Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla confirmed Monday she would seek the 2nd District congressional nomination from the Democratic Party in the 25-county eastern Kansas district of the U.S. House locked down by Republicans for all but one term during the past quarter century.
De La Isla told The Topeka Capital-Journal in advance of the announcement she would concentrate on access to health care, job creation and investment in infrastructure if elected to replace incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins, who has a GOP primary opponent. She is the only declared Democrat in the race following the withdrawal last year of a candidate from Lawrence.
"The 2nd District is going to be looking at a good candidate they can relate to — a candidate who is concerned about the issues," she said. "People are concerned about what touches them directly."
De La Isla, 43, became the first Latina to be elected mayor of Topeka in 2017 and joined the Topeka City Council in 2013. She accepted a voluntary buyout in December at Evergy, where she was diversity coordinator for the large utility company. She worked for five years as executive director at Topeka Habitat for Humanity and five years as chief financial officer at House and Credit Counseling in Topeka.
She said residents of a district that extends from Oklahoma to Nebraska would relate to her life story. The native of Puerto Rico said she dealt with challenges inherent in being a single parent and personally experienced homelessness and cancer. She knows the dread people without health insurance feel when approaching a mail box stuffed with medical bills.
"My story will resonate with the residents of the 2nd District," De La Isla said. "I'm a person that has been extremely open about my life story. I've had struggles. I've been homeless. I've been sick. I've had cancer. I had no insurance. And, I've been able to overcome those challenges."
The district includes Topeka, Lawrence, Ottawa, Leavenworth and Pittsburg, but the area is considered 40% rural.
"I don't see the counties as red or blue counties. I see them as pockets of people. Way too often, we think of public services and we think it's political. The way I see it, I see it as service to people," she said.
Her core support would likely come from Democrats and moderate Republicans, roughly the same voters who carried U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat, to victory in 2018 over Congressman Kevin Yoder. Davids' district covers Johnson and Wyandotte counties and part of Miami County.
De La Isla, who said her campaign wouldn't require her to step aside as mayor, said she considered herself a unifying force in city government. She said she wouldn't be the type of congressional candidate who always had a scripted answer to policy questions.
De La Isla said she was approached about running for the U.S. House, but her initial reaction was a "pretty resolute" no. As time went on, she said, exploration of a potential candidacy softened her position. She was struck that many of the district's voters shared anxiety about acquiring or maintaining affordable health insurance, availability of training and education for people changing jobs in an evolving economy, as well as life-and-death shortcomings in highway infrastructure, she said.
Democrat Abbie Hodgson, of Lawrence, withdrew from the 2nd District campaign in October, largely due to problems raising contributions necessary to conduct a competitive bid.
On that point, De La Isla said she would work hard to generate donations sufficient to carry her message to voters throughout the district.
Watkins was elected in 2018 to the 2nd District seat by defeating Democratic challenger Paul Davis, a former state legislator from Lawrence, by less than 1 percentage point. Republican Lynn Jenkins had the seat for a decade after ousting Democratic incumbent Nancy Boyda in 2008. It was the domain of Republicans Jim Ryun and Sam Brownback from 1995 to 2007.
Watkins, of Topeka, is under investigation for potential voter fraud after listing a UPS store as his home address when registering and casting a ballot in November. His primary opponent is Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner.