Emilia Sykes didn’t think she wanted to be a politician. A soul-searching answer to what she could do for her county (and neighbors) changed her mind.
Emilia Strong Sykes was adamant. Politics would not — no way, no how — be her calling. She knew its toll all too well. The burdens. The frustrations. The wear on the soul.
The fare had been paid over and over and over again for 30 years while her parents took turns serving in Ohio’s state House of Representatives. And noble as their work was, Sykes (MPH ’11, JD ’11) was determined to find another way to make her mark on the greater good.
“I watched my parents, who are the consummate public servants, dedicate their lives to serving our community,” she explains. “It’s difficult for family members to watch how the work wears on your loved ones. They worked so hard, and still do, without fanfare and going up against unsurmountable challenges.”
But in 2014 when term limits ended Vernon Sykes’ tenure in the state legislature, his daughter — then 27 and not long out of UF’s law school — nevertheless found herself picking up the baton.
It made sense. Either her father or mother, Barbara, had been representing their northeast Ohio district since 1983. The 100,000-plus people there liked having a Sykes on the ballot.
“While there were several other people who expressed interest in running for the seat, I felt they wouldn’t be able to represent the community that raised me the way it deserved to be represented,” Sykes confesses. “So I decided to run.”
Akron born and raised, Kent State taught, home nurtured to watch over neighbors — deep Ohio roots and values made her a perfect fit for the job. Other than her years in Gainesville earning advanced degrees at the University of Florida, Sykes had spent almost every minute of her life in the Buckeye state.
Voters overwhelming approved of her. That year at the ballot box, Sykes got almost 72 percent of the vote. Two years later, in 2016, her total grew to over 77 percent; more than 78 percent in 2018. And six years after first entering politics, Sykes thumped her general election opponent by 53 points.
Term limits in Ohio kick in at eight years. For Sykes — the once-reluctant legislator who is now her party’s House leader — that means she’s approaching her last months in the statehouse. She’s barely had time to look back.
“I did everything I could to not follow in their footsteps,” she says of her parents. But she’s glad she did. “It has been an incredible experience.”
A Gator in Buckeye Land
Ohio leans to the political ruby red. With just enough blue to keep things in the state’s House of Representatives colorful. That can make it tough to govern, Sykes admits.
But not impossible.
“In my first year as [minority] leader, our caucus passed more bills than Democrats had passed in the previous four years combined,” she points out. “This was certainly due to being able to find commonality with Republicans, but also not backing down from our core principles and values. We don’t always find common ground — but where we can, when we can, we take the opportunity to do so.”
Ties to the University of Florida have made her job in Ohio’s capitol a little easier.
“I learned a lot at UF — not only academically but about myself and the world,” she says. “I was able to meet incredible people and learn about different cultures that have made me a more well-rounded person and legislator.”
That’s been a good thing for Ohioans.
One of her biggest political wins, a new law protecting victims of dating violence, has a direct link to the university. In 2018, the year it became the rule of the land in Ohio, her bill was designated that term’s most important piece of legislation.
“By the time I was in the legislature, Ohio was one of only two states in the country that had not extended [civil] protections [to victims of date violence],” Sykes says. “I was able to pull from my experience at UF Law and the College of Public Health and Health Professions to pass that bill.”
Victories like that have made her a rising political star in Ohio. Even so, her affection for Florida brings a twinkle to her eye. And Gators feel the same about her. This year, Sykes was named one of UF’s “40 Gators Under 40” to watch.
“The Gator Nation is everywhere, and I’m proud to be a part of the network of scholars and professionals who have changed the world,” she says. “It’s exciting to meet alumni, especially being in Ohio, and have an instant connection with a stranger because we experienced this university.”
State of the Nation
Americans just can’t agree. Vaccine or no vaccine. Police or protesters. More guns or fewer. Walls or welcome mats. Tougher to vote or easier.
That side-glance suspicion toward each other has crept into Sykes’ life in Columbus, too — despite her being one of the most recognizable women in Ohio’s capital city.
“My age, gender and race are always an issue for me,” she says. “During my first term, capital police would give me a hard time when I tried to enter the statehouse. I was stopped, searched and questioned regularly about why I was there and even told I didn’t look like a legislator.”
The national split along political views, race and religion — and the distrust it brings — concerns Sykes.
“We have to spend more time listening, and empathizing with people who are not like us,” she says. “It’s a continuous and intentional act we all must engage in. The pandemic has made this much more difficult and pushed people further into their ideological corners, but we must resist the urge to remain in echo chambers, and be willing to learn something new and challenge our own biases.”
There’s really no option, she insists. There’s too much that needs fixing. The good news, she believes, is the list of things most Americans would be willing to work on together is long: health care … affordable housing … clean water and air … poverty … job training … food security … criminal justice reform … and on and on.
In 2022, the year her term ends, all Ohio’s statewide offices are up for grabs. So is a U.S. Senate seat. Redistricting might also open opportunities in the U.S. House.
That, however, doesn’t mean Sykes will be a candidate for any of those offices.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “The most honest answer is I want to be helpful, useful and happy in whatever role I ultimately choose. I’ve never been interested in being in elected office just to say I’m in elected office, so whatever I pick will have to at least check those three boxes.”
But, then again, it doesn’t mean she won’t be, either.
One Last Question, Please
If you could hang out for an hour with any three people (living or dead), who would they be and what’s the topic of discussion?
My grandmothers. I never had the chance to meet my paternal grandmother, Vallie Sykes. I would like to get to know her and who she was. I’ve heard beautiful stories about her and I’d like to get to know her for myself. My maternal grandmother, Nokomis Strong, was just so interesting. She died when I was in high school and I never felt I got the chance to truly appreciate how unique and interesting she was.
I’d spend the time asking them about their lives, my parents and our family. As Black women who were born and lived in the South they experienced racism and misogyny in ways I couldn’t imagine and I would love to soak up their perseverance, strength and wisdom.
Vice President Kamala Harris. She once said in regard to her position as VP, she would be the first but not the last. I’d like to hear about her story and what it’s like to be the vice president of the most powerful country in the world. I identify with her for many reasons, but as my sorority sister of Alpha Kappa Alpha and a Black woman in politics I’m sure we’d have a great conversation.