One day after winning election as Topeka’s second female mayor, District 5 City Councilwoman Michelle De La Isla talked Wednesday afternoon with The Capital-Journal.
She said that when she takes office, she’ll “shatter glasses” by achieving milestones that include becoming Topeka’s first Hispanic mayor, first Latina mayor and first mayor to be a single mother, as well as the first to be employed outside of working for the city.
The 41-year-old De La Isla added that her being elected illustrates that “you don’t have to be retired or affluent to run for office.”
Here’s more of what she had to say:
Q: What do you hope your victory says to young women?
De La Isla: You can. Yes, you can. Absolutely. Go for it, do it, just go for it.
Q: Why do you think your message resonated with voters?
A: I think that what resonated probably was that I was going out there and talking to people. In the primary, we canvassed over 6,000 doors. And then for the general election, we did an additional probably 10,000 doors. I think another thing that resonated was the level of transparency. I’ve never prepared a speech in my life, and when I talk to people, I talk to them from the heart and from what I hear. And I don’t make promises that are empty.
Q: In four years, which problem the city faces do you hope to have made the most progress with, and how?
A: It sounds oversimplified, but I’ve always said that community pride is extremely important. And it’s not that we don’t have other issues that we have to deal with. But when you don’t feel engaged in your community, you don’t engage. You don’t work to find solutions because you feel like you’re not listened to, like you have no hope, like this is your situation and it’s not going to change. But if we can get the constituents engaged and we can get them to have pride in the city that they live in, they’re more apt to say “Yes, we do have a public safety issue and I do want to be involved, because I know that people are hearing me out.” And I want that in my community. We need to all start talking about our community with love and with passion, so that then we can start becoming engaged in dealing with the issues of code and crime and roads. Because when all of us are engaged, then we can work better to find solutions.
Q: What will be going through your mind as you take the oath of office?
A: I’m a skeptic, so I’m probably going to be thinking, “Is this really happening?” The most important thing is just the responsibility that I have. I think that positions like these, you just don’t take lightly. You’re serving so many people. And a lot of people look at these positions as a position of power. I don’t. I see this as a position of stewardship. The higher the responsibility, the more people that you have to serve.
Q: You’ve been open about the challenges you faced early in your life. What would you say to your younger self today?
A: Wow. I was just having a conversation with the New York Times about that today, and nobody asked that specific question. You know, when you’re struggling, it’s just so hard for you to get out of survival mode when you’re just focused on how you’re going to survive today. I wish I could go back in time, and I would probably just tell that little girl, “Hey you’re going to go through some really hard stuff but it’s all going to be worth it in the end. Because you’re going to have a viewpoint and understanding of life and people that most people won’t have. And you’re going to be compassionate. And you’re going to care. And you’re going to be OK. So just keep on going. Just put your head down and keep on going. Because there were times that I did want to give up. So I would tell myself not to give up. And I never did.
Q: What can you do to help the community heal and move forward once the investigation into the fatal Sept. 28 Topeka police shooting of Dominique White concludes?
A: Mostly importantly, I think it’s not so much what we do when the investigation concludes, I think it’s the things we could be doing now. We all are trying to figure out what happened, and we all want answers right now, and don’t have them. But I think that the most important thing — before we figure out what’s happening — is making sure that we are treating each other with compassion both ways. Because we’re all trying to find a solution. And I know in my heart that we’re all trying to do the best thing. Once we figure out what happened, we’ll work together to figure out a solution.
Q: Were you surprised that the outcome of yesterday’s election was so close?
A: Not at all. I feel like the campaign became politicized early on when the newspaper released the information of “Spencer Duncan, Republican, Michelle De La Isla, Democrat” on those cards that came out. And that automatically changed the tone of the election, I think, from that point out. In addition to that, I think that both of us ran pretty strong campaigns. I think that the tone that we tried to keep when we were in our public forums was attractive to people. And our messages really were not that different, except I think my approach is more “let’s collaborate and bring our community together” versus “we’re going to pursue this aggressively.” But I was not surprised at all. We ran a hearty campaign and I did not expect to win by a landslide whatsoever. I actually didn’t know. Everybody was like “Oh my God, the primary went great,” and I said “No, now there’s two people, the campaign has been differentiated and we have very similar messages.” So I didn’t know. I seriously went last night into the event thinking, “This is a 50-50 chance and no matter what happens, Topeka wins.”
Q: Your opponent spoke critically of your plans to continue in your job with Westar after being elected. Could you talk about the reasoning behind that decision?
A: It was really interesting that I was criticized for having more than one job. How many Topekans do we know that have not one, not two, maybe three jobs to support their families? A mayor is a representative of our whole community. The problem that we have with public government sometimes is that we expect for people that are in office to have the financial wherewithal to drop it all, to run for office to devote themselves to this, and that is not what this system is all about. We hope that people feel like if they have a passion for their city, that they will go ahead and they will run. And saying that you can’t have two jobs is almost like saying “I’m going to get married so I’m committed to my spouse but I’m not going to have a child because I don’t want to separate the love that I have for my child.” And the same thing happens when you’re in public office. When you’re in public office, you’re in love with your community. You are serving your community. The hope from this is that, if you want to talk about breaking glasses, breaking glasses is ensuring that people who maybe are employed right now, that have a job with flexibility that want to run for office, can say “Yes, I can do it, because she did it.” So now the pressure is on me to be successful, both at Westar and here.”
Q: What are your thoughts regarding Kansas legislator Vic Miller’s suggestion Monday to the city’s governing body that public suspicion has increased regarding the proposed Wheatfield Village development because the governing body has been discussing it in executive session?
A: I thought that Mr. Miller’s comments were very interesting because in the history of the city of Topeka, we have never done contract negotiations out in public, outside of an executive session. And the timing of it was rather interesting as well. But I think that this is part of the governing process. I think that Mr. Miller had the right — like every single constituent in our community had — to go ahead and speak to us, and I think that what he did is part of what makes our government system work well. But I do feel that — especially him understanding the way that the body works — that we were doing contract negotiations, and it is never a practice to do contract negotiations out in the open until we have something that we can go ahead and present. It was a bit concerning for me that it was presented as something so negative. I do understand the concern, because if people didn’t know what we were doing, then it could lead to thinking that we’re doing something that is not legal or ethical. But it was not. All that we were doing were contract negotiations. That being said, Mr. Miller had all the right to go ahead and ask his questions, because that’s what this process is all about.
Q: What are your thoughts regarding Topeka’s becoming a sanctuary city?
A: Shawnee County is already a sanctuary county and we fall under that, so I don’t know. In order for the city to become a sanctuary city, it would take a vote of the whole council. So I would not dare to set direction on that until we hear from the council and from more constituents about how they feel about that.
Editor’s note: De La Isla told The Capital-Journal Thursday that County Commissioner Bob Archer informed her Shawnee County is not a sanctuary county. County counselor Jim Crowl said the county’s corrections department honors all lawful detainers issued by the federal department of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and ICE is not seeking to sanction Shawnee County. While the Center for Immigration Studies lists Shawnee County as a sanctuary county on its website at https://cis.org/Map-Sanctuary-Cities-Counties-and-States, Crowl said CIS is a private entity, does not possess any legal authority to label anyone and does not represent the Department of Homeland Security or ICE.
Reporter Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.