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'You don't look like a legislator': Security stops black, female lawmaker going to work in Ohio

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/3/2018 Jessie Balmert

State Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron © Provided State Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron COLUMBUS – State Rep. Emilia Sykes was walking to work in the Ohio Statehouse last year with a fellow lawmaker when she was stopped by security. Officers needed to search her bag, she was told.

Sykes is serving her third year as a Democratic state representative from Akron. She is also a 32-year-old black woman. Her colleague, who was not searched, is a 65-year-old white man who has served in the Legislature for many years. 

Sykes said she questioned why her bag needed to be searched when that wasn't protocol. Lawmakers only need a badge to gain access to the Statehouse or the nearby Riffe Center, which houses many lawmakers' offices.

Her colleague told the trooper Sykes was a member of the Ohio House. 

She was told: "You don't look like a legislator." The trooper then clarified: "You look too young."

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On Wednesday, Sykes had trouble getting into the Riffe Center for a meeting. She flashed her badge for security there. Security said they couldn't see the badge. She flipped it around. They still couldn't see it. She was stopped, and officers examined the badge, Sykes recalled the next day.   

In both scenarios, Sykes eventually was able to get into the buildings and go to work. But not every lawmaker faces the same scrutiny, Sykes said.

"It’s just hard to find out what is the security rule," Sykes said. "They seem to be a moving target for different people." 

Sykes said she initially reported her concerns to then-Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and the House's sergeant at arms. Rosenberger, who is under investigation by the FBI, resigned last month.

On Thursday, House spokesman Brad Miller said the interim speaker would follow up with Sykes and the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, which oversees Riffe Center security. The incidents would be "taken very seriously," Miller said.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol, which oversees Statehouse security, scheduled a meeting with Sykes for Friday. The Ohio Department of Administrative Services was not scheduled to join the meeting. 

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Sykes is not alone. In another instance, Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Roselawn, said she once forgot her badge in her office. An aide ran the badge down to her, but security still questioned whether the badge belonged to Reece – even though her photo was on it. 

Reece, who has been a state legislator since 2010 and previously led the Ohio Black Legislative Caucus, said the goal of increasing security in government buildings was to keep people safe – not to lock out state lawmakers. She suspects the problems have been worse recently because added security guards are less familiar with members of the Ohio House. 

"I’m hopeful that these are isolated incidents that can be corrected and never happen again," Reece said. 

Still, Sykes said she worries about how citizens are treated when they come to meet with lawmakers or visit the Ohio Statehouse. Security is very important, but so is treating visitors equally, Sykes said. Whom to search is a discretionary choice. 

"Whenever there’s discretion, people like me get stopped," Sykes said. 

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Follow Jessie Balmert on Twitter: @jbalmert

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