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New state senator wants to put the focus on North Siders who are ‘never seen’

Chicago Sun Times

Sunday, February 21, 2021  |  Article  |  Rachel Hinton

Legislature (56)

Democrat Mike Simmons was chosen to succeed former state Sen. Heather Steans, who resigned. He’s focused on creating policies for and with those in the community who are “never seen, are never heard and whose agency is never respected.”

Newly appointed state Sen. Mike Simmons is Black, gay and a lifelong resident of the Senate district he now represents.


He plans to draw on all of those facets of who he is to address the “economic struggle that’s happening literally right outside” of his Uptown apartment and across the sprawling North Side district.


He points to the single mother, with two children in tow, running to catch a bus.


Or the senior citizens who are out in the snow who may 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.’ We’re going to do this together, and 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 to this district and this community,” Simmons said.

Simmons was chosen by a group of Democratic committeepersons earlier this month to succeed former state Sen. Heather Steans, who resigned. The district covers the Edgewater, Andersonville, Lincoln Square and Rogers Park neighborhoods, among others.


He’s focused on creating policies for and with 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, while he was a policy director at City Hall as proof that that’s possible.


“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. … 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 into 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 who was in his mid-20s. They met in Lakeview at a concert where he was playing guitar.


Simmons’ family was 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.


His mother told him stories about the racism her family faced — her brothers being chased home from school, her mother being egged by random passersby while waiting for the 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 identifying couples and others, white and Black, Simmons said.


He sees economic insecurity, specifically around affordable housing, as a major issue, one that Simmons understands from experiencing being 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 yearlong sabbatical to travel through West Africa and the Balkans, an experience that gave him a “vivid sense” of where there are structural barriers to Black and Brown people, specifically women.


He later started his own company, Blue Sky Strategies, which focuses on equitable urban planning and anti-racism in public policy.


Simmons spent his first weekend as a senator walking the retail corridors to introduce himself to business owners and to learn about the difficulties they’ve faced obtaining loans or grants.


He’s talked with Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and “traded notes on some legislation” with the longtime representative who also sought the Senate seat he now holds.


In his work as a lawmaker, 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.”