Democrats say they filled Senate seat with ‘amazing candidate’ — but losing contender complains of ‘backroom deal’
Democratic committeepersons who spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday said the decision was driven by ensuring diversity for the diverse district, which until now has been represented by white state senators.
North Side Democrats promised no backroom dealing in appointing a successor to former state Sen. Heather Steans, vowing the process would be open and transparent.
But state Rep. Kelly Cassidy said Monday that wasn’t the case — and her decision to not engage in those dealings may have been a key reason why she lost the chance to win the appointment herself.
“I think that what it says is that we’ve got a long way to go to fix the culture, and get people accustomed to doing things in a truly open manner,” Cassidy said. “A deal that is supposedly high-minded is still a backroom deal.”
Cassidy was eager to move up to the state Senate after nearly a decade in the House, declaring her interest not long after her ally Steans announced her decision to resign. In the appointment process, Cassidy — who also serves as the 49th Ward Democratic committeeperson — had the third largest share of the weighted vote of the Democrats involved in making the appointment.
In a surprise move, the Cook County Democratic Party committeepersons on Saturday chose Mike Simmons, a lifelong resident of the district who hasn’t previously held elected office, to succeed Steans.
Democratic committeepersons who spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday said the decision was partially driven by ensuring diversity for the diverse district, which until now has been represented by white state senators.
Simmons is African American, and Cassidy is white. Both are members of the LGTBQ community.
Cassidy said when the committeepersons were weighing the appointment, “everybody in their own way,” either personally or through an “emissary,” tried to cut some sort of deal with her, including one that would’ve ensured her state representative seat would go to a person of color had she moved up.
The North Side legislator said her decision not to engage in the deal-making was related to community groups who were “upset about the process” and the group of committeepersons “making all these assurances about it not being a backroom deal — and so I wasn’t going to make any deal.”
“I asked … to be evaluated on my record, on my merits, on my qualifications,” Cassidy said.
“Within the group that came forward, I have a lot of good friends, any one of whom I could’ve ‘cut a deal for’ and I didn’t,” Cassidy said. “So much so that I was in trouble with friends for not being willing to do so.”
Sean Tenner, the committeeperson for the 46th Ward, said he and Cassidy discussed “a lot of topics,” including the Senate appointment during a Friday meeting, but he had conversations with all six of the candidates vying to replace Steans.
“The question of diversity was discussed throughout the process, as it should be,” Tenner said. “People voted for Mike Simmons because he was an amazing candidate, because of the incredible diversity of background, experience and perspective that he brings. That is the be-all, end-all of why he was [appointed].”
Maggie O’Keefe, who serves as the 40th Ward’s committeeperson, said she did not talk to Cassidy about “cutting a deal with her.” They’ve spoken twice since Steans’ announcement and “both times it was about her qualifications for the position,” O’Keefe said in a text responding to questions from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Paul Rosenfeld, the 47th Ward Committeeperson, said there were “a lot of things thrown out there” to ensure diversity.
“No one expected this strong of a candidate,” Rosenfeld said. “In trying to make something that works for all of us, I think there were things that were thrown out, like can we guarantee a person of color would get the appointment for the rep seat, so at least there would be a legislative gain of a person of color, but I don’t know that any of that would’ve worked out.”
Rosenfeld went on to say that, “for over 30 years we’ve been giving that leg up in this part of town, a really diverse part of town, to white people,” Rosenfeld said.
“In 2021, we’ve been called to own our privilege, and so I owned it,” he said.
Simmons’ resume features stints as policy director for former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, deputy director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which is part of the Obama Foundation, as well as starting his own firm geared toward anti-racist public policymaking.
Cassidy agrees that Simmons will be great for the job and called him a friend, but said she felt frustrated by the process. As for what’s next for her, Cassidy said she’ll “keep doing her job,” which will include reintroducing legislation targeted at trying to fix the appointment process.
“I’m going to keep trying to make it work better for everybody,” Cassidy said.