Can This Millennial Power Broker Lead an Ohio Comeback for Democrats? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Ohio could be in play for Democrats in November, with her help.

By Nick Fouriezos

  • Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes is the most pivotal Democrat in a surprising swing state.
  • The 34-year-old’s willingness to strike deals and throw sharp political elbows is reminiscent of the rise of Stacey Abrams in Georgia.

Dancing may not seem to have much in common with politics. But for Emilia Sykes, who grew up doing gymnastics and ballet, it was her introduction to the stage. It was where she learned to present herself with confidence, intelligence, creativity and most importantly: the ability to be flexible and adjust on the fly.

Those skills have become crucial for Sykes, as the 34-year-old faces circumstances she never could have imagined while becoming the Democratic minority leader in the Ohio Statehouse last year — and now the most pivotal Democrat in a surprising swing state. The Akron native isn’t just dealing with the pandemic, nor the deaths and massive job losses that followed. She is also facing a shocking upheaval, as her major rival in the Statehouse, Republican Speaker Larry Householder, was arrested (along with three others) in a $60 million bribery scandal that has shaken Ohio to its core. “I could not have imagined this,” Sykes says.

By which she means the turmoil of having four speakers in four years — two of whom left office in disgrace — in a Statehouse where Republicans hold a veto-proof supermajority. “It’s just gotten worse and worse,” Sykes says.

The only way Republicans win is if they cheat.

Emilia Sykes

And yet, that drama gives Sykes a wedge into seizing power for both state Democrats and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Many political strategists had counted out Ohio, a perennial swing state, after Trump won there by eight percentage points in 2016. But polls taken since the scandal broke July 21 have put Biden well within the margin of error against Trump. Although scant polling is available for state legislative races, it’s reasonable to assume down-ballot races will follow the top of the ticket … which could allow Democrats to break the Republican supermajority, if not win a majority of their own.

The bribery scandal “makes our races far more competitive,” Sykes says, adding that it will be used as part of a broader narrative of Republican malfeasance. “The only way Republicans win is if they cheat,” she says. “And as we tell that story in our legislative races, it will resonate in the presidential race too.”

Sykes’ task is not just beating the Republicans but also uniting a Democratic Party fractured between moderates and more left-leaning progressives. And in that vein, she is following a path similar to Stacey Abrams, another African American woman who became a statehouse minority leader while in her 30s and has worked to make another red state, Georgia, competitive.

Like Abrams, Sykes has a reputation for being able to get difficult legislation through despite not being in power. Her first major accomplishment was House Bill 1, which helps victims of dating violence obtain civil protective orders against their assailants — an issue Sykes first became aware of working at a legal clinic while earning a law degree and public health master’s at the University of Florida. Also like Abrams, Sykes has learned by necessity how to strike deals with Republicans when the time is right, earning her bipartisan praise across the aisle. “Anybody who wants to accomplish things in a bipartisan nature should be eager to work with her,” says Micah Derry, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

Of course, some of those bargains have proven controversial. While she didn’t vote for the nuclear bailout bill at the heart of the Householder bribery scandal, 10 Democrats, more than a quarter of her caucus, did. And Householder, who now faces 162 charges of campaign finance violations, could not have risen to power without her. Sykes rose to the minority leader post after just four years in office as one of four new members of Democratic leadership who had backed Householder’s ascension. Householder’s narrow 52-46 win over incumbent Republican Ryan Smith to become speaker relied on winning the vast majority of the minority Democratic legislators, while Smith held on to more Republicans.

In exchange for her support, Sykes got a number of concessions: a promise from Householder to select Democratic co-chairs of certain subcommittees and allow Democrats to offer amendments, plus a pledge not to pass anti-union legislation. “As members of the super minority, we weren’t even told when we had sessions,” Sykes says, arguing that she worked with Householder because it allowed Democrats to get a seat at the table (Smith was unwilling to reach out at all, she says). And as far as the bribery scandal? “We will not be held responsible for the actions of four indicted people who decided to pervert the legislative process for their own personal gain.”

It’s a delicate dance, sidestepping blame for the Householder scandal, hitting Republicans for their own controversies and also staging the type of insurgency required to help Biden win Ohio. Sykes has also faced other distinct challenges as a woman of color, from death threats against her father to having security guards stop her from entering the state Capitol because she “doesn’t look like a legislator,” among other affronts. Luckily for her, she doesn’t have to look far for sage political advice — her parents, Barbara and Vernon Sykes, each held her seat before she took it in 2015, meaning that Ohio’s 34th district has been represented by her family for nearly four decades. Given her own rapid rise and position in leadership, Sykes has thrust herself into consideration as a future governor or Senate candidate for the Democrats.

Representing the same Akron district that gave birth to NBA superstars LeBron James and Stephen Curry, the stylistic Sykes likes to tell people she is from “the birthplace of champions.” And if she stages a Democratic coup in November, she may very well be able to count herself among their ranks.

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