsEnergyEnvironmentExecutive BranchGregg HarperHarold RogersHarry ReidhawaiiHomeland SecurityHouseIdahoIndianaIowaJeff FlakeJim RischICNW