Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

De la Isla Becomes Topeka's First Hispanic Mayor

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

De la Isla Becomes Topeka's First Hispanic Mayor

Article excerpt

Michelle De La Isla, who has overcome challenges that included homelessness and teen pregnancy, on Monday became the first Hispanic mayor of Topeka.

Family members and supporters surrounded De La Isla as Municipal Court Administrative Judge Lori Dougherty-Bichsel swore her in to replace Larry Wolgast, 77, who opted not to seek re-election after serving as mayor since April 2013.

De La Isla said she had asked the others to join her at the front of council chambers to illustrate that as a leader, she can't do anything alone.

"I need all of you to work on this community," she said.

Dougherty-Bichsel then presided over swearing-in ceremonies for incumbent council members Karen Hiller, Sylvia Ortiz and Tony Emerson and incoming Councilmen Mike Padilla, Aaron Mays and Michael Lesser.

De La Isla and those six council members all defeated opponents in the Nov. 7 municipal general election.

A standing-room-only crowd was present for Monday's event, where most of those sworn in were accompanied by family members.

Ortiz was sworn in while standing beside her two grandsons.

"This is the reason why I'm here," she said. "It's for our kids."

Padilla, whose record includes having served 34 years with the Topeka Police Department, said, "This is a long, long ambition of mine."

He said he intends to continue to serve the public "until I can't do it anymore."

Padilla took over south Topeka's District 5 council seat held since April 2013 by De La Isla, 41, who won election as mayor by receiving 51.3 percent of the votes in the general election compared to 48.2 percent for her opponent, Spencer Duncan.

De La Isla was born in New York and moved as a child to Puerto Rico with her mother and brother when her mother fled for safety to live with her parents.

She talked during her campaign about how she found herself homeless by age 17 and pregnant at 19, but overcame her circumstances and earned a degree from Wichita State University.

De La Isla was executive director of Topeka Habitat for Humanity from 2010 until 2015, when she took a full-time position -- which she will continue to hold -- as diversity and inclusion representative for Westar Energy. …

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