Steve Rose

Rep. Sharice Davids is a hit in Washington. But how’s she doing back home in Kansas?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, second from right, on Jan. 3, 2019.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, second from right, on Jan. 3, 2019. The Associated Press

The newly-minted congresswoman from Kansas’ 3rd District has made a big splash in Washington, becoming an overnight sensation. But back home, at least so far, there has not been much of a ripple.

The contrast is understandable, but it needs to be addressed. And apparently, efforts are already in progress.

In part because of her unique profile as a lesbian Native American Democrat, representing what is usually thought of as a predictably traditional Republican district, Sharice Davids has attracted an immense amount of media coverage. She has become one of the most prominent new Democratic members of Congress.

Even Rachel Maddow, host of a popular MSNBC news program, devoted a whole segment to an interview with Davids. In that environment and amid those demands, it’s understandable that Davids might not have given as much thought to the folks back in her district as her constituents might have expected.

I was surprised to learn last week that Davids had not yet contacted Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert for a private meeting. It has been more than two months since the Nov. 6 election, and that meeting should have taken place immediately after her victory.

But I must give credit now to Davids for her responsiveness. On Thursday, when I asked Davids’ chief of staff for a comment from the congresswoman on this lapse, Eilert received a call from Davids’ staff within half an hour, and a meeting was promptly scheduled.

A similar scenario played out with Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach, who had originally been told he would be part of a group of mayors meeting with the congresswoman. That now has been remedied, and the mayor of the district’s largest city will have a one-on-one meeting, in addition to attending the group meeting.

Davids eventually will meet with each mayor individually, her staff says.

To be sure, Davids ran for this office, not primarily on local issues, but on a promise to challenge the national agenda of President Donald Trump and a majority of Republicans in Congress. How Davids plans to vote and lead in Washington were key to her huge upset victory over an entrenched Republican incumbent, former Rep. Kevin Yoder.

Voters sought a new approach to such issues as health care, immigration, income inequality and so many other crucial challenges of our time that Davids campaigned on. If the key to victory had been centered on the 3rd District, Davids probably would have lost to her Republican opponent in a landslide. Yoder knew his district inside and out. Davids does not, and it will take time for her to get to know the constituents and political landscape intimately.

Both Johnson and Wyandotte counties, which make up nearly all of her district, have needs that Davids could help address. She may have more clout than the average freshman in Congress, given her high profile. And that often translates into securing federal funds.

For example, Davids should focus intensely on one of the most important issues facing Johnson County. That is the urgent need to widen the four-lane U.S. 69 highway south of I-435, similar to the six lanes north of I-435. This will require hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds, which hopefully Davids — along with our two Kansas U.S. senators — can help secure. There is no glory that comes with this part of the job. But it is essential.

That’s the kind of issue Davids can learn about only by listening closely to community leaders and her constituents. Davids, as an attorney with an Ivy League law degree, knows that research is required to better grasp complicated issues.

Davids is making a good start now that she plans to meet with Eilert and Gerlach. Next should be a meeting with Eilert’s counterpart in Wyandotte County. It is just as important to meet one-on-one with the influential leaders in her district as it was to sit down with television news celebrity Rachel Maddow.