In a historic move on Feb. 6, Mike Simmonswho is Black (half African-American, half Ethiopian) and gay was chosen to succeed Heather Steans as Illinois state senator for the 7th District. According to Simmons, he will be in the post for the remainder of Steans' term, which ends in January 2023.
The decision was surprising to some because Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (who's also part of the LGBTQ community) seemed to be the favorite.
Days after being chosen, Simmonsa former Windy City Times 30 Under 30 honoree talked with Windy City Times about the selection process and his plans as senator.
Windy City Times: Basic questionHow are you?
Mike Simmons: I'm pretty excited and exhilarated. There's a lot that's happening and I'm trying to get a district office set up, but it's what I signed up for.
WCT: What was your main reason for running?
MS: It was about the people in the district. The 7th District is multiethnic, and has people from almost every single racial background. We have the highest percentage of same-sex households in the state. We have substantial populations of transgender and gender non-conforming peoplewe have the full spectrum of the LGBTQIA community.
It's also about so many disenfranchised people who live in this district. There so many people who are disillusioned and who are really struggling. I'm a product of a struggle but I also come from a household of powerhouse Black women who helped make me who I am today. I'm here to make experiences possible for the next generation.
WCT: So what exactly happened Feb. 6? What was the procedure?
MS: As you know, those who wanted to be state senator made their presentations and fielded questions from the committee. That was done on Facebook Live.
The rest, to be honest, is a blur. It was such an exciting time and I didn't know what the outcome was going to be; I was prepared either way, so there was a fair degree of peace. When they announced I got the vote, the rest of the blur. I remember being on the phone with my grandmother and she said, "You're doing this for the right reason. You're doing this for the people. I'm not surprised you're going to be the state senator." The next thing I knew was that I was asked to come over to the Swedish American Museum to be sworn in.
WCT: You said you were prepared either waybut were you surprised at all? Some people thought Kelly Cassidy would be Steans' successor.
MS: I took all of this at face value. I decided to run because there were thousands of people in this district who are hungry for authentic leadershipand they need a voice in Springfield. That really motivated me, and I tried to put together a message that came from my heart; that gave me a lot of confidence going in.
WCT: And already the critics have come out. On Facebook, one person wrote, "Are we okay with the fact that he was a [Rahm] Emanuel advisor?" What's your response to that?
MS: When I worked with the mayor, I worked on decreasing food insecurity in Chicago, I worked on creating protections for the LGBTQ community, and I worked on creating affordable housing in this district. I was out there working [against] policies that censored the voices of disenfranchised peopleof Black youth, of queer youth, of Latinx people, of single moms. So that's my track record. I think I have a pretty solid list of things that I've been doing for the people of this district.
WCT: What specific things would you like to accomplish during this term?
MS: That's a good question. I would like to bring a compelling argument to Springfield that we need to highlight the economic disparities that we see in the midst of communities across Chicago. There are so many parts of Chicago that are rapidly gentrifying right now; it's a real threat that we're going to lose affordable-housing options for people. People are already stretched; Black moms, immigrants and undocumented people are really being hit hard with job losses right now.
I want to be a voice for those people and the economic struggles they're having. Housing, affordability and health insurance are some of the [key] issues I'd like to highlightand they criss-cross with issues like health disparities and mental health. I'd like to put my leadership behind legislation that will give the people in this district a chance at a better livelihood.We need the safety net that's in place to be a lot more viable for them.
WCT: It might be early to ask this, but are you thinking of higher political offices down the line?
MS: Right now, I'm really focused on hitting the ground running and being state senator for the 7th District. I really want to do this job well, and that's all that matters right now. If I do well, then the district will do well.
WCT: What about the fact that you and Doris Turner have both been selected as the newest state senators during Black History Month? [Turner was appointed to the state Senate seat vacated by former Sen. Andy Manar, and is the first Black individual to represent Springfield and Sangamon County in the state legislature.]
MS: To have two Black senators coming in during Black History Month from two completely different areas of the state really speaks to the urgency of the moment we're living in. We have the fullness of the Black community being represented at such an important time.
My district is the most diverse in the state. I've got immigrants from Europe and Central America along with refugees from East Africa. I've got African Americans who've been here since the beginning. I've got white folks in this district who've been struggling for a long time. And, of course, there's the LGBTQIA population.
I feel that I can represent everyone. I'm the first Black gay state senator, and I'm told I'm only the third openly gay Black state senator in the country. The diversitythat's what America is supposed to be all about.
WCT: Has Heather Steans given you any advice?
MS: Yeah. I've called her, and I thanked her for her extraordinary record of progressive accomplishment. We talked about the transition and she's been super-supportive.
WCT: Do you have any words for your constituents?
MS: It's a new day in the 7th District. Everyone in this districtno matter of ethnic or socioeconomic backgroundis important. I'm going to go to bat for you.