Prizm News / February 9, 2018 / By Bob Vitale
Nickie Antonio says she’s running for the Ohio Senate and ‘even more committed to the cause.’ Many in the party and community are standing with her.
By Bob Vitale
Cuyahoga County Democrats—the ones in charge of the party, anyway—have turned their backs on the first openly gay person elected to the Ohio General Assembly in favor of the man who championed a 2009 ordinance that let Cleveland businesses dictate the restrooms used by transgender customers.
State Rep. Nickie Antonio says she’s staying in the May 8 primary race, though, for the party’s nomination in Ohio’s 23rd Senate District, which covers Lakewood and areas of Cleveland’s West Side, Parma, Middleburg Heights and other parts of western Cuyahoga County.
“You betcha. Absolutely,” Antonio told Prizm. “I am not deterred whatsoever. If one can be even more committed the cause, I am.”
Alot of Democrats are sticking with Antonio, too. The former Lakewood City Council member was elected to the Ohio House in 2010 and recently stepped down as minority whip, the third-highest position in her party caucus.
“I believe Nickie can and will win the nomination,” said John Farina, a member of the county party’s central committee and a leader of the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats. The group of LGBTQ Democrats will make its own endorsement decisions next week.
“She’s everywhere. She works hard. She’s done a lot for the district,” Farina said.
Antonio, who is unable to seek another two-year term in the Ohio House because of the state’s term-limits law, is running for the state Senate seat that includes both her House district and that of state Rep. Martin Sweeney, who was first elected in 2014.
Sweeney served on the Cleveland City Council for 17 years before he was elected to the Legislature, and he served as council president from 2005 through 2013. Sweeney won the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s endorsement for the Senate seat.
Cleveland Scene, a local alternative weekly, called the endorsement of Sweeney over Antonio “a dark mark” on the county party. Sweeney is a “good old boy,” Scene political writer Sam Allard opined, while Antonio is a “committed progressive.”
Another stark contrast between the two comes on LGBTQ and women’s issues.
While Antonio has introduced bills to add gender identity and sexual orientation to Ohio’s nondiscrimination laws in each General Assembly session during her time in office, Sweeney won passage of an amendment to a Cleveland nondiscrimination ordinance in 2009 that excluded restrooms and locker rooms from its guarantee of equality in public accommodations for transgender people.
That provision finally was rescinded by the Cleveland City Council in 2016.
“He certainly was no champion,” Farina said.
Sweeney did not respond to Prizm’s request for comment left on his home voicemail.
Antonio, meanwhile, is listed alongside U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin as a “spotlight candidate” of the Victory Fund, which works to boost LGBTQ candidates across the country.
And on Friday, the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Antonio in her race against Sweeney for the Democratic nomination in the 23rd Senate District. It’s rare that HRC gets involved in primary elections, especially in state legislative races.
“Representative Antonio has been a relentless champion of equality and fairness in Ohio, leading efforts to ensure that every Ohioan can live safely and freely without fear of discrimination,” said Shawn Copeland, HRC’s state manager in Ohio.
Although the endorsement of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party means Sweeney will be listed on a party-funded sample ballot mailed to voters, Antonio and supporters hope that won’t be much of an advantage in a year that analysts say is shaping up as a good one for women, LGBTQ candidates and others who can lay claim to outsider status.
Cleveland Scene pointed out the irony of Sweeney’s endorsement by party bosses on the same weekend in January that women and supporters of women’s rights were turning out for marches in Cleveland and other cities around the country.
Sweeney, as Cleveland City Council president, also faced a sexual harassment complaint from the council’s clerk. The city, using taxpayer money, settled with the woman for $60,000 and paid $27,000 in outside legal fees, according to The Plain Dealer.
Antonio says she can’t help but think she might have been too much of an outsider for the insiders of Cuyahoga County Democratic politics.
“I am not a heterosexual white male,” she said. “All the things I’m not, I think do affect this. I’m someone who is very representative of someone other than the good old boys.”
Farina said the snub by party leaders has women, progressives and LGBTQ activists fired up to help Antonio in her primary race.
“If it was Nicholas Antonio and she was a straight man, she almost certainly would have been endorsed,” he said. “But a lot of people who might not have gotten involved are now ready to knock on doors and get active.”