Denver is undergoing a major, and rapid, transformation: Since Colorado legalized marijuana on November 6, 2012, and opened its first dispensaries on January 1, 2014, there’s been an influx of transplants to the Mile High City. From July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, 13,028 people moved to Denver, making it one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. And in July 2016, the state’s overall population was estimated to rise 1.7 percent to 5.5 million people, making it the seventh-highest growing state. As more people move to Colorado, there’s been an 8 percent uptick in homelessness, as well as rising rent and homeownership costs. There’s also been an increase in traffic congestion, which could cost the city nearly $10 billion over the next 10 years.
As Colorado changes, a crop of emerging politicians is vying for legislative jobs that have been held by the same group of people for a long time. Denver resident Saira Rao, cofounder of In This Together Media, is one of the citizens who wants to see Denver’s leadership change as the city welcomes a host of newcomers. She’s running to represent Colorado’s first congressional district in an effort to dethrone Diana DeGette, who has been in Congress for 22 years.
As she gears up for the June 26 primary, Rao and I spoke about her fight for the future of Colorado.
You are the cofounder of In This Together Media, a company that produces YA and children’s books for children from underrepresented communities. What was the importance of creating this media organization? And how did you make the decision to pivot from publishing to politics?
I had two small, Brown children, and we were reading kids’ books and watching kids’ TV, and it occurred to me that, in some ways, the lack of quantitative and qualitative diversity in kids’ media was even worse than it was when I was growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the 1970s and ’80s. Quite frankly, I freaked out, thinking my kids are not going to see themselves in [kids’ media]; we know that representation matters, and that in order to connect with stories you have to be able to see yourself. I did a bit of a deep dive and realized that more than 80 percent of kids’ books—from picture books to young-adult literature—feature straight, white cisgender boys. Even dogs and cats in illustrated books are boys.
So seven years ago, my friend Carey and I set out to diversify kids’ books. We met with a bunch of people in the industry— including [folks from] Simon and Schuster and Random House—and were told that we didn’t know what we were doing, that we were crazy, and that we should intern. It’s always like, “Why don’t you do an unpaid internship?”
And finally [they said], to our faces, “White boys sell.” We walked away thinking, okay, white boys sell because that’s all that’s being offered! So, we stuck to it, and six years later we’re the most successful kids’ book-packaging company in the country. The very same people who told us to intern for them are now in bidding wars over our books. Not because suddenly they’ve become wonderful [people]. Their hearts didn’t grow three sizes that day like the Grinch’s. But they realized that our books sell because kids like to see themselves in stories.
So I don’t even see [my Congressional run] as much of a pivot. I believe that representation matters in law, in business, in science, in sports, in kids’ books, and in Congress. Our Congress is a country club: Just like kids’ books, it’s overwhelmingly white and male. In order for everybody to be represented, you have to be able to see yourself there, and it’s also important for kids to see that they can do it too. You can’t be it if you can’t see it. I also believe that the single biggest threat to our democracy is corporate money in politics, and most of Congress is being bought and sold. You can’t have true representation unless you get corporate PAC money out, and you get everyone sitting down at the table together. And I believe I can do that.
We’ve never had a woman of color go to Congress in Colorado. We have nine members of Congress in Colorado, and everybody is white. And that is just not representative.
We have nine members of Congress in Colorado, and everybody is white. And that is just not representative.
Incumbent Diana DeGette has been in office since 1996. How do you plan to build a coalition of voters who will vote against someone who has represented them for so long?
I’d like to think that people are going to vote for me and not against somebody. Voters are tired of the status quo and want to see change. I firmly believe that the Democratic party has become a party of “no.” We’ve said no to the Clean Dream Act, to healthcare for all, to campaign-finance reform, to weaning off of fossil fuels, and to addressing the student-loan debt crisis. If seniors had a Super PAC, Big Pharma wouldn’t be price-gouging them, and Congress would be listening to the moms who have to order their kids’ EpiPens from Canada instead of [letting] millions of pharmaceutical-industry dollars flood their campaign coffers.
I’m hearing this all over [Denver’s] District 1, and it’s much like the conversations that are happening all over the country: Americans are tired of corporations running the government, and we’ve all become very hip to what’s going on. The coalition that I’m building right now is rejecting that: It is incredibly diverse, it’s people who want a seat at the table. They want to be heard, and they want access to their representatives. They want somebody who’s going to live here. They want someone who’s going to open up satellite offices and be accessible at all times, which I’m going to do.
The Denver metro area is rapidly gentrifying, leading to a rise in homelessness and what seems to be an emerging housing bubble. What can be done on the state level to curb the increase in homelessness and ensure that all people in Denver have access to affordable housing?
I was just talking to a City Council member this morning about that, and it’s a real pain point here and all over the country. We really have to start talking about the massive income inequality in this country. That’s the big picture that’s driving a lot of the horrific problems that we have here and all over the place. Colorado should overturn the ban on local control of minimum wage and rent control. That will allow local municipalities to better plan for the area’s needs.
Congress also has to pass a robust economic package that allows the bottom 95 percent—hear that: the bottom 95 percent—to create wealth. If we can’t create wealth, we can’t buy homes, we can’t save for retirement, we can’t start businesses, and all we create are cycles of poverty, which is what we’re seeing right now. The fastest-growing homeless population is the elderly, and I just saw recently on Nextdoor that a 90-year-old homeless man was looking for a safe place to sleep because it was snowing outside. That is inexcusable. We live in the richest country in the world, but kids and seniors are going without food and housing. That’s wrong, and we can’t be okay with that. We just can’t be okay with that.
Denver specifically is a majority-renter city with a booming millennial population, so we have this highly educated populace that’s drowning in student-loan debt. They can’t qualify for mortgages, and they’re paying $1800 a month, $2000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a city with limited public-transportation options, which is another huge thing. We need higher wages; federal programs that work for this economy; and a massive infrastructure investment that really focuses on public transportation.
As we know, recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, but the state also has a major issue with mass incarceration. The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition found that since all felony sentences in Colorado doubled in 1985, the prison population has boomed and the budget has grown 1,288 percent over the past 35 years. How do you propose that the state reconciles this investment in both recreational marijuana and mass incarceration? What has to be done on the state level to start reversing the tide?
I’m a former lawyer: First of all, marijuana has to be decriminalized, period. And as far as other drug offenders and those who suffer from addiction, we have to stop punishing it and start investing in fixing it. We know that sending low-level drug offenders to jail only increases their rates of criminal activity later; [we know] what a jail sentence can do to your ability to get a job in the future. We know that the opioid crisis has been caused and is enabled and growing because of Big Pharma, not heroin use. And government needs to take a public-health approach to drug use and addiction and stop criminalizing it.
We all know Black and Brown people go to jail for drug crimes. And it’s not because they do more drugs; they don’t. But our criminal-justice system has robbed an entire generation of kids of color of their parents. That’s criminal, and Congress and state legislatures all around the country should be ashamed. This is a national crisis. This is a national disease, and we all need to fix it.
Another social issue: Racialized police violence. In a December 2017 HuffPost article, you spoke about Democrats not prioritizing police violence as an issue. How can we curb police violence against Black and Brown people? Where does the state of Colorado fit into that conversation?
For me and you, this seems very basic: We all have to be able to say with pride that Black lives matter. Period. And it’s amazing to me what kind of a response I get from people when I say that. And I’m talking about “liberals.” I had one of my daughter’s coaches tell me—and this is a white “liberal” man—that he would support my campaign if I took Black Lives Matter off my website. He lives in Colorado. We need to be having these conversations about race and acknowledging these biases, whether they’re implicit or not. And these conversations about race can’t be in hushed tones, and bringing it up can’t make you “an angry person” or “an impolite person.” I can’t tell you how many people have told me if I would just stop talking about race, they’d support me.
You know what’s impolite? White supremacy. We have to eliminate systemic bias, and we can do this through [reforms to] criminal justice, education, and healthcare. We need to invest in people who are re-entering society or recovering from drug addiction. We need to work with police officers and other public-safety departments to ensure that they’re receiving proper training on diversity and cultural competency. And we need people in power to acknowledge wrongdoing and carry out disciplinary action whenever an officer breaks the law. Rules are only effective inasmuch as they’re enforced, and so many of these departments can be doing more to ensure that their staff is held to the highest standards.
Colorado has been impacted by a number of mass shootings, including those at Columbine High School and the Century 16 movie theater. Congress has been incredibly resistant to passing legislation that will curb access to semiautomatic rifles. Do you think there’s a legislative solution to mass shootings? If so, how can Colorado be involved?
What we’re seeing is gun violence, and specifically mass shootings, [like] the one in Parkwood, turning into just a mass-media frenzy without any real thoughtfulness about fixing it. People are screaming at each other. It’s this crazy partisan stuff, and I think we’ve got to stop the drama. In the end, I have to believe we all want the mass shootings to stop: Republicans, Democrats, the NRA—everybody. So, let’s assume that we all [have] the best of intentions. So, here’s what we can do. Get money out of politics.
How can we be serious about fighting back against NRA contributions when too many people in the Democratic party seek special-interest dollars from organizations that don’t hold their values? Just stop taking the money. I know Citizens United is a disaster, but that’s here to stay; let’s work around it. It’s hard for some people in the Democratic party to point their finger at the Republicans who are taking money from the NRA because those same Republicans can point their fingers back and say, “You take all your money from Big Pharma, and Big Pharma is killing our country with the opioid crisis.” It’s just terrible.
Number two is very, very important: We have to overturn the ban on gun-violence studies. We don’t have a lot of public-policy research in this country on this issue because Congress prohibits federal funding for it, at the behest of the NRA. We can look at what France and Germany have done, but they’re only clues. We actually need to do a study here in the United States.
And number three, we need to broaden our scope. Media doesn’t focus on the issue unless a school suffers a mass shooting, but our trouble with guns is far-reaching and multifaceted. And too often, we don’t care when it’s Black kids getting killed, and we just need to start thinking about this as a more holistic problem.
My company, In This Together Media, has a book coming out this fall called Nevertheless We Persisted: 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength, and Courage, and it features amazing people all over the country who have experienced major challenges in their young adulthood and overcome them. One of the cofounders of the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the contributors. But in this context, Danielle Vabner’s little brother died at Sandy Hook, and she’s a gun-violence prevention advocate. Bottom line: We all have the right to live our lives without fear of gun violence. That means standing up to the gun lobby, so that we’re on the right side of history and science. We can win this.
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You wrote an open letter for HuffPost about breaking up with the Democratic Party because it hasn’t centered the political priorities of marginalized communities and instead courts white voters at the expense of voters of color. Where are you at now? Do you think that electing more candidates of color can reshape the Democratic Party?
I want to be clear: I’ve broken up with the Democratic party establishment that’s riddled by corporate money. I am not a corporate Democrat. We used to be the party of the people. We used to be a party of values, a party of the disenfranchised, a party of communities of color. And now, for the most part, we’re a party of money. The people who go to Congress are representatives. The word is there. And in order to have folks who are representing everyone, those folks have to be diverse—gay, disabled, Brown, Black, poor.
I’ve been fundraising and I’m not taking corporate money. It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to run for Congress. I have the privilege of childcare; I have the privilege of having a roof over my head and food on the table, so I’m not hungry and I’m not worried about that for my kids. I have the privilege of being able-bodied, so I can do this. And if you don’t have those privileges, you can’t run for Congress. You can’t run for office, period! So we’re in a bad situation where only a tiny sliver of people can even run. It’s very much a class issue as well. How can we get to a place where everybody feels like their interests are being heard and their voices are being heard? It [only happens] if they have a seat at the table.
So get the corporate money out. Have everyone sit at the table, and maybe people walk away feeling 70 percent happy with the compromise that’s reached, rather than some people—like Big Pharma reps and big real-estate developers—feeling 100 percent happy and everyone else feeling like they’re getting screwed.
I used to teach 8th- and 10th-graders in Denver’s STRIVE Prep charter-school network. Many of those students were DREAMers who didn’t realize they were undocumented until they went to get driver’s licenses and other forms of identification. How can Colorado better protect undocumented immigrants, particularly those who are DREAMers?
Denver’s a sanctuary city and has to maintain that status no matter what this administration chooses to do. But more than that, we can create and maintain safe spaces at schools and city facilities. Demand court orders from officials in respect to immigrants that are arrested by immigration agents. Our police officers can decline requests to hold them longer than required by law. I can’t say this enough: We have to pass a Clean Dream Act now. This is another national crisis, and it’s disgusting to me. This is not just the Republicans’ fault. Again, this is another instance of he said/she said. Everyone’s pointing fingers. Enough of that. Just pass the Clean Dream Act. Congress has a gun to the head of these DREAMers, and it is despicable. They should be ashamed.
If elected, what will be the priorities on your legislative agenda?
Did you mean to say “when” I’m elected? [Laughs.] Four is my lucky number. So, we’ll go with four. Number one, get money out of politics. Number two, pass the Clean Dream Act now. Immediately. Number three, healthcare for all. We don’t need to fix the ACA. We need to repeal and replace it with a plan that goes farther than Medicare for all. I’ve had multiple conversations with folks from the disability community and the aging community, and they all mention that Medicare does not provide the sufficient long-term disability care that they need. Again, we’re the richest country in the world. How is it possible that we don’t have access to good healthcare for everybody? Not okay.
And finally, we’ve got to eliminate student-loan debt. We can bail out the big banks and corporations, but we can’t bail out our students? People are graduating from college with degrees that are packaged with massive loans that they’ll be paying off for the rest of their lives. How do we do this? We repeal the recent tax cuts that Congress gave to corporations and replace them with forgiving student loans. Easy as that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.