In 2017, the New York-born and Puerto Rico-raised Michelle De La Isla was elected mayor of Topeka, Kansas, by razor thin margins, edging out her opponent by just 501 votes. Those few hundred votes — a true testament to the reality that every vote matters — launched Mayor De La Isla to her biggest role in public office yet as the leader of a state capital — notably etching her name in history as Topeka’s first Latina mayor. The accomplishment catapulted Mayor De La Isla into the national limelight as a bellwether of change, even before the stunning victories of the 2018 midterm elections.
Now, at the turn of the new decade and in an increasingly heated election cycle, Mayor De La Isla has announced that she has her sights set on serving an even larger body of constituents through an even bigger position in politics: She is campaigning in the 2nd Congressional district of Kansas to become its next U.S. House representative. Running as a Democrat for what has historically been a comfortably conservative district, Mayor De La Isla launched her campaign on the premise that prosperity should be inclusive, and that listening to one another is the key to moving forward together as a unified community.
It’s worth noting, however, that during the 2018 midterm elections, the race for Kansas’s 2nd Congressional district was decided by only a couple thousand votes with Republican Rep. Steve Watkins narrowly winning enough votes to prevail over his Democratic challenger, a close race that suggests that voters are less interested in political affiliation than we might expect from a “red state.” This plays especially in Mayor De La Isla’s favor. As someone who has made a point to see her constituents first and foremost as individuals — while also having a keen understanding of how their priorities and needs lead them to find common ground as “pockets of people” rather than as blue or red voters — she is poised to be a popular candidate within her district.
The fact that she has personally experienced many of the challenges that Kansans today are facing has shaped her into a committed advocate for the people. She has been very open about being brought up in poverty, having lived through a period of homelessness, surviving domestic violence, raising her children as a single mother while putting herself through college, battling chronic illness and beating cancer. Despite these formidable trials, her drive, her faith, and her kids have helped to see her through. Prior to breaking into politics, Mayor De La Isla served the public through her work in financial literacy programs, Habitat for Humanity, mentorship, and girls’ empowerment initiatives. It was at this point that she was encouraged to run for city council, and ultimately what opened the door for her to become mayor of Topeka.
Mayor De La Isla’s campaign for Congress comes at a time when many of us are feeling disillusioned about American politics, but it’s hard to not be inspired by her personal story. It’s also heartening to follow a public servant who is committed to representing her constituents, always working in their best interest, having had to overcome some of the very same challenges over the course of her life. In this way, Mayor De La Isla has endeavored to run for Congress not as a way to advocate for left-leaning policies, but as a way to expressly advocate for the needs of Kansans living in the 2nd Congressional District who face the challenges of mounting costs of health care and higher education, are grappling with underemployment, and whose communities are in dire need of an investment in infrastructure.
Fresh off her exciting campaign launch, BELatina had the opportunity to chat with Mayor De La Isla about how she plans on advocating for all Kansans from federal office.
Having grown up in Kansas myself, and as the daughter of an immigrant, I think of my home state as a deeply conservative place. So I have been completely blown away by the way that candidates flipped districts within the state in the 2018 elections. People who’ve never been to Kansas definitely have this same impression — especially when all they know about it is what they’re reading in the headlines about disastrous tax cuts, religious extremist groups, and books like “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Could you tell me what the Kansas electorate is really like?
This is just my feeling based on the interactions I’ve been able to have, not only in my city, but also with the residents of the 2nd Congressional district: Before anything we’re Kansans. I think that is something that has been forgotten. The state of Kansas has always been a state that has been ahead of the curve. We were a free state. We had Brown v. Board happen here. We’ve had three women governors. So when you look at Kansas, I think that people forget that in the end, Kansans are very pragmatic individuals that are making sure that they’re doing what is right. And I think that because of the few elections that we’ve had — prior to having Governor Kelly which is a wonderful asset to our state — we forget that we also had Governor Sebelius and that we had other individuals that were progressives.
I think that the election of Rep. Sharice Davids [of Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District], the election of Governor Kelly, reflects the fact that Kansans are using their voice. They’re saying we want common sense policymakers. We want people that are willing to work with people. We want people that are connected back to their communities, to have a track record of service. I feel like we have a spectacular opportunity because I have seven years of experience in my community — going back to my community and working with both sides of the aisle — and having good relationships and making good things happen.
From what I know about you, your work in politics has been shaped, in part, by the challenges you faced in your life. Could you talk to me a bit about the issues that you’re running on, how they relate to your personal experiences, and how that has led you to be an advocate for your constituents?
My life, as you know, is a pretty interesting story. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I know what it’s like to have a chronic condition and not have health insurance. I know what it’s like to have cancer and try to figure out what I’m going to do with my kids. When you look at the issues that are happening today, the only reason that I was able to succeed and get out of that situation was because there were people that came alongside me, that supported me and believed in me when I did not feel like I was anything or anyone worth fighting for. Individuals connected me to resources, and I was able to start figuring out how to keep on going to school, how to get out of homelessness with Section 8.
When you look at the issues that Americans are facing right now… Our homeless population is increasing. We have individuals that are not having access to health care in one of the richest countries, if not the richest country, in the world. We are struggling in southeast Kansas with employment opportunities for individuals. We talk about a 3.1 percent overall state unemployment, but we don’t talk about the underemployment. We don’t talk about the fact that families, because the minimum wage is $7.25, are having to work two and three jobs in order for them to provide for their families. And then the repercussion of this is kids that don’t feel like they have the proper support networks because mom and dad are working very hard to provide for them; they end up losing hope. And the system keeps repeating itself.
I’ve heard stories of veterans that are going through cancer treatment. Like a gentleman that I talked to in Lecompton. He was telling me that he’s got Tricare, and he’s got Medicare, but the first thing that they did when they found out he had cancer was they took him to a financial assistance room to figure out how he was going to pay for the medication before they were even able to talk about what would work. That is devastating. And he was not the only one. I’m calling people to hear what their concerns are, and over and over again these are the things that keep coming up. When we have individuals that are sick, that are being taking to a financial room, to figure out how much money that they have and what their assets are — before the prescriptions and the treatment are determined! — it’s a shame. It’s a shame. So yes, it is personal to me, but it’s also the stories that I’m hearing over and over again.
How do you see your commitment to public service changing with your jump from mayor of a state capital to member of the House of Representatives? Have your goals changed, in terms of what you’d like to accomplish?
Well, I can tell you that here are some issues that matter a lot to Topeka: We in Topeka have been engaging in a conversation about inclusion and inclusive prosperity, and that’s something that you don’t see a lot of communities really diving into. And we’ve been able to do some really creative things. We have been able to place a technical school in the middle of one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in our community so that people don’t have to take a bus for an hour to get their education. We have been able to use economic development dollars so that we are able to get people to work, to those shift jobs, and going from a $7/hour job to all of a sudden making $15/hour jobs.
One of the issues that we’re advocating for, that I actually went to D.C. for last month in December… I was advocating for the repair of the Polk-Quincy Viaduct. The federal government is not giving the infrastructure packages that we’ve been talking about for a while, and because of that, there are communities like Topeka that are struggling to have their infrastructure repaired like they need to. It’s not a want, it’s a need. There are bridges that are collapsing.
So the issues that we are talking about at the federal level are the same issues that our families are concerned about here in Topeka. I don’t think the goals are changing. I think that me moving from a city position into a federal position just allows me to be a continued conduit with the experience of a mayor that has had the pleasure of living with my residents, and interacting with my residents, and knowing what they need and being able to go to Washington and advocate for those same needs.
How did you learn to pivot from public service from outside of the political sphere to becoming a politician? Were there any surprises along the way, in terms of your expectations, or particular challenges?
I believe that every single step that you are serving people is a learning opportunity. There are systems in every realm. Before I was in public office as a councilmember, I was first a resident, because when I was not engaged, I was receiving the benefits of driving on the roads, benefiting of the jobs that I was able to participate in. And then from there, I started doing work with non-profit organizations, which started exposing me to a board of directors kind of environment. And I think that that is such a crucial part that I often encourage citizens to do, because once you get involved in a board, you start understanding the systems of government. I think that a lot of people get into government thinking that I’m going to change this and I’m going to make this happen. And then you get into a board of directors room and you start realizing that, oh wait a second, I have to work with other people and figure out how we all come together for the greater good — because my point of view is not always the right point of view, and I have things to learn from other people that I’m surrounded by.
Which helped a lot when I got into city council, understanding the systems of the council, then becoming mayor. And then I think that as I make the jump into Congress, there’s going to be a lot that I have to learn. There are more than 400 people that I’m going to have to work with, and understand where they’re coming from and what the issues are that matter to them so that we can all then come together and lift the voices of the people that we have the privilege to serve. So I think that there’s of course going to be a learning curve, but the important thing is that at every single step that you’re taking, you never forget that you’re serving the people that sent you there, and that you work with the other individuals that are in that system so that you can do things that benefit the community overall.
I’d love to ask you specifically about the looming crisis the nation is facing with imminent cuts to SNAP benefits. How is this going to affect the constituents of your district, and how do you hope to leverage your experience and platform to help avert this crisis?
Cutting SNAP benefits, as you know, is going to impact the families that need it the most. The families that are struggling, that are dependent on some support from the government in order for them to get themselves back on their feet, the families and those individuals that are at most risk of having further challenges. This is one of those issues that I will go to Washington to advocate for. I don’t think that we have to continue cutting benefits to families in need. I think that we have to figure out ways of empowering those families — so if we’re cutting SNAP benefits, then what are we doing then on the flip side to provide families with other resources? Until we have other solutions for families that are struggling with their finances, I don’t think that starting to cut into the benefits that they have right now is the right way to go.
You’ve made a point to cast yourself as an inclusive leader. How have you brought that dedication of inclusivity into your campaign for Congress?
I think it’s time for us to stop the divisiveness that we have in government and that we start focusing — rather than on the fact that I happen to be a Democrat and that I’m running against a Republican — that we should stop that conversation. I think that we have to start talking about all of us as individuals.
One of the things that I focus on when I talk to people is the fact that I want to make sure that I listen to you as a human, and that I get to understand what the needs are because in the end, the parties and the divisions that are occurring right now are not going to get us anywhere. I think that America and Kansas are tired of the negative rhetoric, are tired of the conversation of “you are” and “you’re not.” We have to start addressing ourselves as humans first, as individuals, and understanding that we have to come together. Which is why inclusive prosperity is so important.
Could you elaborate a bit about your concept of inclusive prosperity?
You were just talking about SNAP benefits. Who in their right mind would want to cut food benefits for families in the most need? These things are happening because we are not having conversations that are inclusive. Think about it. The whole concept of being inclusive is about being willing to have conversations at every level that are not divisive, that bring back the humanity of people, and understanding why there are systems in place to uplift everybody so that there is not a thought that people are in a negative position just because. The other thing I’m very open about is talking about the systems that are pervasive in our government that have kept people in very challenging situations generation after generation, so that as we start having these difficult conversations, we start coming to solutions together.
We have to stop the conversation of it’s one group or the other. Everybody has to be successful. For lower income individuals, we have to figure out what are the barriers to mobility, but at the same time, we also have to support our business community so that our business community can continue providing those jobs. It’s this interesting situation that we agree in this country that we are too polarized, and yet it’s very easy for us to slant negatively toward one group or the other. And that’s something that I’m working really hard to get away from because I know that the situation is very challenging. But in the end instead of talking about issues, we need to start talking about people and about their stories and about how we need to come together.
Let me very clear: There’s obviously policies that I am pro that make me a Democrat. I’m very concerned about the wellbeing of the community. I’m very pro [social programs]. But I think it’s too easy for us to say, “Well I’m a Democrat. I’m only going to focus on what the Democrats are saying.” I think that we miss out on a whole different side of the conversation and perspective that makes us grow. I’m the person that loves to sit down with people, and when people give me feedback I actually sit down and listen. Because it makes us better people. As humans, we have very different dimensions. We are not black or white. I mean, look at my background, for Pete sake’s. I have European in me, I have Black in me, I have Caribbean in me, Taíno, and so on… and that’s the same way with issues. I think that we have to work really hard to focus on understanding what the other side is saying so that we can come to a solution.
You’ve mentioned in your campaign that you hope to inspire your daughters through your work for the public, and you’re also someone who has long been committed to mentoring girls. Could you tell me who some of your mentors and inspirations were who helped you see your path to public office?
The first person that comes to mind is my grandmother. You want to talk about a strong women! I don’t think that [my grandmother] made it past grade school. And she was the life force of our family — she was more than my grandmother, she was my mom to me. She was stern, but man she was so loving and she was so present. She, without an education, got all of her kids to have some degree in higher education, whether it was my uncle becoming a tradesman and becoming a carpenter; my other uncle getting into a fast track program with the telephone company, getting into the union and being able to succeed; my mom through her challenges, getting her degree… When you look at [my grandmother’s] kids, you would have never imagined that all of these kids came from such humble backgrounds. She was just a force of nature… you see her fingerprints all over me.
I think that another awesome mentor that I had was Marge Heeney, may she rest in peace. Marge was a free spirit here in Topeka and she was just super engaged. She would rally people up to vote and she was part of the founding members of Women’s Fund Topeka. She was one of these women that got together and made sure that their money counted.
You have to have mentors. I have mentors like Bryce Liedtke, who is one of our young people that’s in high school right now. You have to have mentors from all walks. If you’re going to be grounded and you’re still going to retain your humanity when you’re doing public service — and you don’t want to lose your sense of self and who you are and what you’re advocating for — you need to have people around you that keep you grounded.
What is the legacy that you’d like to leave behind for your children through the work you’ve done holding leadership positions within your community?
First, and beyond all things, that they are loved, beyond words. And also [a legacy] of getting them exposed to being a good citizen, being engaged in the community and understanding that just because you have the intersectionality of being a female and a Latina and being the product of a single mom… it doesn’t mean that your life has to be perfect in order for you to serve bravely. When I look at them, in every single step, they are the first ones to be there for me, and they’re the first ones to say, “Mom, you’ve got to do this, we believe in you.” And I hope that when I’m done, whenever that may be, that when things come into their life that are challenges that seem insurmountable, they remember that they can. And in that process, as they thrive, that they never forget that they have a part to play in their community.