When Rep. Sharice Davids arrived in Washington, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was eager to mentor his fellow Democrat, whose district sits on the other side of the state line.
“One day I said, ‘Look, if anybody bothers you or if anybody gives you any problem, you come get me,’’” Cleaver recalled.
He forgot that Davids, 38, the first Democrat elected to represent Kansas in a decade, used to trade punches in the mixed martial arts octagon as a hobby and didn’t need his protection.
“We sat there for a while and then she said, ‘Have I ever shown you how to break somebody’s arm?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. I probably have to go to you to help me.’”
Congress has never seen anyone quite like Davids: Cornell Law School-educated MMA fighter, one of the first two Native American women in the House, the first LGBT person to represent Kansas.
And yet, while her personal biography is barrier-breaking, Davids’ approach to her first 100 days in office has been exceedingly traditional, marked by deference to leadership and studious attention to the details of legislating. As other members of her freshman class, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, have made big headlines with proposals like the Green New Deal, Davids has quietly been laying the groundwork for a longer game.
Cleaver and other senior lawmakers cite Davids’ willingness to learn from her more experienced peers and her considerate approach to building relationships.
“I would put her toward the top of the freshman class in terms of doing things the right way,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“She’s not a showoff,” Bustos said. “She’s an athlete and if you’ve known any high-level athletes, they’re disciplined, they’re methodical… nailing all the fundamentals.”
“You have to build relationships and learn what are the things that are of interest to other members of Congress, what are the things that folks have been taking a lead on for a really long time,” Davids said. “And what are things [where] there’s space for me to contribute to the conversation that’s been going on or to ask questions to spark a new conversation.”
This approach has helped her build clout with party leaders, who see her as rising star. Davids will be one of two freshman Democrats speaking at the Center for American Progress’ ideas conference in Washington next month, a sign of her growing status.
“I like people who are team players. Sharice is a team player. I like people who are first going to listen before they speak up at the microphone,” Bustos said.
Bustos has been engaged in a public dispute with Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, about the DCCC’s efforts to protect incumbent Democrats against primary challenges.
Cleaver noted that Ocasio-Cortez, who he referred to has “the congresswoman from New York,” came to Kansas last year to campaign on behalf of Davids’ primary opponent Brent Welder. Cleaver complained that Davids, a centrist from the Midwest, hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of her more progressive, coastal peers.
“Congresswoman Davids may be the most brilliant and thoughtful member of the freshman class who nobody has noticed. And a lot of that is if you’re from the East Coast or the West Coast… the media just automatically fawns over you,” Cleaver said.
“If you’re in flyover territory people tend to overlook, but I can guarantee you— because I hear it at home— the people at home aren’t overlooking her.”
But Cleaver’s right that not everyone has noticed Davids yet. Sometimes security guards at the Capitol stop her because they don’t realize she’s a member of Congress.
“That happens fairly regularly,” confirmed Johanna Warshaw, Davids’ spokeswoman.
“In fact, just the other week Rep. Davids and Rep. (Deb) Haaland were leaving a meeting and were walking into the Speaker’s lobby to go vote, and a security officer stopped them to ask where they thought they were going. They had to tell the officer that they were members of Congress.”
Davids and Haaland, D-New Mexico, are the first two Native American women to serve in Congress. Davids said she can’t imagine having this experience without Haaland, who often saves a seat for her in the House chamber. The pair shared an emotional embrace on the House floor on the first day of the session that was caught on camera.
“You tend to forget about the cameras,” Haaland said. “There’s never been a Native American woman in Congress. We finally have a seat at the table.”
Davids, who served as a White House fellow in the Department of Transportation, pushed hard for a spot on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she has brought attention to tribal lands issues on top of Kansas City area concerns.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, a former college wrestler, connected with Davids’ over their shared backgrounds as athletes and transportation wonks.
DeFazio picked Davids to serve as vice chair of the subcommittee that deals with aviation, one of Kansas’ major industries. He said Davids stands out as a member who comes prepared to meetings having pored through the reading material herself and is asking her own question rather ones supplied by aides.
“She isn’t working off a script,” he said.
Cleaver said Davids takes the same meticulous approach when deciding how to vote on legislation, regardless of the bill’s importance.
“Sharice Davids may be the only person that reads every sentence of every bill, of every amendment… I mean, everything,” said Cleaver, who joked that he sometimes tells her that she doesn’t have to do that because Democrats are in the majority.
After her careful parsing of bills, Davids has still aligned closely with Democratic leadership in her votes, a fact that has been noticed by her supporters and critics alike.
“She for the first 100 days here has been incredibly loyal to Nancy Pelosi and her leadership, voting in lockstep. She’s not creating headaches. She’s shown no independence,” said Bob Salera, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is targeting Davids’ district in 2020.
Davids also faces pressure from a vocal minority on the left that want to see her back progressive policy goals, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
During the campaign, Davids was open to supporting a single-payer health care system as a long-term objective, but emphasized more incremental legislation as realistic policy. At her recent town hall in Olathe, a few attendees booed when Davids said she wasn’t ready to commit to supporting Medicare for All, because she had not finished vetting it.
This week, she told The Star that she will not support the Medicare for All bill in its current form because it would phase out employer-based insurance.
“That’s a pretty big sticking issue. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are not only satisfied with their employer plan, but are actually very pleased with it,” Davids said.
“And those folks aren’t saying I’m opposed to us figuring out a way to get universal access to affordable, quality health care for folks, but they are saying I don’t want to lose the insurance I have now. So that’s a sticking point on there.”
Matt Erickson, a 32-year-old Prairie Village resident, was among those who booed Davids’ answer in Olathe. Learning that Davids has officially come out against Medicare for all was even more disappointing, he said.
“Arguments like ‘people are tied to employee sponsored health insurance,’ I don’t find convincing,” said Erickson, who volunteered for Welder during the 2018 primary.
“People like their employer provided insurance because the alternative is they don’t have insurance at all,” he said. “In Medicare for all, the alternative is never having to change insurance plans again, no premiums, no deductibles, and no financial barriers to healthcare. You don’t lose your insurance if you leave your job or you get laid off.”
But Davids’ centrist approach may serve well in her suburban district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats. She’s instead focused on more incremental steps, such as advocating for her home state to expand Medicaid.
Davids invited The Star to observe a meeting this past week with officials from the University of Kansas and KU Medical Center, where they discussed how to reduce the shortage of resident physicians and desired funding for medical research.
“Never assume that our office already knows something… I don’t want to miss something that’s coming through,” she told the university and medical center officials seated around her conference table.
Jack Cline, KU’s director of federal relations, praised Davids’ open door policy and said she asks questions he’d normally expect from a seasoned lawmakers.
Bustos said that one piece of advice she gives Davids and other freshman Democrats is to act as though they’re the mayor of their congressional district.
To that end, Davids opened a district office in downtown Kansas City, Kansas—in addition to keeping former Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder’s Johnson County office— and has been circulating through the community for volunteer opportunities.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re accessible to all parts of the district,” Davids said.
Last month, she participated in cleanup of a community garden in Strawberry Hill. “We got our gloves on and our trashpickers and our trashbags … and the congresswoman was right there with everyone else,” said Leslie Scott, a volunteer coordinator with the AmeriCorps VISTA program in Wyandotte County.
Davids’ constituent-focused approach means that she’s also taken up some of Yoder’s causes.
She signed onto the green card legislation that Yoder championed and reintroduced his bill to make the Quindaro Townsite in Wyandotte County a national commemorative site, a symbolic move because the legislation was already set to be voted on in the House as part of Senate-crafted bill.
“I think that it’s a mistake to assume that because you’re taking a position from somebody else who you might disagree with—or you know you disagree with on some things—to assume that you disagree with on everything and to not look at each policy on its own merits,” Davids said.
“When I talk to folks I’ve asked them… when you had the chance to talk to my predecessor what were the things that were helpful and what were the things that you would like to see different and asking those questions I think gets to core of why somebody should be sent to D.C.”