TOPEKA — Mayor Michelle De La Isla accentuates a three-letter word when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at start of Topeka City Council meetings.
De La Isla, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House, punctuates the final word of the pledge to express commitment to broad application of “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It’s important to honor ideals that should apply to all Americans, she said, in the context of the nation’s legacy of slavery, segregation and racism and in terms of convulsions triggered by ongoing social and political unrest.
“If we cannot talk about our country with the same love that we have for the ideals that it represents, and at the same time recognize that there were wrongs that were being made — that our economy was built on the backs of individuals of color that worked to create the systems that we have but were excluded of those systems — we have a problem,” she said. “Saying that doesn’t mean that I love my country any less. It means that I love it with the full understanding of the places where we must improve.”
As mayor since 2018 of a city with about 125,000 people and a candidate for Congress representing one-fourth of Kansas’ population, De La Isla has a rare vantage point to consider complaints among activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and questions about the abusive and lethal actions of some U.S. law enforcement officers.
De La Isla, 44, is the first Latino to serve as Topeka mayor and her lineage traces to an African cast into slavery in Puerto Rico. The mayor’s job at City Hall places her in close proximity to the Topeka Police Department.
“I love my police department. We have heroes that work there,” she said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “But for us to say with a straight face that there is no room for improvement is crazy. It’s crazy.”
She said it was the responsibility of local, state and national leaders to foster conversations that help people with diverse life experiences better understand each other. To be beneficial, she said, dialogue must change hearts and deliver reform. “Anything else is a Band-Aid,” she said.
In the November election, De La Isla faces Republican nominee Jake LaTurner. He defeated U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins in the August primary by pointing to Watkins’ alleged criminal conduct. The district includes Pittsburg, Topeka and Lawrence and includes a rural constituency stretching from the Oklahoma to Nebraska borders.
De La Isla said her campaign emphasized the quest to deepen access to health care through expansion of Medicaid to more low- and moderate-income Kansas. She said the GOP’s goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act could expose millions of people to health insurance plans that block coverage of pre-existing medical conditions.
“It’s unfair that in the richest country in the world we have over 150,000 Kansans that don’t have either access or are underinsured,” she said. “Having good health care means that you are taking care of issues before they become something grave.”
The nation’s education system needs to better direct financial resources to early-childhood programs and into schools where students have extraordinary social and economic challenges, she said.
De La Isla advocated rapid development of broadband infrastructure to meet communication needs of businesses chasing global markets, school students dealing with distance learning amid COVID-19 and demand for telemedicine services.
President Donald Trump’s use of tariffs against China is flawed because the strategy jeopardizes a key market for Kansas crops and meat exports, she said.
In terms of the pandemic, De La Isla said federal disaster aid should be forwarded directly to municipal governments for distribution to small businesses struggling for survival.
The decision by Trump and others to focus on politics of coronavirus rather than science of the pandemic makes it difficult to convince people to take precautions against spread of the virus.
COVID-19 has killed more than 500 in Kansas and at least 190,000 in the United States.
“We have a group of individuals that are just ignoring the fact that there is something that has killed the equivalent of this county,” she said. “I don’t think that if we are able to do a mega-microscope and talk to the virus, it’s going to tell us if it’s a Republican or Democratic virus.”
De La Isla, who grew up in New York City and in Puerto Rico, said rhetoric intended to selectively demonize immigrants didn’t make sense given the country’s labor requirements in agriculture and other fields. Her grandfather was an immigrant from Italy and moved to Puerto Rico with his wife, who was raised on the U.S. territory.
On her death bed, De La Isla’s grandmother told her about a distant relative brought by slave traders from West Africa to Puerto Rico and forced into prostitution.
“I grew up in this very diverse, very mixed family speaking three languages,” De La Isla said. “For me, immigration has a very different flavor. It drives me insane when I hear people talk about the border, because it’s already racialized. This country was built on a mixture of people that came from everywhere. The only people who are not immigrants are the Native Americans.”