Maria Syms: From zoning commissioner to legislating on behalf of crime victims

March 20, 2017
Arizona Capitol Times
Hank Stephenson

As an attorney, a former assistant Arizona attorney general and former United States attorney, Republican Rep. Maria Syms is attempting to bring her background in law enforcement and empathy for victims to the state House.

The freshman lawmaker from Paradise Valley, where she was a member of the Town Council, said she’s held the hand of a rancher whose husband was killed along the border, allegedly by a member of a drug cartel, and understands lingering pain that follows victims of crime and their families.

Syms said she’s always been interested in victims’ rights, and notes that the U.S. Constitution has myriad protections for the accused and the convicted, but never mentions victims of crimes or their rights.

As a freshman lawmaker serving on the House Judiciary Committee, she wants to ensure the state treats victims with respect and dignity.

Before you ran for the Legislature you were a Town Council member in Paradise Valley, but you got your start as a candidate for mayor. What made you want to run for political office? Is that something you always were interested in?

And before that I was on the Planning Commission. That was an appointed position by the council and I had been appointed for three terms unanimously. So I had been in town government for quite some time. It was a great way for me to make a positive contribution to our community while raising our children, who were very young. And it was a very important time in Paradise Valley, the voters decided to have the first direct election of mayor. At that time I was the chair of the Planning Commission, and some leaders in the town said you have a lot of great ideas on how to lead our town and we encourage you to run. So I thought, well, I have some good ideas, why not? So that was my introduction for running for office.

That’s what I was wondering about. Is that something you thought about for a long time before getting into public office?

Never.

So you were kind of dragged into it?

I wouldn’t say dragged into it, but I think when people come to you and say, “We think you have the experience and capability to do the job and there’s a need,” for me, I felt an obligation to step up. I think all citizens have an obligation to step up if they have the skills to lead, no matter where, in the political arena, in our schools, our community churches. In whatever capacity people can give back, I think it’s important.

How is the Legislature different than a Town Council?

Well, the Legislature has more members. I think in terms of building consensus it’s similar. You have to reach out to the community and find out what the priorities are and then reach out to your colleagues and persuade them. Obviously the issues have a more broad implication at the state level. In Paradise Valley, we dealt a lot with planning and zoning, and public safety was a very key issue for me and my constituents. And I feel I added a lot given my background as an assistant United States attorney, and an assistant attorney general. In the past, Paradise Valley was sort of known as this sleepy little town, but as Phoenix and Scottsdale have grown, the public safety threat has become more serious. Now, at the state level, I can sort of expand on my work there.

The Legislature always gets criticized as attacking cities and towns. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

Who’s accusing that?

Well, I think the League of Arizona Cities and Towns does every year, for one.

I think it’s important for cities and towns to have policies that are consistent with our state policies. And for a town like Paradise Valley, I think for the most part they are. So I don’t see those stark differences based on my experience at the Town Council or state level.

Which of your bills is your biggest priority?

That’s an easy, easy answer. I’m very proud of all of my bills. But my proudest effort is HB2268, which is the mandatory sexual assault kit testing. That’s something I worked on in the Attorney General’s Office. I had gone to the Governor’s Office about doing a task force, and the attorney general and governor understood the importance of this and created the task force. I was able to serve on it as the attorney general’s representative. And as a result of that, we came up with recommendations that included some legislative assistance. I worked with Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement to come up with a bill, hopefully soon to be a law, that will give dignity to women and victims.

What surprised you about the Legislature?

I was really surprised when I first had to go to the floor and they came to my office with a cart to carry my computer and books for me to the floor. That was really weird, so strange. And I’m grateful to them for doing it. As you get busier, you realize why they do it. But that was a little uncomfortable because I’m used to carrying my own things.

In the past couple months, we’ve seen a rise in the women’s movement, a lot of women being very political, protesting and that stuff. But they’ve also been pretty partisan. What role should Republican women play in that movement?

I don’t feel the need to be a part of a movement. Obviously as a woman and a mother of daughters, it’s very important to me that women have great opportunities, and I think I’ve always tried to live my life by example of showing what is possible for women. I certainly appreciate women’s right to protest and I have friends who participated. But I make that argument through my actions and my work, not only here but in the community and as a mom. I try to lead by example. That’s how I choose to further the cause of women. I’m a woman and I want to see women do well and be given dignity, and I don’t think that’s a Republican or Democrat issue.