by Matt Simonette

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley. Photo by Hal Baim

Openly lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker was among those who spoke at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s annual Champagne Brunch Sept. 7 at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago.

Among the politicians attending were U.S. Rep Mike Quigley, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State Sen. Heather Steans, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, and alderpersons Tom Tunney, Deb Mell and James Cappleman. “Out to Win” was the theme of the event, which celebrated the organization’s work in training, vetting and providing support for LGBT candidates across the country.

Cook County Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Debra Shore, who is board chair of the Fund’s Victory Institute, hosted the program and introduced Zach Wahls, who made the news in 2011 when he testified on behalf of his lesbian mothers before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, when the Iowa legislature considered banning gay marriage. Video of Wahl’s testimony “went viral,” and he became a sensation among marriage equality supporters.

Wahl, who was conceived through artificial insemination, said bluntly, “My existence is political, like it or not. We aren’t the ones who picked this fight … we didn’t start

[it] but we will finish it.”

He noted that any states that have managed to advance pro-marriage equality legislation have done so thanks to the efforts of openly LGBT politicians, a sentiment echoed by Jeremy Moss and Jon Hoadley, who are both running for seats in the Michigan House of Representatives. That state, though it has had some progressive politics in its past, has more recently been particularly harsh with LGBTs.

“Jon and I are here because Michigan has some of the most restrictive anti-LGBT laws in the country,” Moss said, noting that the state dawdled in advancing emergency relief after floods ravaged the metropolitan Detroit area, but appealed U.S. District Court rulings that overturned the state’s marriage ban with great haste.

Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts and Ray Koenig of the Clark Hill law firm received awards for their work in advancing marriage equality. They were co-chairs of the finance committee for Illinois Unites for Marriage, which pushed for passage of the state’s marriage equality law in 2013. Ricketts noted that, “Money and politics is seen as a bad [combination], but it is a reality.”

Koenig added, “Now that we have marriage equality, we must help other states achieve the rights we now enjoy here.”

Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute President and CEO Chuck Wolfe noted that Maine is proving to be a key battleground. Openly gay candidate Michael H. Michaud is running for governor. If Michaud were to win, becoming the first openly gay governor in U.S history, Wolfe said, “It [would be] a big deal when that person goes to the National Governor’s Association and has a conversation.”

He also discussed Maura Healey, a lesbian who is running for the office of attorney general in Massachusetts. Were Healey to win, she would become the first gay attorney general in the U.S. “I don’t think I need to tell you why having out attorney general is an important thing,” Wolfe said.

Ken Stromdahl, a scheduling associate at the office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, discussed his experiences as a Victory congressional intern. The Fund paid him a stipend and provided his housing expenses working in Quigley’s Washington, D.C., office.

“The skills that I gained in that office set me off on a better trajectory,” Stromdahl said. “Victory unlocked my potential.” He added that he made his transition back to Chicago confidant that he would be able to effect positive change in the city.

Mayor Parker, who was introduced by Samantha Abeysekera of Northern Trust, discussed the myriad functions Victory Fund provides, among them vetting of candidates’ likelihood of winning.

“When you put your money down [for the Victory Fund] you know you are backing a winner,” she said, adding, “It matters to a candidate knowing that people across the country are pulling for you.”

Parker said that she often decried talk of “a gay agenda,” but over the years had come to realize that there was indeed an agenda for the community: expectations of safety, equality and privacy.

“In order to achieve that agenda, we have to have men and women in the halls of power” who will win those rights for the community, she added.