Sharice Davids knew she’d be a witness to a historic change in power when she took a job in the White House in the final months of 2016.
But it didn’t turn out exactly how she expected.
“I can say I thought I was going to be there at the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the first woman president,” Davids said. “That’s not ultimately what ended up happening.”
Instead, she found herself working in the Department of Transportation during the early days of President Donald Trump’s administration as a White House fellow, a development Davids said demonstrated the value of nonpartisan civil servants.
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But Trump’s rise did something else unexpected to the path of Davids’ life. It created an opening, a movement of Trump-era anger and liberal enthusiasm that’s given her a chance at unseating Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder in one of the most competitive House races in the country.
“In some ways the campaign is about me and my experience, but in a lot of ways it’s not about me at all,” Davids said. “It’s about people wanting to see change.”
The 38-year-old’s rise from unknown to Democratic favorite defies the usual path in Kansas politics, where candidates are often groomed through political party relationships or lower elected office.
Questions remain about the depth of Davids’ policy knowledge and how closely her positions align with a district dominated by political moderates.
Bob Berry, a retired anesthesiologist from Overland Park, criticized Davids for not debating Yoder before early voting started.
“I’m not ashamed to say I’m a conservative,” he said. “I feel like he better represents our conservative values.”
Yoder has accused Davids of trying to ride the national wave to Congress without staking out clear policy positions in the race.
“The national Democrats keep her in the witness protection program,” Yoder complained this week.
If she wins in November, Davids, a lawyer and amateur mixed-martial arts fighter, would become the first openly gay member of the Kansas congressional delegation, as well as the first female Native American lawmaker in Washington.
One supporter who wore a makeshift Davids shirt to a rally this week said Trump’s election motivated her to become more involved.
“She’s going to fight for people that can’t fight for themselves,” said Ann Gwartney, a 49-year-old UPS worker, referring to Kansans who rely on the government for health benefits.
Pat St Louis, a 66-year-old retired teacher, said he likes what Davids stands for, but his support for her is also “a vote against what’s happening in Washington with Trump and his people.”
Despite polls showing Davids ahead of Yoder, the Republican incumbent still has deep pockets of support in the district.
Glynis Castaneda, a 22-year-old from Piper, said she sees Yoder as the more moderate choice in the race. The Hispanic and Cherokee Native American woman said she was concerned with how Davids is using her Native American heritage in the campaign.
“It’s hard for me as a Native American to say that I wouldn’t support another Native American, but I guess I don’t support the way that she’s going about it,” said Castaneda, a registered Republican.
Davids said her first policy goal in Congress would be to pass laws to increase transparency of political spending.
She has repeatedly touted that more than 90 percent of her campaign money comes from individual donors rather than political action committees, but the bulk of those people live in states other than Kansas.
On other topics, such as as taxes, she was more vague. Her website touts she will “fight for a true tax cut for the middle class.” Pressed on what that means, she spoke in generalities without clarifying what taxes she would like to cut.
She showed more passion in taking on the issue of student loan debt, which Davids also deals with personally. Her financial disclosure form shows she has between $100,000 and $250,000 in student loan debt.
She wants to make Pell grants more accessible and wants to make sure people with student loans are able to refinance them. She criticized the federal government for making a profit on loans.
After attending Cornell Law School, Davids landed a job in 2010 at the Kansas City office of Dentons, an international law firm, where she was part of a team handling corporate mergers and acquisitions.
Bob Fisher, a senior attorney who supervised Davids, praised her work at the firm but said the position proved to be a poor fit for Davids as a long-term career.
“She just wasn’t driven by the money part of business,” he said. “She had some principles.”
Two years into her tenure at the firm, Davids moved to South Dakota to work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a reservation for the Oglala Lakota tribe, where she worked in a variety of roles related to economic development.
“Pine Ridge is one of the poorest, most isolated places in the country for the past 100 years… It was even left out of the industrial revolution,” said Nick Tilsen, the former deputy director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.
Davids served as Tilsen’s “right hand” in her role as Thunder Valley’s deputy director. He credited Davids’ legal knowledge with helping the nonprofit secure $3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build up housing on the reservation.
Elsie Meeks, who served as USDA state director in South Dakota at the time, said the group’s work initially faced resistance from tribal leaders. She said tribal leaders felt threatened by the independent nonprofit, but that Davids was adept at persuading them to get behind the project.
“If you could ever see Thunder Valley now, it’s an amazing thing that’s taken place now,” said Meeks, who lives on the reservation. “Houses are up. Apartment buildings are up. The community center. There’s an egg-laying operation… Getting that infrastructure in place was the most important thing. Without that nothing else could happen.”
Davids’ own attempt to launch a business on the reservation proved unsuccessful and resulted in a $20,000 judgment against her business Hoka Coffee.
During her time on Pine Ridge, Davids was also moonlighting as an attorney for Ceiba Legal, a California-based law firm that primarily works with Native American tribes on the West Coast.
“What’s unique about a tribe is it’s simultaneously an enterprise and a government… so you’re also navigating government procedures when you’re dealing with tribes,” said Little Fawn Boland, the owner of the firm, who argued that Davids’ experience with tribal governments has helped train her for Congress.
Davids’ former colleagues universally praised her work ethic and sincerity, but even some of them are surprised that she stands on the verge of ousting a four-term incumbent.
Fisher said that if Davids had approached him last year and told him she planned to run against Yoder despite little name recognition, he would have advised her to run for a position lower on the ballot first.
“I was surprised she did this well this fast. I knew she would do well because she’s just a tough-minded person… The stars have aligned a little bit,” he said. “Even if she doesn’t win she’s put up a hell of a race.”
Stephanie Sharp, a Johnson County-based Republican consultant, pointed to the fact that Davids has never held elected office as a reason for skepticism about how well she’ll represent the district.
“They plucked her out of obscurity,” Sharp said. “And she checked all their boxes and they put her up for Congress.”
On the day early voting started in Johnson County, Davids faced a mini blue wave, a group of more than 100 people, mostly women, supporting the Democrat.
When she spoke to the crowd, she spoke of wanting to see change, a Congress that’s working, access to affordable healthcare, protecting people with pre-existing conditions.
“I know so many people up to this point had never given to a campaign, had never made a phone call, had never knocked on a door,” Davids said. “And now here we are, building a community of people that are engaging all across the spectrum.”