ANDERSONVILLE — Michael Simmons was sworn in as Illinois’ newest state senator Saturday night after local Democratic Party officials appointed him to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago).
Simmons’ appointment dealt a blow to state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who was considered a frontrunner to fill the position. Simmons, deputy director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and a former senior official in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, received nearly three times the number of weighted votes Cassidy pulled in.
After he was sworn in at the Swedish American Museum in Andersonville just before 7 p.m. Saturday, Simmons said he is “honored to have gone through this process.”
“I promise to work hard, I promise to be really progressive and I’m just looking forward to doing the work for our community,” a masked Simmons said over Zoom.
Simmons told committeepeople during his interview on Saturday that he grew up in the 7th Senate District formerly represented by Steans and currently lives in Uptown.
“While I don’t look like anyone this district has ever had as a legislator, I certainly look like tens of thousands of people who live here,” Simmons said. “Proudly Black, proudly gay, proudly the son of an immigrant.”
Simmons is the first openly gay member of the Illinois Senate, first openly gay Black state senator and the first person of color to represent the “north lakefront” in either state chamber, he told The Daily Line on Sunday.
Despite the several “firsts” his appointment represents, Simmons said he is “really grounded” and knows “where I come from, and I will never forget it.”
“I’m grounded with the people in my district” including “homeless people and single moms, those are the people I’m joining hands with in this effort,” Simmons said.
Just prior to Simmons’ taking the oath of office, Cassidy issued a statement congratulating the newly appointed state senator and thanking community members, candidates, area leaders of the Democratic Party and Steans “for her friendship and guidance over the years, and for her leadership on so many matters of critical importance to our communities.”
“From COVID relief to tackling our budget challenges, from making sure our communities are fairly represented in redistricting to continuing to build on the progress in criminal justice reform forged by the Black Caucus, I pledge to continue to be a relentless voice for our values in the Illinois House of Representatives,” Cassidy said.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-Hillside) on Saturday tweeted “Congratulations to the newest members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, Senators Doris Turner and Mike Simmons. Welcome to the General Assembly.”
Turner was appointed earlier Saturday to fill the Central Illinois Senate seat left vacant by former state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), who resigned in January to take a position in Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration.
Candidate interviews and vote breakdown
The 7th District Democratic Committee met Saturday afternoon to interview the six candidates vying to fill Steans’ seat representing Chicago neighborhoods including Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park and parts of Ravenswood, Lincoln Square and Evanston.
The four other candidates interviewed for the position were Joseph Struck, Angela Giles, Justin Koziatek and Joseph Alfe.
After interviewing all six candidates in a forum open to the public via video conference, the nine committeepeople deliberated in closed session before returning for a public vote on the appointment.
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), serving as proxy for Cassidy in the voting process, nominated the sitting state representative to fill the vacant Senate seat with 33rd Ward Committeeperson Iris Martinez and Evanston Committeeperson Eamon Kelly seconding the call. Maggie O’Keefe, 40th Ward Democratic committeeperson, nominated Simmons to fill the position, with a second from Ald. Harry Osterman (48), chair of the committee.
As 49th Ward committeeperson, Cassidy would have controlled about 22 percent of the weighted vote in the selection process. But leaders of the Democratic Party of the 49th Ward opted to convey that power to Hadden.
Members of the 7th District Democratic Committee cast votes weighted by the number of votes cast in the Nov. 3 election, with Osterman holding the greatest vote share, followed by O’Keefe and Cassidy. Additional committeepeople included 47th Ward Committeeperson Paul Rosenfeld, 46th Ward Committeeperson Sean Tenner, 39th Ward Committeeperson and state Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), 50th Ward Committeeperson and Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th), Kelly and Martinez.
O’Keefe, Tenner, Rosenfeld and Osterman cast their votes for Simmons, and Martinez, Villivalam, Kelly, Cassidy with Hadden as proxy and Silverstein with Osterman as proxy voted for Cassidy.
Candidates needed 45,005 votes to clinch the seat. Simmons ended up with 67,516 votes, and Cassidy with 22,493.
The open interviews and public vote on Saturday followed a week of public forums hosted by various 7th District groups in which the six candidates answered questions on their backgrounds and how they would represent the district as state senator.
Simmons’ background and plans as state Senator
Simmons said he woke up Sunday morning “thinking about how cold it is outside and how many homeless people are living outside right down the street from me,” and the number of families in the 7th Senate District who are two to three months behind on rent.
“I just decided this morning I’m going to get out and visit the shelters in this district and visit social service agencies and get a clear sense of what the struggles are for people navigating the pandemic and economy and the frontline folks trying to take care of them,” Simmons said, adding he wants to “hit the ground running in this role.”
The first pieces of legislation Simmons plans to introduce will involve the issues of “chronic economic disparity” and “health disparity,” he told The Daily Line.
Simmons said he called Steans Saturday night after being sworn in. They had a “very cordial call” and he thanked her for her “record for progressive accomplishments for this district.” The new state senator plans to take up “outstanding constituent casework and constituent services” from Steans.
Simmons on Saturday also called Cassidy, whom he said has been a friend for 12 years. “We have a great deal of respect for each other,” Simmons said. “I really am excited to partner with her and [House Majority] Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago) and bring outstanding representation” to the district.
After growing up in Lincoln Square and now living in Uptown, Simmons, a self-proclaimed “son of the 7th District,” said he had previously been encouraged by community leaders to run for elected office but each time he was “focused on other things.”
Now, “with what is happening at this moment in racial reckoning,” Simmons had been thinking about running for office and the timing lined up with Steans’ retirement. Additionally, Simmons said the Black Caucus’ so-called Four Pillars agenda and the elimination of cash bail are issues “deeply important” to him and that he’s followed closely.
Simmons plans to be a full-time legislator and is working to transition out of his role as deputy director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
Also prior to jumping into the state legislature, Simmons served as policy director in the mayor’s office from 2011 to 2013 and deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of Planning and Development from 2013 to 2016, both under Emanuel. He is also the founder of Blue Sky Strategies, a public policy consulting firm.
Simmons said during his time as policy director under Emanuel he focused on issues including food insecurity, protecting LGBTQ people and preserving affordable housing. “I spent a fair amount of time reducing homelessness and expanding public health…a pretty solid progressive set of issues,” Simmons said, adding he also played a role in bringing a Whole Foods store to Englewood.
“I was focused on several progressive initiatives I think often fall through the cracks of City Hall,” he said.
Additionally, Simmons served as policy director for Cook County Comm. Bridget Gainer (D-10) from 2009 to 2011 and a staff assistant and legislative correspondent for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) from 2007 to 2009.
Challenges to the appointment process
Candidates on Saturday and during previous forums answered questions on the appointment process they were undergoing to fill the senate seat, which is historically done behind closed doors as state statute does not require the appointment meeting to be open to the public.
Cassidy on Saturday said Illinois’ vacancy appointment laws are designed for the process “to be hidden in back rooms” and has proposed legislation over the years to combat the issue, but she said on Saturday that her proposals “stayed in Rules Committee.” Cassidy said new leadership in the General Assembly offers an opportunity for “robust conversation.”
Simmons on Saturday said he wants to bring as many people into the appointment process as possible and would try to amend the Open Meetings Act “to accomplish that goal.” Simmons said he would look into making deliberations around appointments public.