Topeka voters elect second female mayor

“I firmly believe that when we work together, Topeka can and will prosper.” – Michelle De La Isla.

Charles Rankin

Topeka has a new mayor and her name is Michelle De La Isla.

De La Isla won this year’s mayoral election Nov. 7, defeating Spencer Duncan and becoming the city’s 53rd mayor. De La Isla will be the second woman to hold the office.

De La Isla spent time as the councilwoman for the 5th District in Topeka, a position she’s held for four years. She volunteers at Topeka Rescue Mission, helped found the local chapter of the Hermanitas mentorship program and has served as an executive director of Topeka Habitat for Humanity.

This election, candidates addressed a variety of local issues.

“It’s the usual stuff as far as city politics are concerned, [like] economic development, redeveloping downtown, doing things for various problematic neighborhoods in the city, … streets [like] always,” said Mark Peterson, professor and chair of the political science department.

Peterson says that this new generation of candidates has arisen out of a group called the “creative class,” a term coined by Richard Florida, urban studies theorist and economist. According to Florida, when a higher concentration of this group of creative minds lives in an urban area, economic development rises. This “creative class” is typically made up of people under the age of 40.

“Both candidates [focused] on that demographic,” Peterson said.

With younger generations less inclined to vote and a high population of older people in the city, Peterson said that focusing on this particular group of people was difficult.

When interviewed Nov. 6, the day before the election, Peterson wasn’t ready to offer his prediction on who would win.

“I’m pretty clueless,” Peterson said. “City elections [have] notoriously low turnout. An awful lot of times, it comes down to who you bought a drink for last night and do they have ten friends.”

The Shawnee County Elections Office recently released data that supports up Peterson’s opinion. In a press release July 31, the day before this year’s primary election, the office predicted a 12 percent turnout of registered voters.

Peterson said that Topeka will be different no matter who won this year’s election.

“We just got a new city manager,” Peterson said. “We’re about ready to hire a new police chief. We’re going to have considerable change in the city council. I guess I would say that the potential is there, but we’ve changed our form of government in recent years.”

Peterson said that Topeka’s government was changed to what he called a “mayor-weak system,” where the mayor has limited powers and a lot of the typical operations of a mayor like the city’s day-to-day operations being handed over to the city manager. 

“With these being, like they are in most places, non-partisan elections, it’s really hard for a mayor to be an aggressive political leader,” Peterson said. “You can be a wonderful spokesman for the city and you can make a good impression on VIPs, but it’s really tough to come up with a pragmatic agenda and then push it through.”