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Kelly Cassidy And Paula Basta, Two Democratic Lesbian Activists, Square Off In Tense Illinois Statehouse Race

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Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), left, will face off against challenger Paula Basta in the March 20 primary election.
Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), left, will face off against challenger Paula Basta in the March 20 primary election.

When long-time Chicago lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist Kelly Cassidy was appointed last spring to the Illinois Statehouse of Representatives, a saga between rivals began.

Cassidy won the seat following a well-attended public meeting last April, where the 48th Ward Democratic committeewoman, Carol Ronen, chose her to fill a vacancy left by Harry Osterman -- who departed to join Chicago's city council. Despite Cassidy having the support of residents attending the meeting, her opponents quickly claimed that her success had more to do with clout within Chicago's "deep-pocketed political machine" than the will of the North Side district's voters. One of those who had vied for the spot was Paula Basta, also an out lesbian and a long-time LGBT activist.

Basta announced that same April day that she would attempt to unseat Cassidy the first opportunity she could. The contest will culminate in the Illinois Democratic primary on March 20.

Their contest may mark one of the first times two openly LGBT candidates have faced off for a state office -- a rare scenario likely to become more common as increasing numbers of gay and lesbian people run for public office. In 2010, a lesbian Democrat and a gay Republican competed for State Assembly in California.

Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group that works to elect LGBT elected officials, said two openly LGBT candidates running head-to-head is rare. In San Diego's mayor race, two of the major candidates currently running -- both Republicans -- are gay or lesbian.

In this case, both candidates are lesbian Democrats, with similar positions, passionately invested in the district and both are campaigning very hard -- Cassidy to be elected, rather than appointed, and Basta for redemption following last year's defeat. In the months that followed Basta's announcement, the race has become increasingly tense. Basta's campaign last month claimed that Cassidyallegedly was behind a phone survey whose questions included a charge that Basta was under federal investigation for conducing political work while on the clock at her day job a city position as the regional director of the Levy Senior Center, the Windy City Times reported.

Basta denies those allegations and said Cassidy's camp was just attempting to cook up a scandal.

"My only question is, Who would have been doing a poll like that? Who else would have been doing something like that?" Basta told The Huffington Post.

But Cassidy denies any prior knowledge of the alleged poll question and told HuffPost that "this time of year, people are polling on everything and include other races and issues in their polls."

"If I jumped up and down screaming every time someone asked some nasty question about me, I'd be doing nothing else," Cassidy said. "I have, instead, stayed very focused on being the best representative I can be and running the most positive race that I can."

Despite the recent phone survey dustup, the race has -- mostly -- avoided much in the way of juicy, "Chicago-style" politics. This is most likely the result of the fact that, on paper, it would be difficult to discern all that much of a difference between the two progressive Democrats' positions on key legislative issues facing the state.

Both women are in favor of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recent call for a statewide handgun registry -- a proposal that Governor Pat Quinn admitted will face "an uphill climb" toward passage. Cassidy told HuffPost she is co-sponsoring the registry legislation and has introduced companion legislation upgrading the penalty for giving or selling a weapon to a known street gang member with a weapon to a Class 1 felony.

"In my neighborhood, they're hunting young men with handguns. When one of those weapons is lost or stolen or used in a crime, having the information is invaluable to law enforcement," Cassidy said.

For her part, Basta said, "We see what happens with gun violence in our community," adding, "and if we can somehow curb that and prevent even one more person from being killed or hurt, that's what we need to do."

On Emanuel's Chicago speed cameras bill, signed into law by Gov. Quinn last week, both described the measure as one that would help protect public safety -- even as Cassidy admitted she was "initially very skeptical" of the bill. To Basta, the bill "makes sense."

And on LGBT issues, both are enthusiastic supporters. Basta was inducted in 2009 to the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame in recognition of her LGBT advocacy. Cassidy is now one of just three openly gay or lesbian state lawmakers -- the trio of which earlier this month introduced a bill that would bring marriage equality to Illinois.

Cassidy took her support of that bill a step further, introducing two other pieces of pro-LGBT legislation last week -- one that would add gender identity as a protected status under the state's hate crime law and another that would create the state's own Family and Medical Leave Act and would cover couples registered for civil unions (who are currently denied such benefits).

Presented with two candidates with comparable records on gay issues, a PAC representing Equality Illinois, the state's primary LGBT advocacy group, made the curious move to not endorse Basta, who served on its board for several years.

Instead, rather than endorsing both candidates as they had in three other state legislative races, the organization threw its support exclusively behind Cassidy.

All things being equal in a political race, Randy Hannig, Equality Illinois director of public policy explained, the organization tends to endorse the incumbent when this can serve as a means of thanking that person for aligning with the group's legislative agenda.

"I wish there was a way to have them both represent us in the House of Representatives but that is not the way the cookie crumbles," Hannig said, after adding that his group's endorsement was "nothing personal" against Basta.

When asked whether the non-endorsement from her former colleagues was disappointing, Basta said, "That process is their process."

On Tuesday, Basta not so subtly lashed out anew against her opponent with the unveiling of a 10-point ethics pledge which, among other proposals, calls for voters to be allowed to choose who fills a vacancy, such as Osterman's last year, "rather than letting party bosses make their own appointment."

Basta also hopes to institute "a sensible limit on the number of years" someone can hold any public office -- a point perhaps intended to call out veteran House Speaker Mike Madigan, whose statehouse tenure dates to 1970 and who, along with other influential Chicago political figures such as Mayor Emanuel, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and Senate President John Cullerton, has also supported Cassidy in the race.

Candidate Basta described their support as an alliance with a system that is "broken," and said that electing her would bring "true independence to Springfield." "Speaker Madigan and Mayor Emanuel threw a birthday party for her in November," she said about Cassidy. "What else can you say?" Basta continued.

But Cassidy, who was a long-time assistant in the Cook County State's Attorney's office and also once ran Cullerton's district office, described such clout-heavy names as "the people who have seen me work for the last 20 years and seen me get things done and deliver results."

"I am the original nobody nobody sent," Cassidy added. "I don't shrink away from a fight and the fight I am engaged in is to make sure this district gets the best representation in Springfield it can."

CORRECTION: This story previously stated that Equality Illinois endorsed two candidates in two state legislative races. The group actually endorsed two candidates in one state Senate race, in addition to two candidates in two state House races. None of the three races involved incumbents.

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