Newly appointed state Sen. Mike Simmons is Black, gay and a lifelong resident of the Senate district he now represents.
Simmons said he plans to draw on each of those facets of who he is to address the “economic struggle that’s happening literally right outside” his Uptown apartment and across the sprawling North Side district.
He points to single mothers, children in tow, running to catch a bus. Or senior citizens who might not “have all the assistance that they need to live a dignified life.”
“I can look at these people and tell they’re very strong and very dignified people, and I want to be fighting for people like that, but I don’t know that they have the safety net that they need to live a dignified life,” Simmons said.
“I’m joining hands with them and saying, ‘We’re going to articulate the structural inequities that we all know exist, that we all know we have to navigate,’ ” he said. “We’re going to advocate for smart policy and smart programming that gives a shot at a better livelihood and a more dignified set of outcomes.”
Simmons was chosen by a group of Democratic committeepersons earlier this month to succeed former state Sen. Heather Steans, who resigned after winning reelection. The district includes Edgewater, Andersonville, Lincoln Square and Rogers Park.
He said he’ll focus on finding ways to help those in the community who are “never seen, are never heard and whose agency is never respected.”
He pointed to his role in helping to bring a Whole Foods to Englewood after a 10-year push by community organizers when he was a policy director for then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“We don’t typically have people in government spaces who are staying up late trying to figure out a way to better serve a constituency that does not have high-powered lobbyists and a whole lot of vested interests going to bat for them,” Simmons said.
“I bring that up as an example of where I pushed to do something different, in partnership with the community,” he said. “What I observed in that role was no one had really listened to them or acted on it.”
Simmons’ politics are also influenced by his mother Ramona Rouse, who died last year.
His family moved to the district in 1981, two years before Simmons was born. His mother was in her late teens when she met his father, a refugee from Ethiopia in his mid-20s, in Lakeview at a concert. He was playing guitar.
Simmons said his family was one of the first Black families to integrate Lincoln Square after the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that public housing be built on the city’s North Side.
His mother would tell him stories about the racism her family faced — her brothers getting chased home from school, her mother being egged while waiting for a bus, harassment from neighbors.
Rouse later opened a hair salon, Salon Pastiche, in Rogers Park with a clientele as diverse as the district — doctors from South Asia, students from nearby Loyola University, lots of LGBT couples and others, white and Black, Simmons said.
He sees economic insecurity, particularly regarding affordable housing, as a major issue. And he sees that’s something he understands, having been priced out of an apartment and having a “landlord breathing down your neck and saying, ‘We’re raising your rent … and you’ve got five days to pay it.’
“We have people all across the economic spectrum living here,” Simmons said. “If we’re going to maintain the diversity in this community, we have to have housing that’s accessible to people across the spectrum.”
After his time at City Hall, Simmons took a year’s sabbatical, traveling through West Africa and the Balkans. He said that experience gave him a “vivid sense” of structural barriers to Black and Brown people, especially women.
He later started Blue Sky Strategies, which focuses on equitable urban planning and anti-racism in public policy.
Simmons spent his first weekend as a senator walking around and introducing himself to business owners and talking about difficulties they’ve faced getting government loans and grants.
He’s spoken with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and “traded notes on some legislation” with the longtime representative who sought the Senate seat he now holds.
Simmons said he wants to “execute on the vision that allows for the next generation of kids who don’t come from privilege, whose parents might be refugees ... so they can have the same type of opportunities that I’ve had.”