After the U.S. House passed a landmark LGBTQ rights bill last week, Rep. Sharice Davids turned to fellow Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland and asked her to pass along a message to her daughter.
The New Mexico Democrat’s daughter is LGBTQ.
Davids, the first LGBTQ person to represent Kansas, wanted Haaland’s daughter to know how proud she was that the pair had been able to vote for the Equality Act, which will amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“And of course Deb starts crying,” Davids recalled before a crowd Wednesday at the Center for American Progress’ 2019 Ideas Conference in Washington.
“And we were hugging everybody all over the floor — on the Democratic side of the floor… And I started crying and I could feel it in my soul that we had done something that would save the lives of some young LGBTQ people.”
The Kansas Democrat acknowledged that the legislation faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Senate, but she made a passionate case for its necessity based on her own status as a resident of a state where a person can be fired or denied housing because of her sexual orientation.
“How crazy is it, how wild is it that I can be the 3rd district representative of the state of Kansas for the United States House of Representatives and if I went to get an apartment I could be turned away for no other reason than I’m part of the LGBTQ community? That is outrageous and it something that we have a chance to fix,” Davids said.
“If the Senate would do their job and vote on things, we would have more people living in this country without fear of discrimination, and imagine what that would do for a thriving economy.”
Davids’ appearance at the conference hosted by the Center for American Progress, an influential Democratic think tank run by associates of former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, highlights her status as a rising star in the eyes of party leaders.
Other prominent Democrats featured at the conference included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who have both been mentioned as potential candidates for vice president in 2020.
Davids shared the stage with Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat who has gained national attention for her sharp questioning of Trump administration officials and her rare experience as a single mother on Capitol Hill.
Porter joked about reporters wanting to see her buy groceries, but she also discussed ways in which Congress throws up hurdles for single parents and people who aren’t independently wealthy.
When she discovered her health insurance as a member of Congress wouldn’t kick in until a month after she started her term, Porter said she was told to dip into her savings or go on her spouse’s plan, which wasn’t an option because she’s divorced.
Davids pointed to the controversy surrounding lawmakers accepting paychecks during the government shutdown.
She drew a contrast between the lawmakers who “were very eager to give up something that they weren’t depending on anyway” and lawmakers who still needed their paychecks to make ends meet, who she argued were more representative of the American people as a whole.
“I can guarantee you I don’t have any friends or family members who could just say I’m not going to take my paycheck this month,” Davids said, noting that many freshmen lawmakers had to give up a steady income to run for office in the first place.
The theme of the panel was the need for lawmakers who represent a wider array of experiences.
Porter pointed to the news coverage of the record number of women in this Congress, but noted that women still only make up 20 percent of the House.
“What’s it like to serve with so many women? I’ll get back to you when I do,” she said.
Both women criticized the string of anti-abortion bills to pass in state legislatures in recent weeks and said it reflected the need for more women in public office, but Davids also applauded the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found the state constitution guarantees a right to abortion.
“I think there are a lot of people who would not have thought that Kansas would be the place that would be doing that. They also didn’t think that Kansas would elect me,” Davids said.
Davids noted the amount of times she’s stopped in the halls by security guards who don’t realize that she is a member of Congress.
“These guys all have pictures of us and there aren’t many members who look like me,” said Davids, one of only two Native American women in Congress along with Haaland.
Davids discussed her role as a conduit between the Native American community and Congress during the government shutdown when talking to reporters following her appearance on stage.
“A tribal leader reached out and told my office about a tribal member that they have that passed away because literally they didn’t have the ability to pick this person up and take them to the hospital because they couldn’t plow the roads because the government shutdown stopped the funding that they had coming to their tribal government,” Davids said.
Toward the end of Davids’ time on stage, Daniella Gibbs Léger, CAP’s vice president, asked the Kansas lawmaker if she ever doubts herself as a woman of color in a field still dominated by white men.
Davids recalled how as a student at Cornell Law School she privately fretted about the role her race may have played in her acceptance into the school and how as a new hire at the prestigious Kansas City law firm Dentons in 2010 she initially hesitated to speak up in meetings.
But after noticing how a male coworker strode into meetings with confidence, she committed herself to doing the same and speaking up in every meeting.
Davids said she continued this practice years later as a White House fellow at the Department of Transportation, explaining how she would sit down at a conference table with the agency secretary even though she wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to do that.
“I remember the number of times that I asked a question that nobody else in the room was even thinking about demonstrated to me that a Native American, a woman, an LGBTQ person, a person with an associate’s degree from a community college… It’s not that I think I’m worthy of being in the room, it’s that I absolutely have to be in the room,” Davids said.
“I have to be asking the questions because my experience and what I’m bringing to the table is valid and real.”