On June 26, voters in the Democratic congressional primary in the First District of Colorado will have the chance to decide between two NYU Law alumnae: incumbent Diana DeGette ’82 and Saira Rao ’02. The seat, which represents Denver and its surroundings, has been held by a woman in the Democratic party since 1972—a tradition that will continue if either Rao or DeGette is elected to office in November.
DeGette has served as the district’s US representative since 1997, and is currently part of the Democratic leadership team in the US House of Representatives, where she is the chief deputy whip. Prior to her election to Congress, DeGette served two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives. Before entering elected office, DeGette was a Denver-based civil rights and employment law attorney. DeGette’s current campaign focuses on health care, the environment and climate change, reproductive rights, and consumer protection.
Rao, who previously worked as an associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, is the founder of In This Together Media, a publishing company focused on diversifying children’s books. Rao is also the author of Chambermaid, a novel that chronicles a young lawyer’s experience clerking for a federal judge. Rao’s campaign platform focuses on economic justice, civil rights, and reducing the influence of corporate donors on the Democratic party.
Both DeGette and Rao credit their NYU Law professors as formative inspirations. “So many of my professors—people like Burt Neuborne, Stephen Gillers [’68], and Claudia Angelos—really helped me think critically as a lawyer,” says DeGette.
“The greatest teacher I’ve ever had in my life was Bryan Stevenson. It’s wonderful to see everything he’s done since I graduated—he’s changing the world,” Rao says, referring to Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative and the recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.
And in the decision to run for public office, each woman says that her NYU Law experience was pivotal. “Law school was probably the most mind-expanding, world-expanding experience I had in my professional life. Some of the smartest, most interesting, most socially conscious people I’ve ever known in my life, I met at NYU Law,” says Rao. “Having gone to NYU Law has given me the strength and conviction to follow a path I otherwise might not have… it was a very confidence-boosting time in my life.”
DeGette credits her time as a Root Tilden scholar with giving her the drive to pursue a career in public service. “My experience with NYU Law was the transformative experience of my career,” says DeGette, “I met all of these wonderful, civic-minded, committed law students, and then after I left NYU Law, I started a public interest law career…. But at some point, when I was practicing law, I realized that I could represent clients one at a time or I could be elected to office and pass legislation that could actually impact thousands or even millions of lives.”
DeGette encourages public service–minded young lawyers to consider running for office: “You really can use elected office to make a difference,” she says.
Posted June 6, 2018