Dinah Sykes is a newly-elected state senator from Kansas. She starts her new job in January, but work never really stopped.
“I think we thought there would be a little bit of downtime in between the election and then actually being sworn in in January,” she said.
There hasn’t been.
She had orientation at the state capitol in early December. There was some training in Wichita. There have been meetings… and readings.
“A lot of reading. I had someone tell me it was like graduate school all over,” said Sykes, who didn’t attend graduate school, but her husband did and he agrees it’s similar.
Now, as the holidays approach, she’s still trying to figure out the schedule.
Before running for office she was the PTA president, a personal chef and food blogger, and always available for her kids. She and her family are adjusting.
She joked about finding time to get to the grocery store, but she’s got a lot more on her mind than just milk and bread.
“Balancing the budget, and then, of course…the finance formula for the schools. And transparency in government. That’s so important to me. People to see what’s going on It makes it more real so they get more involved,” said Sykes.
Sykes said local elections are where people should put their focus.
“When you get to vote for the first time, the presidential election is what we talk about. But I think if we kind of changed our mindset and realized it’s our school board, it’s our city council, it’s our mayor, it’s our state representatives and senators, those people actually have more of an impact on our day to day lives than the president,” she said.
She’s met a lot of people in the past couple of years. But those who’ve known her for a long time are surprised by her new job.
“I was really shy," recalled Sykes. "My dad went to the dermatologist the other day and told him that I won. And he stopped what he was doing and was like ‘Really? Dinah? She was so quiet!’ My parents, they taught me if you see an injustice, don't just sit on the sidelines."
Dinah Sykes at her graduation (Photo: Dinah Sykes).
Sykes wears her emotions on her sleeve and says she really doesn’t have a choice about this, it’s who she is.
She got emotional discussing her passion for the job.
“I hope people look back on my first session and say, she asked questions," Sykes said fighting back tears. "I honestly hope that people will say, she looked at both sides, she didn't come in with her decision made. She let the process work. And at the end of the day weighing both sides and voting what you think is the best for Kansas.”
She also has a message for anyone considering politics, including shy kids like her.
“I think it's okay to be shy,” she said through long pauses and tears, “but at the end of the day, doing in your heart what you know is the right thing - regardless if it's in the classroom with a kid being bullied or something bigger - you don't have to be the most outgoing or popular, you can make a difference."
Sykes never dreamed of running for office.
Dinah Sykes and her family pictured in the Kansas Senate chamber. (Photo: Dinah Sykes)
She was a stay-at-home mom who had a small personal chef business and a blog. She says it was a growing frustration about the school budget and a lack of response from her then-legislators that made her decide to run.
She wants to make sure she remains approachable and reachable.
“I'm excited. Also, nervous. The decisions that we make will affect the lives of kansans all over the state. It's our job to do our due diligence, research things, debate them. I think that's one of the problems that we've had is there's been a lack of debate and we've got to make sure the process works,” said Sykes.
She hopes to be a bridge builder in Topeka, and thinks she can find common ground with anyone.
Her advice for anyone who’ll listen is simple: “Never think you have all the answers. Be humble. And realize you can’t do it on your own.”
The Kansas legislative session begins the second Monday in January.
Christa Dubill can be reached at Christa.Dubill@kshb.com.