Government & Politics

Jay Sidie may be an unknown, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win a seat in Congress

Democrat Jay Sidie is making public appearances in his run for Congress, but voters still don’t know much about him.
Democrat Jay Sidie is making public appearances in his run for Congress, but voters still don’t know much about him. Special to the Star

The stranger doesn’t go unnoticed.

At Mount Zion Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., in a room filled with parishioners who have made the world inside these walls a crucial part of their lives, Democrat Jay Sidie stands out, if only because there are people here on the last Sunday in October who have never seen him before.

The idea that the 59-year-old is running for the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas, against someone the preacher refers to as “the other fella,” is still news to some.

A stop like this, late in the game, is another attempt for Sidie to meet voters he’ll need to beat Rep. Kevin Yoder, the 40-year-old incumbent Republican who didn’t seem to start sweating until Donald Trump, Sam Brownback and an angry electorate attracted national attention to the congressional seat.

“He’s got eight or nine days left and he’s trying to make all the mileage he can out there,” the Rev. C.L. Bachus said to the church’s black congregation. “And we hope that the situations change.”

That chance could hinge on Sidie’s plan in these final days, one that seems to favor random, low-key appearances and voter outreach rather than a heavily publicized race to the finish.

The approach is one that University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis said borrows from the blueprint of the “far right” — with the polls close, lying low may be Sidie’s best move.

“This is a tactic that many, many, many far right Republicans, conservative Republicans, have done,” he said. “They have simply ignored the press. They have not gone up on TV, or not gone out in the public. They have tried to control their media as much as they possibly could.”

At Sunday’s service, Sidie doesn’t say much to the churchgoers. He smiles and waves, sings quietly, taps his hand to the beat of the church music, his wife, two kids and campaign manager sitting by his side.

“If he comes here today and he gets elected and don’t show up till two years from now, he might as well not come back,” Bachus said to laughs from the parishioners.

“I’ll be back,” Sidie said.

Even here, Sidie is more recognized as not being Yoder than as the man who could be the next congressman from Kansas.

And that seems to be the story of Sidie’s balancing act of a campaign.

He could win because of who he isn’t.

Yoder has questioned Sidie’s credibility and pointed to the Democrat’s voting record, which shows that he’s missed elections — including the 2014 general election that sent Gov. Sam Brownback, the focus of much of Sidie’s scorn, back to Topeka, and Yoder back to another term in Congress.

Sidie’s record reflects other missed votes, including on school bond issues.

“Somehow, if his election were to be successful, he might be the least qualified, least prepared candidate in Kansas congressional history,” Yoder said about Sidie.

Sidie said the attack on his voting record was at least factual.

“I wasn’t terribly focused on the bond issues,” Sidie said. “Especially when I didn’t have any kids in school, or I didn’t even have any kids yet.”

Latoya Williams, a lifelong member of the church, admitted that she hadn’t heard much about Sidie, and that she wasn’t sure if she would vote for him.

“They always come around election time,” Williams said of politicians stopping by the church.

Emma Tillman, another member of the church, said she’d been getting plenty of material from Yoder’s campaign, but nothing from Sidie’s camp.

“If he had hadn’t shown up, I wouldn’t have known who we was,” she said.

And political observers say, in a year like this, just being the generic Democrat could be enough to boost the rookie politician to Congress, despite a late start and fundraising numbers that lag far behind Yoder’s.

Sidie filed for office in May, a late entry into an open race for his party’s nomination.

He beat out two Democratic challengers in the primary, with one of his opponents, Nathaniel McLaughlin of Kansas City, Kan., refusing to endorse him.

“To get beat by a candidate that was handpicked by Washington, it seems that he was handpicked...that’s not sour grapes, but that’s a bitter pill to swallow,” said McLaughlin, who announced his campaign in 2015.

Since Sidie won that primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has thrown its support to him.

Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and President Barack Obama have endorsed Sidie’s run for Congress, in what could be one of the races that helps decide which party will control legislation in the years to come.

Yoder has answered by bringing in everyone from former Sen. Bob Dole to Kansas City Royals legend George Brett to help his campaign.

He’s taken time to tell people that his own record and experience, a background that Sidie’s camp has used against him, shows that he’s still the one who can do the most to help his district.

Sidie doesn’t see it that way.

“Nobody really knows exactly what qualifies for a good congressperson,” Sidie said.

Polls show Sidie close to Yoder, due in part to Hillary Clinton’s popularity in the district that includes Wyandotte and Johnson counties and part of Miami County. Though just as there were ongoing questions about Yoder’s ties to Trump, Sidie still has to contend with how Clinton’s latest email confusion could hurt his candidacy.

He said he was sympathetic toward the former secretary of state.

As “somebody that’s been exposed to political attacks that are unwarranted, I can understand how she feels,” Sidie said.

Outside the church, Sidie again explained why he was qualified, despite never holding elected office or running a campaign like this before.

“I think the people that jump into public service early, sometimes, are wanting to be a professional politician,” he said.

He talked about how he worked in road construction in high school, went to college and rose through the ranks at a large company before leaving and working on his own.

Sidie said he’s “seen the economy from about every angle.”

“Maybe I haven’t had a lot of time to get that message out,” he said. “But I’m going to try.”

In the neighborhoods bordering the campaign’s office in Mission, Sidie signs are rarely seen, and are often outnumbered by campaign material from other local candidates.

Ron Snyder, a retiree living near the campaign office, has three signs in front of his house, one for Sidie, one for Clinton and another for Democrats in general.

He bemoaned what he saw as Democrats’ poor outreach locally, even in an election as important as this.

Snyder said he didn’t know much about Sidie, but that he was a Democrat, and that was enough.

“Everybody says they want an outsider,” he said. “Well, he qualifies as an outsider. That’s for sure.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw