DeGette Faces 3rd Primary Challenger in 4 Elections
Neal Walia interned for former Congressman Mark Udall and worked for (then) Governor Hickenlooper on addressing homelessness and in a community outreach position to the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community before working for the National Governors Association. Now he’s taking a run at public office himself, hoping to represent Denver in the U.S. House of Representatives. In order to get there, he’ll have to unseat a 24 year veteren of the office: Congresswoman Diana DeGette. To win the seat, he’ll be making his case to voters that the incumbent’s seniority in the House isn’t as important as the vision for Denver and the country Walia is presenting.
Walia, a Democrat, filed for the office earlier this month, holding his campaign kickoff at the Pacific Ocean Marketplace on West Alameda, beginning with a performance of Taiko drumming. Tim Hernández, a North High School English teacher, Northsider, and Chicano activist, gave Walia an impassioned introduction. Hernández said the country that progressives like he and Walia believe in is “not a radical world, not an ideal one, but a necessary one,” adding that Walia is a “good progressive voice who understands we need progressive action.”
Walia sat down with The Denver North Star before his kickoff to talk about why he believes he should represent Denver in D.C. “I am running to bring a vision and a deep structural change to how we make decisions as a collective here,” he explained. “We know that people are really struggling….I want to break the wheel — to give power back to the community.”
Walia is trying to position himself to the left of DeGette: this campaign website’s issue page leads with a Green New Deal, refers to Medicare for All as a “no-brainer,” and references policies championed by NY Congresswoman and Democratic-Socialist icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. During the interview, he repeatedly highlighted Denver-specific ideas, such as the Denver Day Works program that he believes should be replicated federally and noted his support for job guarantee programs. Linking the problems of employer-based healthcare and homelessness, he also said one reason for home insecurity is medical bankruptcies under our current system. While he didn’t invoke Senator Bernie Sanders as a reason for running, he did say Sanders’ policies are “values I carry as well.”
Walia is the son of immigrants who moved from India to Seattle, moving again to Colorado when he was 11. Walia credits his parents, who worked in the service industry and then as educators, with giving him the opportunities in life that have led him to teach English in Japan, to a career in politics, and now to his run for office.
A student when the September 11, 2001, attacks occurred, Walia said the following weeks and months shaped his views of race relations in the U.S. Overnight, friends and neighbors suddenly saw him and his family as people who “looked like a terrorist.” That drove him to become more involved with Indian and AAPI organizations, both for solace and to bridge racial divides, work that would eventually bring him to Hickenlooper’s office.
Once more rare, primaries are increasingly common at both the state and federal levels. Last election, Republican West Slope Congressman Scott Tipton lost to insurgent candidate, now Congresswoman, Lauren Boebert. In Democratic primaries in Denver in recent years, former Representative Rosenthal lost his seat to now Representative Emily Sirota and Denver’s State Board of Education member Dr. Val Flores lost a primary to now SBoE member Dr. Lisa Escárcega.
In recent years, Congresswoman DeGette has faced and defeated two other primary challengers. In 2016, she defeated geologist (not 90s TV actor) Chuck Norris 86.4% – 12.6%. Two years later, she faced a better funded challenger in Saira Rao, who mounted a full-fledged opposition campaign, but DeGette won the Democratic nomination 68.2% – 31.8%. Democrats and Unaffiliated Voters who choose a Democratic primary ballot will vote next June.
While the state is currently undergoing congressional redistricting, the 1st district, which comprises all of Denver and small pieces of Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties, is unlikely to change dramatically. A heavily Democratic district, this primary election will most likely determine Denver’s federal representation.
Congresswoman DeGette’s Campaign Manager Jennie Peek-Dunstone sent a statement in response to being asked about her most recent primary challenger:
“Congresswoman DeGette is focused on doing the job that the people of CD 1 elected her to do. Just since January she served as an impeachment manager; sponsored key climate change legislation to control deadly methane gas emissions and stood next to President Biden when he signed the bill; as co-chair of the Pro-choice Caucus, ensured that for the first time in 45 years the abortion restrictions in the Hyde Amendment are stripped from the federal budget; passed the PAW act which protects over 3 million acres of federal land through the House; secured millions of dollars in the appropriations bills for funding for homelessness and housing in the Denver area; and has introduced several critical pieces of health care legislation. And there is more to do on health care, climate, the minimum wage and more. Right now Congresswoman DeGette is focused on getting things done for Denver and our country.”
The Denver North Star will be following this election as we approach the primary next year.