Saira Rao says she decided to stop practicing law at a New York firm and start a publishing company devoted to children’s fiction featuring diverse characters when she was watching cartoons with her daughter Lila one day about six years ago.
“I saw the utter lack of diversity, and that’s when I switched gears to do something about it. I’m very familiar with institutional naysayers. When you’re a woman of color, that’s every day,” she says.
Rao, whose parents both immigrated to the United States from India in the 1960s, says she and her partner initially met fierce resistance from publishing houses.
“We were told, ‘White boys sell.’” But after a few years and the chance to bring some books to market — one title recently occasioned a bidding war, she notes —the approach is a success.
“It turns out — who knew? — people like representation; they like to see themselves.”
She says the name of their company, In This Together Media, wasn’t chosen lightly.
“It’s about characters who are traditionally marginalized, which are brown kids, black kids, gay kids, disabled kids. Most kids’ books are about cis-gendered, straight white boys. Does that sound like anything else, like who runs the country?”
They come up with stories, she says, by sitting around a table together and talking it out.
In a flash, she shifts to describe her decision to mount a primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, the Denver Democrat serving her 11th term in Congress.
“How do we get to equity and equality? We have everybody sitting at the table in the same chair — in the same chair. Not a shorter chair, not a taller chair, but everyone sitting at the table.”
Rao, 43, rocketed to attention nationally in December when she wrote an article in the Huffington Post titled “I’m a Brown Woman Who’s Breaking Up with the Democratic Party,” detailing her disillusionment with the party she’s belonged to since she turned 18.
“I was a huge Hillary supporter, and I’m mortified by that now. I was drinking the Kool-Aid,” she says. “What I think is astounding is, we had a catastrophic event in 2016. And the party establishment hasn’t learned from it. You know why? They don’t listen. I’m doing this because I love the party. The party’s sick right now, and it needs to get well.”
As a woman of color, she says, “I have really good sense every second of every day of what it is like to not be white in this country. I have massive empathy, I have huge ears — I want to hear what everybody has to say, because, guess what, people haven’t asked me what I think. I’ve been used as a pawn by the party, I’ve been used for fundraising, for getting out the vote. And then when I have something that I want them to hear, they’re not interested. Not at the table. You know what? I’ve been serving the table. I haven’t been invited to sit there.”
The article generated plenty of responses and online debate — Rao says she still receives daily emails about it — but over the next few weeks, she says, she rethought her premise.
“Where I landed was, my criticism of Democrats in Congress with safe seats not using their power and privilege to advocate for the most disenfranchised and unheard people — if I don’t use my power and my privilege to at least try to effect the change I want to see, then I’m just as bad,” she says.
Rao waves her hands around the spacious family room, pausing for a moment to comfort her son Dar, who is recovering from a cold and has wandered into the room.
“I am incredibly privileged. I have a wonderful life. I have a supportive family. I have my health. I have class privilege — I can afford child care. So, shame on me if I don’t try to do something about it.”
She shakes her head.
“I’m not breaking up with the party,” Rao says. “My issue is with the Democratic Party establishment. The establishment has not been working for the people. The establishment has been working for corporations and dark money, and we’ve got to change that. That’s why I got in.”
Rao, one of three Democratic challengers running in the primary, says she isn’t self-funding her campaign and is refusing to take contributions from corporate political action committees. She acknowledges she’s an underdog taking on DeGette, who has risen in House Democratic leadership to the position of chief deputy whip.
“I think we need new leadership in the party, period,” Rao says. “I think it’s time to pass batons. I think It’s a little shameful that people aren’t retiring and nurturing brown people, black people, particularly women. It is not a personal thing. The establishment is not working.”
She notes that some political allies have tried to wave her off a run, arguing that Democrats need to devote their energy to campaigning against Republicans — particularly as polling shows the party has a better-than-even chance of retaking the majority in the House in the November election. Then she gives a quick shake of her head.
“I don’t understand how anyone can take issue with fair and open and robust primaries when we’re dealing with an institution with no term limits. That is the dictionary definition of a democracy,” she says. “If I win this, I’ll be the first woman of color to go to Congress from Colorado. District 1 is an incredibly progressive district. How has that not happened before? It’s because we’ve had the same person for 22 years.”
DeGette has faced a couple of primary challenges since 1996, when she first won the heavily Democratic seat. Last cycle, she managed to fend off Democrat Charles “Chuck” Norris, whose campaign was inspired by presidential contender Bernie Sanders, with 87 percent of the vote.
Rao says she isn’t daunted and plans to make a case to voters that it’s time a comfortably Democratic district sends a rabble-rouser to Washington, D.C.
“Checking the boxes in voting correctly is not the sole job of being in Congress. Taking the lead with new boxes to check — that’s the role, especially someone with a totally safe seat,” she says. “We are at a critical juncture in the state of this democracy. We have a disgusting, gaping hole in income equality. We have white supremacists running the country.”
Rao stops for a moment and then gets up to brew a cup of coffee. A few minutes later, she returns and takes a deep breath.
“We have to do better than just resist Donald Trump. Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about Donald Trump. He’s a rapist, he’s a white supremacist. He’s a horrible, horrible person. Saying that doesn’t make you interesting. Let’s move forward. Let’s do something else,” she says.
She adds that she’s tired of hearing polite politicians tiptoe around what she considers a crisis.
“Compromise comes only after everyone is having a fair and open and honest conversation. I don’t know why people can’t call Donald Trump what he is. And I don’t know how people can sleep at night supporting his racist, misogynistic, bigoted policies. Shame on them.”
Then Rao squints and shrugs, perhaps recalling her own admonition against talking too much about Trump.
“I think we really need to reach into pained communities,” she says. “People are in pain in this country, and they feel like no one cares about them. And you know why they feel like that? Because it’s true. So, until and unless we understand what their lives are like, until we get their story, we can’t come up with viable solutions that serve them. Listening is everything. I’m a former lawyer. You can’t get to substance unless you’ve had a fair and open and honest process. So, let’s do that.”