‘We Need a New Generation of Leaders’
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Sannie Overly made history this year.
The 2013 Council of State Governments Henry Toll Fellow became the first woman elected to a leadership position in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Overly, the House Majority Caucus chair, came to the Kentucky House through an unexpected opportunity. Her state representative at the time, Carolyn Belcher, decided to run for the Bourbon County judge-executive, leaving an opening in the middle of her term. Overly was recruited to run in a special election for the unexpired term.
“It happened very fast and furious,” said Overly. “It wasn’t one of the things I spent a lot of time thinking about.”
But she had to make a decision quickly. Overly had moved from her small hometown of Paris, Ky., to the larger city of Lexington just down the road. After a few years in Lexington, Overly and her husband, Mike Kalinyak, moved back to one of the Overly family farms in Bourbon County. When she was approached about running for the state legislature, she decided it was the right thing to do.
“You become the person you are because of your upbringing in many ways,” she said. “To come back as a professional and have the opportunity to give back, you do that. Serving in public office is an extension of that.
“It’s humbling that that many people would entrust (to me) their voice in our representative government,” she said.
When she was younger, Overly couldn’t wait to leave her small hometown; she wanted to live in a big city with a more exciting life than what the rural community offered.
“The truth is, it’s a treasure and something to be cherished to have an opportunity to live in a community like this,” she said. “On top of that, to be a community leader is something that’s a real honor.
“These are the folks who educated me, molded me in all of the various community organizations and church groups that I was in as I grew up in, so it’s really incumbent on me to give back to these folks,” she said.
Overly was first elected in the 2007 special election, then re-elected in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 general elections.
In January 2013, Overly sought, and won, the leadership post. She’s philosophical about the reasons why no woman has been elected to House leadership before.
It’s difficult to get women into the political arena, even though they make up half the population. Only 20 percent of the members of the Kentucky General Assembly are women. That could be a reason for the lack of female leadership on the House floor.
Another reason, Overly said, is that women enter politics later in life, and leadership historically has required some tenure in the legislature.
“Where young male candidates, frequently in their late 20s and early 30s, once they’ve become seated in their profession, look to a political career,” she said. “Women will frequently defer that until after their children are in school, or perhaps even after all their children have graduated from school.”
Overly’s daughters, Elizabeth and Katie, were ages 5 and 10 when she was first elected. “If you had asked me, I would have said I was a really busy person and didn’t have time,” she said. “I don’t think I really knew at the time what busy was.”
She now balances her family, law practice and legislative duties. Community service also is important to her. When she returned to Bourbon County, Overly served on a number of boards and organizations. It’s something she saw growing up. Her father, Larry Overly, was a farmer and her mother, Betty Overly, served the county extension service as the home economist.
“My mom spent her career helping families in our community live healthier, safer and better lives,” she said. “It’s an enormous impact on my world view.”
Since her mother’s career dealt with lifelong community education, Overly sees one of her primary roles in Kentucky’s capital of Frankfort as an advocate for public education at all levels, from early childhood to vocational to community education.
But that’s a challenge, particularly during the past few years as the state—and the rest of the country—pull out of the Great Recession.
“I’ve never known any other way than to serve in government where we literally did not have enough money to, candidly, run our government,” she said. “I’ve never been in public office where we actually had a surplus or money to be proactive to do things for our community.”
Gov. Steve Beshear, who has been in office throughout Overly’s tenure, has cut the budget nearly a dozen times.
“One of the struggles, candidly, is where do you do the least damage because it is always a matter of what is going to get cut next,” she said. “Those have been some tough choices.”
Even though it’s not always easy, Overly encourages young men and particularly young women to pursue a role in public service.
“I think it is among the most rewarding experiences—and certainly has been for me—that a community member can enjoy.”
But she cautions them to not go into public service for the wrong reasons.
“It’s not about the fame or the glory or the perks, but what you get out of it,” she said. “You get out of it tenfold what you put into it.
“If you go in there with the mindset that you’re going to try to work for the people who sent you there to be their representative, really positive things can happen in our country.
“We need that now, when we find ourselves in an environment of gridlock and folks who, I really don’t think, are acting in the common good of the people who sent them to represent them. We need a new generation of leaders to step forward.”