A New State Legislator: Maria Syms MC/MPA 2014

May 25, 2017

Arizona state representative and attorney Maria Syms MC/MPA 2014 was in the midst of state budget negotiations—an intense process, given that the Arizona House meets for only about 100 days each year—when she was interviewed by Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) this spring.

“This morning, I walked around the Capitol to see if I could get others on board with my ideas,” she says. Building coalitions is something she learned in her negotiations class with Brian Mandell at HKS. “I had thought I wouldn’t need to take this class—after all, I’m a lawyer, of course I know how to negotiate!,” she said to herself. But it turned out to be one of her favorite courses. “I learned about building coalitions before laying out a plan, to ensure that people are on board.”

These skills are serving Syms well as she adjusts to her new role in the Arizona state legislature, to which she was elected in November 2016. She formerly served as a councilwoman and planning commissioner for Paradise Valley, her hometown of 15 years, where she lives with her husband and three children. A lawyer who had previously worked in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice, and private practice, Syms focuses on improving public safety, reducing governmental regulation, and helping Arizona’s most vulnerable people, among other issues. As a mom, she is dedicated to improving the quality of education for all Arizona children by advocating for an increase in school funding.

Syms grew up on Long Island, where her Italian immigrant father owned a barbershop. This gave her a front-row seat to the challenges and opportunities that come with owning a small business. “I saw firsthand how taxation, regulation, and litigation can crush a small business,” she says. Her party affiliation—Republican—is rooted in her upbringing. “My father believed in hard work, self-determination, and community values.”

She says that while the Kennedy School may have a liberal reputation, this didn’t stop her from engaging in constructive dialogue with her fellow students.  “My classmates were very respectful of me and I of them. It was a great example of what our political dialog should be.”

Now, Syms is working to improve the lives of people in Arizona. In recent days, Syms’ first piece of legislation established mandatory testing of rape kits to cure a state backlog of more than 6,000 kits.  The legislation sets forth standards and time limits for the processing of rape kits. It was signed by Governor Doug Ducey in March. As the first bill proposed by a freshman representative to become law during the current session, the legislation draws on her work in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. “I’m so proud of this law because it gives dignity and justice to women and victims,” says Syms. She also sponsored another bill that became law, on helping veterans transition from active service to civilian life.

“My class at HKS included many service members, and I learned a lot about the challenges they faced and the choices they made after leaving service or having been in combat,” she says. “It’s made me very aware of the need to respect and help these folks as much as we can.”

Syms says that studying full-time at HKS and being a wife and mother were challenging, but she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “When I received the email saying I was admitted to Harvard Kennedy School, my immediate reaction was panic. I wondered how I could do it all. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband and family. It was eight months of difficult plane rides, but the kids and my husband came with me for part of the time—and I even took them on an HKS trek to Asia.”

She says the mid-career program at the Kennedy School is beneficial for people who want to improve their skillset and take their abilities to the next level. “The bonus is that it gives you a global perspective—I met people from all over the world and learned which policies worked in other countries, cities, and states. And now I’m bringing those ideas back home to Arizona and implementing them for positive change.”

Maria Syms

Representative Maria Syms meets with constituents in Phoenix to get their feedback on the legislative session.


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