October 20, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

An abiding curiosity led Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook to serve as an official observer during the presidential election in war-torn Ukraine earlier this year.

Joining a Ukrainian Congress Committee of America delegation, she witnessed candy czar Petro Poroshenko’s landslide victory in an election monitoring organizations declared free and fair.

The District 13 representative often travels abroad to feed her wanderlust. Her weeklong stay in the former Soviet satellite state provided an opportunity for enlightenment and service. With Ukraine’s fragile union threatened by separatist uprisings and Russian expansionism, the election was a moratorium on democracy and autonomy.

“I met a lot of great people who had grown up as part of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the United States,” Cook says. “I learned a lot about how they kept their language and culture alive, and more about the circumstances that led to their leaving. They were very warm, very welcoming.”

The lifelong Democrat has worked with municipalities as a public relations consultant and for elected officials as a campaign and administrative staffer. In 2008 she and Brenda Council became the Unicameral’s first black women legislators.

Born in Guam to an Air Force family, Cook grew up in Omaha in the 1960s and ‘70s. Her parents were from the South, where she says “the ability to take part in elections was something they didn’t take for granted.” Despite being a teacher, her mother was forced to take a literacy test in order to vote. Her father became a teacher following his retirement as a military civil engineer.

Cook inherited a passion for learning that complements her desire to experience new cultures. The Georgetown University international business graduate has visited 20 countries, but Ukraine was her first Eastern European visit. Besides fulfilling her poll-watching duties, the inquisitive Cook says, “I learned a lot about the country, its history, its culture…That’s what I love about travel in general.”

Ukraine’s strategic importance in a region where borders and allegiances are in flux appealed to her geopolitical focus.

“The United States has an interest in the Ukraine remaining sovereign, and in (Russian premier Vladimir) Putin not reconvening the USSR,” she says.

Assigned to seven polling places in Kiev, Cook witnessed large voter turnout and typical election snafus (long waits), but saw nothing amiss.

“You’re an observer,” she adds. “You’re not there to intervene or advocate or have a point of view. You observe what you observe and you record it.”

The earnestness of election officials and voters impressed her. She says the popular Poroshenko clearly “emerged as a leader who would stand up to” Putin’s interventionism.

Now halfway through her second legislative term, it won’t be long before she gets the itch to travel again.

“There’s a lot bigger world out there.”

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