Politics & Government

Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, thrust into Pelosi and AOC fight, downplays controversy

Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids has carefully avoided engaging in the daily controversies in Congress during her first seven months in office, preferring instead to talk about the future of Highway 69, aviation regulations and funding for flood safety.

A freshman who flipped a suburban Kansas City seat last fall, Davids succeeded in navigating around the conflicts on Capitol Hill until this past weekend, when she was thrust into the center of a social media fight between her party’s progressive wing and Democratic leaders.

The internecine war, brewing for months, broke out more than a week ago when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, made dismissive comments about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and other outspoken progressive freshmen, known on Capitol Hill as “The Squad,” in an interview with The New York Times.

Pelosi said, in essence, that their millions of Twitter followers meant little when it came to wielding influence in the House.

The comments dealt with last month’s bipartisan passage of a $4.6 billion border security bill, which was opposed by The Squad and other progressives because it lacked many of the accountability measures Democrats initially sought.

Davids voted for the measure, saying that while she would have preferred stronger accountability, “getting aid to the children and families at the border must be our priority right now.”

Ocasio-Cortez responded to Pelosi’s comments in The Times by accusing the speaker of routinely singling out women of color in the Democratic caucus.

Davids was drawn into the fray this weekend when House Democrats’ official Twitter account attacked Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff for a two-week old tweet that criticized Davids’ vote.

“I don’t believe Sharice is a racist person, but her votes are showing her to enable a racist system,” Saikat Chakrabarti, said in June as part of a larger thread criticizing Democrats who had supported the border bill.

On Friday night, the Democrats’ official Twitter account called out Chakrabarti for the tweet and told him to keep Davids’ name out of his mouth.

“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color? Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice. She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue,” the House Democrats’ tweet said.

It was a remarkable message from the caucus’ official Twitter feed, not just for its attack on a staff member but as stark evidence of deepening divisions between the party’s more progressive wings and centrists who flipped seats in the Midwest and South to win control of the House.

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, tore into Chakrabarti Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“I think the thing that really set me off this week was them going after Sharice Davids. This is the first Native American woman elected to Congress. She is the second openly lesbian member of Congress in history. She represents Kansas from district that has been held by Republicans cycle after cycle after cycle,” McCaskill said. “She took out an incumbent Republican congressman. The notion that they’re going after her, what the hell are they thinking?”

Chakrabarti has been adamant that his tweet was taken out of context and that he was not targeting Davids.

“This tweet was in response to someone else’s tweet where they specifically brought up Rep. Davids. Why did you leave that out?” he responded to the House Democrats’ Twitter. “I’ve known Rep. Davids for a long time, consider her a friend, and encouraged her to run for Congress back in the fall of 2016. I’m glad she did.”

Chakrabarti is a co-founder of Justice Democrats, a progressive group that had backed Davids’ primary opponent Brent Welder in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for Welder. This tweet prompted a fundraising email by the Kansas Republican Party, which falsely claimed Davids had been recruited to run by Ocasio-Cortez even though the New York Democrat had backed her opponent.

The controversy generated national headlines and dominated discussion on Sunday news shows, putting Davids in the middle of a fight the mixed-martial arts fighter had been keeping at arm’s length.

She spent the weekend focused on her local legislative priorities, avoiding mention of the tweets at a Saturday event in Johnson County that dealt with Highway 69 expansion. Her spokeswoman issued a statement that glossed over the controversy.

“Representative Davids’ complete focus is on serving the people of Kansas’ Third District and that is where it will remain. That’s why she spent the weekend in Kansas with fellow Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members advocating for the infrastructure needs of our region, like expanding U.S. 69,” said spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw.

It’s not the first time that party leaders have pointed to Davids, one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, as a counterexample to the more outspoken freshmen from left-leaning districts.

“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,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Star earlier this year.

Davids has distinguished herself as a consensus-builder and won the praise of leadership during her first seven months in office. The presence of Transportation and Infrastructure chair Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, at the weekend event is indicative of Davids’ growing clout with party leaders.

Ocasio-Cortez and Davids are both young women of color who entered their races in 2018 as relative unknowns but went onto defeat well-established incumbents. But Ocasio-Cortez defeated a Democrat in a solidly Democratic district, while Davids unseated a Republican in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Cognizant of her district’s moderate leaning, Davids has resisted backing some of the progressive policy goals championed by Ocasio-Cortez, such as the “Green New Deal” and “Medicare-for-all.”

Davids’ former primary rival Welder weighed in on Twitter Monday night with a post criticizing the congresswoman for shying away from progressive policy goals. Welder said if he had won he would have co-sponsored “Medicare-for-all” and a $15 an hour minimum wage.

“I would be rejecting corporate PAC money, as I did during the campaign. And I would have voted against funding for Donald Trump’s concentration camps,” Welder said without directly mentioning Davids by name.

By Sunday, the internal battle between Democrats on race mostly subsided after President Donald Trump launched a racist attack on the same progressive congresswomen that Pelosi had feuded with during the previous week.

“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump said on Twitter despite the fact that three out of the four members of “The Squad” were born in the United States. He added that he was “sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders immediately condemned Trump’s tweets, but after more than a week of internal strife the question remains whether the competing wings of the party can unite in the face of the president’s attacks.

Kaitlyn Schwers contributed to this report from Overland Park.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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Kaitlyn Schwers covers breaking news and crime at night for The Kansas City Star. Originally from Willard, Mo., she spent nearly three years reporting in Arkansas and Illinois before returning to Missouri and joining The Star in 2017.