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No ‘smoke-filled’ Zoom: Cassidy defends process to fill state Senate seat she is seeking

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, Mike Simmons and Justin Koziatek all made the case to succeed outgoing state Sen. Heater Steans in a Zoom meeting hosted by a group that has complained voters aren’t getting a voice in the appointment.

Candidates seeking or considering the appointment to replace state Sen. Heather Steans, left to right: Mike Simmons, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy  and Justin Koziatek.
Candidates seeking or considering the appointment to replace state Sen. Heather Steans, left to right: Mike Simmons, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Justin Koziatek.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and two others interested in the appointment to outgoing state Sen. Heather Steans’ legislative seat laid out their resumes and fielded questions from constituents Tuesday evening at a virtual meeting hosted by a group that has raised concerns that the selection process shuts out voters.

Mike Simmons, a lifelong resident of the district, and Cassidy explained their qualifications for the state’s upper legislative chamber during the Zoom meeting hosted by a local chapter of Indivisible.

Justin Koziatek, the district director for Cook County Commissioner Kevin Morrison, said he hasn’t decided if he will formally seek the appointment, but talked about his experience working for the commissioner and elsewhere saying it “would be an honor to serve” the residents of the district.

Simmons — who like Cassidy and Koziatek is gay — founded Blue Sky Strategies, which focuses on equitable urban planning and anti-racism in public policy.

Justin Koziatek talks about his credentials for the appointment to succeed outgoing state Sen. Heather Steans during a Zoom call meeting with a local Indivisible chapter.
Justin Koziatek talks about his credentials for the appointment to succeed outgoing state Sen. Heather Steans during a Zoom call meeting with a local Indivisible chapter.
Screen image.

His family moved into the area in 1981 — two years before Simmons was born. They were one of the first Black families to integrate the Lincoln Square neighborhood after the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that public housing be built on the North Side of the city, Simmons said.

Simmons told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier Tuesday that his experience will enable him “to work to serve the community to deliver on the kind of vision that allowed my life story to even be possible.”

“I am a firm believer of everyone being represented and at the table — this is how I grew up, this is what I’ve always seen in my family and my community,” Simmons said during the Zoom meeting. “My lived experiences as a queer person of color from this community have equipped me with the advocacy skills to articulate the needs of the community and work to shape the policies that address those needs.”

Mike Simmons participates in a Zoom meeting hosted by Indivisible IL-9 about the appointment to outgoing Sen. Heather Steans’ North Side seat.
Mike Simmons participates in a Zoom meeting hosted by Indivisible IL-9 about the appointment to outgoing Sen. Heather Steans’ North Side seat.
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Cassidy laid out her time in politics and legislative victories — such as the bill legalizing cannabis and another that protected from prosecution people who sought help for someone experiencing an overdose as proof she’d keep her promise to “fight every day to protect the unique and diverse interests of the communities that make up the seventh district.”

The North Side Democrat jumped into the race the day Steans announced her plans to resign last week and defended the process Tuesday.

As Democratic committeeperson for the 49th Ward, Cassidy is one of the nine members of the Cook County Democratic Party who will ultimately decide who gets the appointment Cassidy and Simmons are seeking and Koziatek is considering.

“This process isn’t perfect. I don’t know that there would be a perfect one or could be a perfect one,” Cassidy said. “But the committeepeople in the North Side have, for years, worked to go way beyond what the, I believe, intentionally vague state law on filling vacancies permits. This is not a smoke-filled room, and none of the other forums I’ve heard about so far will be either, but we can lead and set an example of doing better.”

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy presents her credentials for appointment to state Sen. Heather Steans’ state Senate seat during a Zoom meeting with a local Indivisible chapter.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy presents her credentials for appointment to state Sen. Heather Steans’ state Senate seat during a Zoom meeting with a local Indivisible chapter.
Screen image.

Along with Cassidy, Simmons and Koziatek, the Indivisible chapter also heard from those seeking appointment to Cassidy’s seat should she ascend to the Senate.

Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, a co-coordinator of the group and the host of the meeting, previously told the Chicago Sun-Times the appointment process “leaves behind the voters.”

“It shuts out ... people and independent voices,” Manaa-Hoppenworth said. “And who, instead, has the power to give that elected office to a person is a very select few people — they’re political insiders.”

The group put out a petition last week and, among their list of demands, the Andersonville and Edgewater group wants the nine committeepeople who will pick a replacement to “acknowledge the appointment process should be reserved for special and extenuating circumstances.”

The chapter is part of Indivisible Illinois, which was founded in 2016 to push back on former President Donald Trump’s agenda.

They also want the party leaders to “recognize the remarkable history of appointments and midterm resignations in our neighborhoods in particular,” which they say dates back to the 1970s, and “commit to breaking the toxic cycle and appoint an interim placeholder State Senator who promises not to run for re-election in 2022” so there is a “level playing field,” Manaa-Hoppenworth said.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, right; with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, at a news conference in 2017.
State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, right; with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, at a news conference in 2017.
James Foster/Sun-Times file

Koziatek said if he does seek the appointment he’d offer committeepeople “a choice that was committed to not running in 2022 for the Senate seat.”

Simmons said he would run for a full term in 2022 if appointed.

On Sunday, Ald. Harry Osterman, who also represents the 48th Ward as its Democratic committeeperson and has the largest share of the weighted vote, said he plans to convene the nine committeepeople for an open forum at 1 p.m. on Feb. 6 at the Swedish American Museum, though the meeting will be conducted via videoconference.

“We’re trying to do this in an open, fair, transparent process,” Osterman told the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday. “I think that’s really important for us, I think our constituents expect that, and that’s what we’re committed to.”