Ohio2006 Blog

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Tuesday, September 5

Ohio House 44th: Talking About Life, Leadership, and Politics with Dr. Vernon Sykes (D)

It was an honor to sit down with veteran legislator and distinguished professor Vernon Sykes (D-Akron) a few weeks ago at Angel Falls Coffee in Akron. Sykes has a bachelors degree in business administration from Ohio University, a masters degree in social and applied economics from Wright State University, a masters degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a doctoral degree in urban studies and public administration from the University of Akron. He has been Secretary of the Ohio Democratic Party and President of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. He served five years in Summit government, three years as a member of the Akron City Council, and eighteen years as the state representative for the 44th House District before stepping down in 2000 and devoting himself full-time to academia.

Sykes left the legislature due to term limits, but he “has no gripes” about it. He supported term limits because the “good old boys had stayed in positions of power for so long” that “we needed dynamite to get them out." Legislative positions had become "personal," with long-time legislators speaking of "my committee" and "my district" as though they owned them. "When there are not enough checks and balances,” Sykes said, “it’s a problem, whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in control."

With his long tenure in the General Assembly, Sykes has experienced being in the majority and in the minority. He has served on powerful committees (including among many Financial Institutions, Housing and Public Lands, Education, and Energy and Environment) and had important leadership roles (including Assistant Majority Floor Leader and chairmanship of three committees). All the time he was in the legislature he also taught college students, first at Wayne College and later at the University of Akron. Having eight years “notice” of his impending departure from the legislature increased Sykes’ interest in higher education. His last two years he switched from part-time to full-time teaching, thinking that “this is what I am hungry to do.” He had been working on his Ph.D degree while still in the legislature and finished it six months after leaving. He commented to me that pursuing advanced degrees was about improving his “electability” as well as his performance as a legislator and teacher. “Particularly as a black male,” he said, it is important for him to “seek credentials in order to be competitive.”

After he left the legislature, Sykes learned that Kent State University wanted to hire someone with a Ph.D. and an interest in state government, which describes him perfectly. It was for a non-tenure track position, but having been a representative who faced re-election every two years means that not having tenure never worried Sykes. He became Director of the Columbus Program in Intergovernmental Issues, a partnership between the Kent State University Alumni Assocation and Department of Political Science. In this unique program, Sykes takes a group of 27 students to Columbus every fall semester to live and work as interns. (As described in the official brochure, “interns study practical aspects of public policy-making firsthand, have the opportunity to establish career-long professional contacts and gain valuable pre-career knowledge and skills.” Or, as a colleague of Sykes at Kent State said to me recently, “They all wind up getting jobs. It’s amazing!”) The interns are students of all majors, and Sykes places them according to their interests, e.g., a pre-law student in a law firm, an accounting student in the state auditor’s office, or a journalism student in a press office. Sykes is especially pleased that the program includes students outside the political science department. “Government affects us all,” Sykes said, “particularly state government.” For example, state government “regulates your profession.” This is particularly true because of the recent devolution of federal programs to the state level. Sykes hopes to continue to run the program while in the legislature, and he feels that academia and legislating are sufficiently flexible for him to do this.

Asked about the issues on the minds of voters in his district, Sykes said that citizen participation, particularly voting, is a “very central issue.” Voters are “frustrated with corruption and excited about a real chance for change.” The Republicans have “done a disservice to voters on the voting process itself,” and many people “are reluctant to vote because there are problems with the voting machines.” Also, “people are afraid to register voters because the new voter registration card talks about felony criminal charges.” Sykes also charged the Republicans with using polling place challengers to disrupt elections and suppress the vote. He recalls standing in line to vote and watching a Republican challenger who sat in a chair reading a book, but stood to challenge every fifth voter in line. This had the effect of slowing the process down and making everyone nervous.

Part of the reason that Sykes is now returning to politics is that “this year feels very different from past years.” When he left the legislature, the Democrats were “totally out of control or influence.” Also, Sykes is a “strong Democrat,” so the Republicans weren’t going to help him or work with him. In addition, there was the corruption that flowed from one-party rule. Recently, the Democrats have “started to think a lot better.” Under new leadership, the Democrats have put together a “Dream Team” ticket. “Every person has substantial experience, except Ted Strickland, and he has other strengths." (For example, Strickland “has a following in about five counties where Democrats usually struggle.”) Sykes saw a “Democratic revolution” coming, and the “best place to be in a revolution is to be an officer in the field,” in order to have “some influence over the battle, some influence over the spoils.” Sykes said, “with my experience and credentials, I believe I can make a meaningful contribution to state government.”

Another reason for Sykes wanting to run this year is the excitement generated by running at the same time that spouse State Rep. Barbara Sykes (D-Akron), who succeeded him in the 44th District, is running for state auditor. Historically, turnout in urban black districts is very low, but in the primary in the 44th District turnout was greater than the surrounding districts in both percentage and absolute numbers. This has to do with Vernon and Barbara Sykes being on the ballot as a “strong team,” which "has not been the case for a long time." Having them both on the ballot is contributing to energy, excitement, and trust among urban black voters.

We talked about the difficult matter of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where a white candidate (Ted Stickland) picked up early widespread support and a highly-regarded African-American candidate (Columbus mayor Michael Coleman) dropped out. However, Sykes said, the purpose of the party is to win. The Ohio Democratic Party decided that Strickland was the best overall threat to take back the governor’s mansion. Coleman was perhaps the better candidate, Sykes said, but the party decided “not this time.” Sykes believes in the party’s goal of taking its best shot, but still it is hard for him to be told again to wait on having a black candidate.

The Democratic party is doing very well with Rep. Chris Redfern (D-Catawba Island) as Chairman, Sykes said, noting as positive factors that Redfern is from the Ohio House of Representatives and that he is reaching out to Democrats all over the state. Sykes is not deterred by the prospect of serving in the minority party in the legislature again, due to the strong likelihood that Democrats will control the governor’s office and other statewide executive positions. “The other party is going to have to work with us,” he said, especially since “a significant number of policies will be coming out of a Democratic executive office.” For example, the Secretary of State formulates the policies and hires the people who determine whether voters experience fair elections. “State government is going to be driven by policies directed by a Democratic administration.”

Sykes is frustrated, however, that social service agencies that are basically controlled by Democrats are not engaged in the battle as far as increasing voter participation. "It is not partisan," he said, but the agencies should be facilitating voter registration and getting voters to the polls. Without strong voter turnout among his constituents, Sykes is hampered in dealing with other legislators. For example, Sykes can’t persuade a rural legislator whose voters elected him to cut programs not to do just that, when Sykes is not backed by the political power of strong voter turnout. Sykes pointed out that people fail to vote for three basic reasons: they can’t, it is inconvenient, or there is simply no one to tell them to vote. Voting should be part of one’s social responsibility, but people don’t think voting is an important thing to do. However, people have respect for the persons “behind the desk” at a social service agency. If such persons helped instill a sense of responsibility about voting, more people would go to the polls. In support, Sykes described a study he conducted that showed that sending voter registration forms out with housing inspectors when they do inspections in public housing is more effective at increasing voter participation than simply mailing the forms, or requesting that voting be discussed at tenant council meetings.

Sykes was involved in the “revolution” of 1982, when the Democrats made big gains up and down the ticket on the strength of record voter turnout. Sherrod Brown ran a “great campaign” for Secretary of State, energizing young people, and gubernatorial candidate Richard Celeste worked closely with the black community that year. More blacks were appointed to government posts after the 1982 election than ever before. After Democrats took over, however, they began to forget their base, and to forget that large turnout was the reason for their success. The chairman of Celeste’s second gubernatorial campaign fought with black leadership over campaign budget issues, and things deteriorated from there. Over time, Democrats became obsessed with consultants and TV time and forgot about grassroots organization. “It’s been a tragedy, but there’s hope for another revolution.”

2 Comments:

At 3:08 PM, Blogger Tim Ferris said...

Sammy, thanks. I've run into Vernon a few times lately, traveling the campaign rounds with his wife, and I didn't want to ask too many question or be too pushy, but I did want to find out about who he was and what he was up to. You've helped me along here, and I appreciate it.

 
At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to me "Dr." and Mrs. Sykes have been in control too long. Read between the lines, it is the same ol' same ol'; keep the welfare lines open, keep the taxes up and don't bring any fresh thought process to the democratic party. On top of this, a DUI for the candidate this past summer. Not someone I want representing me and my children. al s.

 

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