The 2010 graduate of Cornell Law School returned home to the Kansas City, Kan., area and clocked two years as an associate at Dentons, focusing on mergers and acquisitions at one of the world’s largest law firms. Then she “felt called” to use her skills differently.
But when Sharice Davids traveled to South Dakota to work with an Indian reservation on community and economic development, she was “kind of couch-surfing for a while,” she recalled in an interview with The Washington Post. Because lodging was sparse, there was “a great benefit for employees” that helped provide housing.
The hitch? Davids wasn’t eligible.
“I wasn’t able to get housing with my partner at the time because we were in a same-sex relationship,” she said. “We violated their policies.”
It wasn’t until half a century after the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act that federal rules were construed — at least by one federal judge in Denver — to protect people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many states have done this on their own, but South Dakota is not one of them.
Neither, Davids emphasized, is Kansas, where last week she became a Democratic nominee for Congress. If elected in November, she would be the first gay Native American to claim a seat in the Capitol’s chambers. She would also become the first openly gay person to represent Kansas in federal office and possibly one of the first two Native American women to enter Congress. Deb Haaland, a Democratic nominee in New Mexico, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe; Davids is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin.
The history-making potential of Davids’s candidacy is not the focal point of her pitch to voters. After all, this is Kansas, where only a slim majority of people said they supported same-sex marriage in polling conducted last year.
“I definitely think there are quite a few people who are excited about that, but the thing I hear more often is that people are excited about electing someone who just has a shared experience,” Davids, 38, said, still basking in her victory in last week’s six-way primary.
The results set her up against Rep. Kevin Yoder, a vulnerable Republican incumbent in a suburban Kansas City district that Hillary Clinton won by a single percentage point in 2016. Davids said she received congratulatory phone calls from Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey — both considered possible presidential contenders in 2020.
Enumerating the experiences she shares with Kansans, Davids described being raised by a single mother, being first in her family to attend university, starting out at community college and having to work while in school, whether as a carhop at a Sonic Drive-In or as a bartender at a Marriott.
At first, she didn’t even note her sexual orientation — the reason, said Brett Hoedl, chairman of the Kansas City Metro chapter of Equality Kansas, that so many gay voters placed their trust in her.
“It’s one thing to fight for someone else’s rights versus having someone who has experienced discrimination or experienced the issues that the LGBT community has faced,” Hoedl said. This desire, to have someone of your identity representing you, is driving a surge of gay candidates seeking office this year, just as it’s driving a surge of female and Muslim candidates, he said. “When you look at the rhetoric coming out of this administration, and some of the policies getting rolled back,” he said, “there’s a need to actually have these folks in office.”
When asked whether she had faced discrimination as a lesbian, Davids paused, and then acknowledged that, yes, she had, describing her struggle to find housing in South Dakota.
“That’s an interesting question, partly because sometimes when things happen, you don’t always see it,” she said, suggesting that she had grown accustomed to many low-level offenses.
The experience on the reservation, where she learned about barriers to implementing federal policy, made her want to apply to be a White House fellow, a prestigious leadership and public service program. So, too, did it shape her electoral aspirations, especially because she was listening around the same time to a tape of the book “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t,” which narrates the making of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, parts of which have been repealed under the Trump administration. The part of the book that recounts how so-called career politicians came to be so prevalent in Congress, she said, convinced her that she should run for office one day.
“I thought, ‘we need more people who have experiences like I do, like my friends and family do,’” she said. Her mother, who works at the post office after a long career in the military, still lives in the district, as do her two younger brothers.
At the beginning of the year, when Davids looked at the slate of candidates vying to take on Yoder — a fellow attorney who was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 2002, the same year he earned his law degree — she wasn’t satisfied, she said. There was no woman in the race, for one. “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘who is a strong woman who could get into this race?’ I felt like since I was asking the question, I should be part of the solution.”
But her time in South Dakota also made her see how personal state and federal policy could be — how her identity could affect her access to basic necessities, such as housing. The experience didn’t just make her want to seek office; it shapes the very way she would do her job if she wins, she said, giving her a different perspective on workplace and housing protections for LGBT people.
“Part of what we should be thinking about, whenever legislation is passed, is, ‘how does this affect all varieties of communities?’” she said. “When there are more voices at the table and people with different experiences, we will be better equipped to figure out who hasn’t been part of this conversation.”
Her Republican opponent has questioned her ability to understand one very large community — Kansas. At his primary-night celebration, Yoder said of Davids and her main rival — Brent Welder, endorsed by liberal firebrands Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — that his two potential opponents “don’t know Kansas.”
“They don’t know our values,” he said before the final vote tally, also noting that neither was “from around here.”
The Democrat’s supporters have called the remarks a dog whistle to anti-LGBT voters. Davids, acknowledging that the comment has been on her mind over the past week, said only that her values — “I’ve built my campaign around the idea of being inclusive and listening” — are the state’s values, too.
The Kansas City Star condemned the remarks in an editorial. “He could not have been knocking the work ethic of a woman who worked her way through college and law school,” wrote the paper, which endorsed Davids in the primary. “We hope he wasn’t talking about the fact that she would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress and the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas.”
Of the incumbent’s observation that his opponent wasn’t “from around here,” the Kansas City Star fired back, “As a Native American, oh yes, Davids is very much from here.”
In a statement to The Post, a spokesman for Yoder didn’t clarify his remarks about values but elaborated on some of the four-term congressman’s disagreements with Davids.
“Kevin’s opponent supports abolishing ICE, kicking 178 million Americans off private health insurance and forcing them onto a government-run system, and passing the largest tax increase in modern American history to pay for it,” the spokesman, CJ Grover, said. “She’d be a reliable vote for [Democratic Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi in the House, and that’s why the DCCC is already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support her. She’s clearly out of touch with what mainstream voters in KS-3 want in Congress.”
In a question-and-answer session with the Star, Davids declined to join calls for the elimination of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and wasn’t specific about whether she would support Pelosi for speaker if the Democrats win control of the House. She did praise the 78-year-old Democratic leader for “tremendous leadership.” She also distanced herself from the “Medicare for all” proposal issued by Sanders, saying it was a “good slogan” that shouldn’t get in the way of more immediate solutions. Overall, her policy prescriptions are not terribly specific.
If the initial volley is any indication, the race could be fierce.
But Davids is stepping back from a favorite pastime that might have prepared her for a brawl. She is a professional mixed martial arts fighter, a pursuit that began with her childhood obsession with the actor Bruce Lee.
To avoid an injury during the campaign, Davids said, she is abstaining from the high-intensity activity. Well, mostly.
“I mean, I hit a bag every now and then,” she said.