Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla's life turned around when she received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wichita State University, she said.
The 2nd district U.S. congressional candidate faced homelessness, being a single mother, domestic violence and cancer.
Now, De La Isla is running to represent Lawrence, and much of eastern Kansas, in the U.S. House of Representatives.
She originally became interested in politics because of students, she said. In 2000, she began working in Upward Bound, a program by the U.S. Department of Education designed to increase the number of students who complete high school and enroll in college.
“When I started working with students who would become first-generation college students, I heard my story talking to these students,” De La Isla said. “It was heartbreaking hearing how these amazing students were talking about how they wouldn’t be able to go to school.”
After working at Upward Bound, she began nonprofit work. She traveled across the U.S. educating women on financial literacy with the Mexican American Women's National Association and later became the Executive Director of Topeka Habitat for Humanity.
In 2013, she was elected to the Topeka City Council, before being elected mayor of Topeka in 2018.
Now, she said she is running for U.S. Congress because the people in her community have more needs than she can meet as mayor.
“We’ve achieved many amazing things in the [Topeka] community by working together,” De La Isla said. “People were still having greater needs and there was an opening for me to run for this seat.”
If elected, De La Isla said she will work to expand access to healthcare, protect the environment, and expand access to broadband and education, among other things.
Ryan Reza, president of the Kansas Young Democrats and a junior at the University of Kansas, supports De La Isla. Expanding healthcare and De La Isla’s views on environmental policy are two reasons why, he said.
“She is the only one in the race who will listen to scientists who say the U.S. needs to change our energy infrastructure to combat the climate crisis,” Reza said.
Reza says De La Isla’s background makes her better suited to represent the district in Congress.
“Electing someone who has gone through and understands the problems facing everyday people is how we fix those problems,” Reza said. “Michelle has that experience. Jake LaTurner doesn’t.”
In the final days of the campaign, De La Isla said young people will be crucial to her campaign.
“If [young people] want to have representation that believes what they believe, they have to turn out and vote because they can affect the result of this election,” De La Isla said. “The young people are not our future, they are our now.”
In the 2018 midterms, the race for Kansas’ 2nd district seat was decided by just over 2,000 votes.
De La Isla said she could “absolutely” make up the slim deficit that cost Democrats the seat in 2018.
Currently, U.S. Representative Steve Watkins represents the district in congress, but he was defeated in the Republican primary by Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner. De La Isla’s will face LaTurner in the Nov. 3 general election.
LaTurner was appointed state treasurer by former Gov. Sam Brownback in 2017, and still holds that position today.
If elected to Congress, LaTurner will focus on enacting term limits on elected officials, securing the border by building a wall, welfare reform, and a balanced budget, according to his campaign website.
The Kansan reached out to the LaTurner campaign multiple times for an interview, but did not hear back in time for publication.
De La Isla sees herself as an alternative to traditional politics, she said.
“I think people are tired of the flavor of politics we are seeing by my opponent,” De La Isla said.