When state Sen. Heather Steans announced she was quitting just two weeks into a new term, her successor seemed like a foregone conclusion: State Rep. Kelly Cassidy was already a member of the committee that would name Steans’s replacement, and she had the senator’s endorsement.
But what looked like a classic Chicago-style handoff didn’t happen. Instead, North Side committeepeople chose Mike Simmons, a 37-year-old former Rahm Emanuel policy director and the founder of Blue Sky Strategies, a political consulting firm specializing in anti-racist public policy.
A lifelong North Sider who grew up in public housing in Lincoln Square, Simmons made the case at a Zoom forum last month that he has the lived experience to best represent Illinois’s most diverse Senate district. He is, he adds, one of just three Black and openly gay state senators in the United States. Chicago has the first print interview with a legislator the likes of which Springfield has never seen.
A lot of people were surprised that you got the appointment. Were you surprised, and why do you think the committeepeople chose you?
I talked about the people that live in this district, I talked about the diversity in this district, I talked about the historic opportunity we have here to appoint a state senator who comes directly from those lived experiences of tens of thousands of people, and I think that message resonated in the public forum. I think it resonated with the committeepeople as well. We’re at a moment of racial reckoning in this country. The argument around diverse representation for the most diverse Senate district and region in the state would be compelling to anybody who was making that choice.
A lot of the interest in this appointment was because of the process — the fact that your predecessor resigned at the beginning of her term, and it looked like there was going to be a handoff to a handpicked insider. Do you favor any reforms to the appointment process?
I am looking at new ways to make the appointment process more open and accessible. Some things can be required: that there be some public forum component to the appointment process. Can there be a minimum number of weeks between when the resignation occurs and when a decision is made on who the successor is going to be? Can we require that the deliberation on who the successor is be made open to the public, like we do for committee hearings and subcommittee hearings under the Open Meetings Act?
Would you like to see special elections, or do you feel the committeeperson process is such an entrenched part of Illinois’s political culture that all you can really do is reform it?
In spirit, I would like to see special elections be a part of the debate. But the reputation of that proposal is that it would replicate the status quo, because you still have a short period of time to mobilize and put a campaign together and raise the money to put out a message. That would benefit people who are already insiders.
Illinois Indivisible, one of the groups that pushed for a more fair appointment process, was asking that the appointee not run in 2022. Are you planning to?
I am, yes. The argument around having a person of color, an LGBTQ person to become the state senator on the merits of representation was a compelling one. It would be a disservice to people who have never had a voice representing them the way I can to just be there for two years. Half the people in this district are people of color, and I think it’s long overdue for that population to have a voice.
How did your family come to live in Lincoln Square, and how has that influenced your positions on housing?
My family was the first family to move into scattered-site public housing that had just been built for the first time on the North Side of Chicago in 1981, at Foster and Lincoln. Prior to that, public housing residents were isolated in poor areas, and typically they were in high rises. The Supreme Court made a decision that said you can’t continue to segregate poor people and Black people in low-income housing. The court pushed the Chicago Housing Authority to create this pilot, so they started building these three flats around Lincoln Square, Rogers Park, Humboldt Park, Logan Square. That’s how I grew up. I was the result of good policy and programming. Growing up in Lincoln Square allowed me to have access to a grocery store. River Park was right down the street. I went to Budlong Elementary School, and I was assaulted by a security guard for being gay. That’s what put me on a path to going to Catholic school. I went to high school at St. Ignatius.
Right now, deadline on the eviction moratorium is March 6. Do you favor extending that, and if so, how much further?
My position would be to extend it indefinitely until we have brought the coronavirus under control. That would mean that a sizable majority of our most vulnerable population is vaccinated.
Is there anything else you favor to help people who are rent stressed as a result of the pandemic?
We should be looking for ways to create rent abatements for families paying more than a third of their income on rent. Those are people who are not going to be able to spend money on food and groceries and medical bills, prescriptions. That would be something we could work with the Biden Administration on, to create a whole new policy initiative similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit. This could be a good candidate for a Community Development Block Grant, or Emergency Shelter Assistance. We can look to expand on some of those definitions of existing block grants.
Housing activists are campaigning to lift the state’s ban on rent control. Are you in favor of that?
I represent a district where gentrification is coming, and a number of residents have been pushed out or displaced. Uptown is ground zero for it. You’re starting to see it in Edgewater and Rogers Park. I would absolutely support rent control. I think we should regulate rent in the same way they do in New York and other municipalities, to prevent excessive upward pressure on rent.
Here’s an LGBTQ issue that’s come up in other states: Do you favor allowing transgender athletes to compete in high school sports? Some people believe it introduces an unfair advantage.
Absolutely. In this district, there are a number of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming. At the end of the day, there’s a sizable section of my constituency that believes that gender is an arbitrary social criteria. I will do anything to bring honor and dignity to that population.
The Fair Tax failed last November. Do you have any ideas for making the state’s tax system more progressive, given that we still have a flat tax?
We should look into closing corporate loopholes. For a longer structural issue, the graduated income tax may have to come back to the voters next year.
It lost pretty resoundingly. How could you come back and turn that around?
You need to engage some people that aren’t voting, that maybe didn’t vote in 2020 that would come out and vote in 2022. That requires good organization and good messaging. My feeling is that if most people understood the social justice implications of having a progressive income tax structure, they would be open to supporting it.
You took a sabbatical a few years ago and went to Africa to look at the source of the slave trade. What did you learn and how did that affect your policy outlook?
This really is a reflection of my intersectional heritage. My mom was a Black American woman; my dad is an Ethiopian immigrant. He came over after the Red Terror. I went to West Africa for several months and traveled from country to country because I wanted to see where my ancestors once lived.
Then I went to Europe, to see some of the less developed countries in Eastern Europe and get a sense of, What is injustice? What does oppression look like in other parts of the world? I went through the Balkan countries: Bosnia, Albania. When I got back to the States, Trump was in his sixth or seventh month in the White House. I almost didn’t want to come back. It really afforded me a great deal of agency that brought me to start my company, Blue Sky Strategies, and my work to develop anti-racist public policy.
What are the first bills you plan to introduce?
I am really interested in introducing legislation that will tackle economic insecurity in this district. I want to create tax credits that give single moms a better chance at raising their children and navigating the system, particularly on the North Side, where everything is really expensive. I know from my own experience growing up and watching my mother struggle, and a program like the Earned Income Tax Credit or [Children’s Health Insurance Program] can make the difference for people living on the brink.
You represent a diverse district, but the North Side is expensive. How do you make sure the district stays diverse despite the economic pressures?
We have to look at affordable housing. Some of those solutions are going to be about finding the right mix of block grants and public development. You asked me about rent control, or capping rent increases. These are things we’ve avoided for decades.
I wouldn’t have grown up in Lincoln Square if I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up in public housing. I know a lot of people are ashamed of public housing. I’m not. I think integrated, scattered-site housing is good policy.