Diane Kehres spent last year glued to her “Sharice Davids” campaign button as she organized events, made phone calls and knocked on doors for the congressional candidate.
The enthusiasm surrounding Davids was apparent in her double-digit defeat last November against incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder in Kansas’ 3rd District. And it was palpable in her campaign office, volunteers said. So much so, it inspired Kehres and at least four other volunteers to run for local office in Johnson County for the first time.
“When I get together with the other women who I worked with on the campaign and are now running — and there are a lot of us — to a fault, every single one of us said I never imagined or even thought about running for office,” said Kehres, who is running for De Soto City Council. “And that is absolutely the truth for me. It never occurred to me that I would ever run for office.”
Volunteering is a common way for candidates to get their start in politics — especially for women, who are less likely to consider themselves qualified, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
Davids, a Democrat, had a historic win in November, becoming the first openly LGBT person to represent the state of Kansas. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, she, along with with New Mexico’s Deb Haaland, became the first Native American women to serve in Congress.
2018 was a record-setting year for the number of female and LGBT people seeking election, with most of the women running as Democrats. But Shannon Golden, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said she’s now seeing excitement from more female candidates as well. In the 3rd District alone, three Republican women are now challenging Davids for the seat.
Party leaders said they’re continuing to recruit more diverse candidates. And as the momentum extends to the Kansas City suburbs, for many local candidates, volunteering has become a point of entry into the political pipeline.
“I think in a lot of ways, positive energy and empowerment just catches on. And a bunch of people start to think about running who never thought about it before, even though they had it in them all the time,” Davids told the Star last week. “I wonder how many more people would run for office if we just encouraged them to do it?”
Johnson County elections lack diversity
The atmosphere changed as Davids walked into Filling Station Coffee off of Johnson Drive in Mission last week. Davids suddenly had several people waiting to talk to her, including two middle-aged Native American women and a white woman in her early 20s sporting a T-shirt and Dr. Martens.
Davids’ profile earned her national headlines during the congressional race. And watching a lesbian woman of color win in Kansas inspired her volunteers to run for office this year.
“I don’t think I would probably run if I didn’t work on her campaign. Seeing somebody who was Native American run, that really helped push myself into my own campaign,” said Emily Weber, a Democrat running for Missouri House District 24. “If I win, I’ll be the first Asian American woman to be elected into the statehouse in Missouri. It’s kind of given me a positive attitude of, if you see Sharice Davids do this, you can do it, too. And I think we’re seeing that all over the country.”
Last year, along with Davids, Johnson County elected Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz, who became the first openly LGBT members of the Kansas House of Representatives. State Rep. Rui Xu became the first Chinese American person to serve in the Kansas Legislature.
A record number of women and LGBT candidates ran for office nationwide last year. But women and minorities are still far from reaching proportional representation in federal and statewide offices.
The number of women in the Kansas Legislature fell after this past election. In 2018, Kansas had 48 female lawmakers, with women holding more than 28% of all seats. After January, women now hold 26% of seats.
White males also continue to make up the majority of local offices in Johnson County. While women make up 51% of the Johnson County population, around 35% of elected officials are female, according to an analysis by The Star. Around 95% of elected officials in the area are white.
And despite both parties saying they’re seeing more people of color and women announce candidacy, the majority of candidates in this November’s elections in Johnson County are still white men. More than 100 men are running in the general election, compared to fewer than 70 women. Only a handful of candidates are people of color.
Many candidates said they were encouraged to run because they want to increase diversity in local offices to better reflect the demographics of Johnson County. Kehres said she was motivated because only one woman currently serves on the De Soto City Council.
“I am strongly in favor of women taking the leading role in every field. And I think that we’re seeing that women are being quite successful,” she said. “So I knew there was a possibility of having a second woman on the City Council. And several people actually approached me and told me I should run. And I had the seed planted in my head.”
Encouraging women to run
A musician, Roeland Park City Councilwoman Jan Faidley said she hadn’t thought much about running for office, despite volunteering on several local campaigns.
Becky Fast left the seat vacant as she won a position on the Johnson County Board of Commissioners. She was one of two women to win seats on the previously all-male board. Faidley won during a special election in February and is now running for her first full term.
“(Becky Fast) asked me to consider it, and I thought about it for a while,” Faidley said. “She has continued to be very helpful with mentoring and providing support.”
All of the Johnson County volunteers-turned-candidates said they were encouraged by others to run for office before they considered it. The one male in the group, Benjamin Dickens, an openly gay candidate running for Roeland Park City Council, said he also was persuaded to run by friends and neighbors.
Women in both political parties are significantly less likely than men to have thought about running for office in the first place. That’s despite research showing that when women do run, they are just as likely as men to win.
A Politico poll shows women are less likely to be encouraged by parents, teachers and others to run. And even when they are recruited, they statistically feel less qualified than men to hold office.
“Men are more likely to think of themselves as qualified for political office than women are,” Miller, the political scientist, said. “You often hear women elected to office saying the big hurdle was them thinking they are confident and qualified enough. But if they do run, they can be very successful.”
Miller said volunteering is a common “gateway into activism and running for office,” especially as it provides an opportunity for women and minority candidates to see how a campaign is run.
After interviewing experienced candidates and officeholders, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found nearly 32% of female respondents ran for election after volunteering or working on a campaign.
“That involvement can be something that builds their sense of political efficacy, and then they can start to think of themselves as qualified,” Miller said. “It’s a way a lot of people start getting that encouragement.”
Kansas City suburbs changing
Staring down a breakfast sandwich at the Mission coffee shop, Davids said she never considered going to law school until she was told she could do it.
“I have a feeling there’s a lot of people where it just never occurred to them to run for office, and now they’re thinking about it,” Davids said.
She ran her first-ever campaign this past election.
“I thought, ‘this feels really special.’ And then I was thinking, ‘well, I bet everybody feels that way when they run their first campaign,’” she said. “But the cool thing about all of this was that it was almost like a bunch of people figured out what exercising their voice would look like for them.”
Faidley said the campaign had several “nail-biting moments, calling the race a “tough battle.” But in the end, she stuck with it because volunteering gave her new, up-close insight into the world of politics.
And several volunteers said they are now emulating Davids in their own campaigns.
“She’s an extremely good listener. There aren’t many politicians who really listen to people’s concerns. So I paid close attention to that,” Faidley said. “She’s done a lot in her campaign. It’s not flashy, but I think it’s very Kansas.”
More so than Davids’ profile, it was her personality and platform that drove Johnson County residents to volunteer for her.
Miller and other political scientists argue profile matters less than party when voters cast ballots. Like many other suburbs across the country, the 3rd Congressional District, which includes Johnson and Wyandotte counties, swung Democratic due, in part, to changing demographics and the results of the 2016 election. And Miller said the most motivated demographic was college-educated, suburban women.
“Twenty years ago, a district like the 3rd would have been pretty Republican most of the time,” Miller said. “But it’s veered quite strongly to the Democratic Party. So Sharice Davids comes in after the politics changing for a long time, and it really set her up and a lot of Democrats like her in suburban districts to be in a good position to win.”
It was the first time a Democrat has won the suburban Kansas City swing district in a decade. Now Republicans are looking to win back women in the district. So far, three Republican women have announced they are challenging Davids in 2020.
“The 2018 election did pave the way for a lot of women to hold seats in Congress, but it was limited to one side of the aisle,” Golden, of the Republican Party, said. “We saw that in Johnson County, but we’re really confident we’ll take that seat back in 2020. And we’re seeing more excitement for Republican women to run across the state.”
Overland Park businesswoman Amanda Adkins, former nonprofit executive Sara Hart Weir of Mission, plus former Roeland Park Mayor Adrienne Foster all are looking to unseat Davids.
“That’s a nonpartisan issue to me. Women wanting to speak up more and get involved and feel like they have the ability to do so, that’s the big thing,” said Anne Pritchett, president of Johnson County Democratic Women. “Gender goes beyond politics. So seeing three Republican women run for Congress is very impressive to me.”
Both parties are actively recruiting women to run across the state, leaders said.
And Johnson County candidates said they’re seeing more excitement at the local level, even if progress is slow.
Hoping to be the second woman on the De Soto City Council, Kehres has been out knocking on doors and canvassing nearly every day. And despite now running her own campaign, Kehres is often reminded of a moment when she volunteered for Davids.
“This is one of my favorite stories to share to this day,” Davids said, wrapping up breakfast and preparing to fly back to Washington, D.C.
She went on to share a story in which Kehres was standing in line at Kohl’s, wearing her campaign button. Before checking out at the register, she had convinced the woman in line behind her to vote for Davids.
“I can’t believe she’s still telling that story,” Kehres said, laughing. “You never know who you’re going to reach. That’s why it’s so important to get out and engage people. You have to give people the opportunity to use their voice.”