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Op-ed: Gay Chicago Was Instrumental to Rahm's Win

Op-ed: Gay Chicago Was Instrumental to Rahm's Win


Rahm Emanuel will lead the Second City for another four years, but both he and his opponent knew they needed LGBT voters to win.

The fiercely contested race for mayor of Chicago concluded Tuesday with the reelection of incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He defeated Cook County Board Commissioner Chuy Garcia by 12 points.

While the election did not turn on traditional LGBT issues, Chicago's LGBT community played a significant role in both the February 24 primary and April 7 runoff elections. In fact, the elections demonstrated the political influence and importance of the LGBT community in Chicago.

Elections are all about addition. That's why it's essential that a candidate, whether running for city council or U.S. Senate, must cultivate a broad, winning coalition of supporters. In Chicago, any such winning coalition must include all or parts of the LGBT population.

Both Emanuel and Garcia sought that support and presented their records on LGBT issues.

Mayor Emanuel's major first-term efforts and accomplishments on behalf of LGBT Chicagoans include securing funding to develop and complete the city's first affordable housing complex for LGBT seniors. The Emanuel administration also developed the LGBT Community Action Plan to enhance the health and access to services of Chicago's LGBT residents. At a time when 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, he also invested more resources to combat youth homelessness.

Garcia's commitment to the LGBT community is based in his previous service on the Chicago City Council and in the Illinois State Senate. In 1988, as an alderman, he voted for Chicago's first Human Rights Ordinance. Later, as a state senator, Garcia supported nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Illinoisans. Such protections finally passed the legislature in 2005, after Garcia left the Senate.

To build their winning coalitions, Garcia and Emanuel heavily courted Chicago's LGBT community. On Valentine's Day, both candidates attended the Equality Illinois Gala, which is the largest LGBT event of its kind in the Midwest. There, Mayor Emanuel and Commissioner Garcia mingled with a crowd of over 1,000 businesspeople, labor union members, public officials, community leaders, and other supporters of LGBT equality. In an effort to appeal to the LGBT community, Garcia also released an LGBT issues platform. In mid-February, after activists thoughtfully considered of the candidates' records, Mayor Emanuel was endorsed by LGBT community leaders and activists and the Equality Illinois Political Action Committee, the only statewide PAC focused on LGBT issues, while Commissioner Garcia was endorsed by a coalition of LGBT activists.

In the end, the election revolved around broader issues of education, policing, municipal finances, public employee pensions, and political experience. LGBT issues were not addressed by mainstream media, only the LGBT press, and no LGBT-specific questions were asked of the candidates during the three debates held in the weeks before Tuesday's runoff election. Still, some LGBT advocates raised issues such as how to ensure the safety of LGBT students in Chicago's public school system.

Beyond the mayoral race, Chicago achieved a significant aldermanic milestone. A record number of LGBT candidates were elected to the Chicago City Council in the February 24 and April 7 municipal elections.

With the election of Raymond Lopez April 7 and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa February 24, the 50-member Chicago City Council will have five LGBT individuals on it, 10 percent of the total body. Lopez, the first LGBT person ever elected to any office on Chicago's South Side, and Ramirez-Rosa will join Aldermen Deb Mell, Tom Tunney, and James Cappleman as LGBT voices on the council. These aldermanic victories demonstrate why it is essential to recruit, support, and elect LGBT people to local governments so that our voices are part of agenda-setting and policy-making in communities throughout Illinois.

Even though traditional LGBT issues were not the primary focus of the mayoral and aldermanic campaigns, building a more inclusive, welcoming, and safe Chicago should still be the goal of the LGBT community and organizations like Equality Illinois. There are still many things to fight for in Chicago: transgender-inclusive health care benefits, ensuring that LGBT-related services are equitably distributed to all areas of the city, developing sensitivity trainings for law enforcement personnel, and providing safe spaces and opportunities for transgender Chicagoans.

Additionally, advocates and activists can and should apply pressure on City Hall to engage in ongoing negotiations in Springfield for a state budget plan that protects society's most vulnerable by fully funding essential human services. Proposed cuts will impact homeless youth services, HIV/AIDS programming, and antibullying initiatives.

The elections may be over, but LGBT engagement and advocacy at City Hall must continue.

MICHAEL ZIRI is director of public policy for Equality Illinois, which works for equal treatment and social justice through education, advocacy, and protection of the rights of the LGBT community.

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