The Girls Won

September 10, 2018

Cleveland Magazine: The Girls Won

By James Bigley II

Before settling into her chair, Nickie Antonio looks for a mural near the back of the Root Cafe in Lakewood. 

Nearly hidden on a small section of wall behind a bookcase, painted tree roots run from a thick trunk at the center all the way out to the edges, where they have no room left to grow. Turquoise, emerald and dark green streaks knot and twist on a brown background. 

“My daughter worked at Phoenix,” Antonio says, gesturing toward the painting. “When they opened this new place, she painted that.”

From a table in the center of the room, Antonio eases into the funky, 8-year-old coffee shop like an old sweatshirt. For the former Lakewood City Council member and state representative, this place is comfortable, familiar.

Antonio pulls out a manila folder filled with campaign literature promoting her current race for the Ohio Senate 23rd District. She points to an oversized postcard in red, white and blue with “Daughter of the District” displayed prominently over eight family photos. 

Her father, pictured with his two older brothers in uniform, was a World War II veteran and served as a corporal on an ammunitions truck after he joined the Army at 17-years-old. Her mother, June, wears a floral hat in Brookside Park beside a photo of Antonio’s first- and second-generation immigrant grandparents in their home in Brooklyn. 

The final picture is of Antonio surrounded by her wife, Jean Kosmac, and their daughters Stacey and Ariel in blue-and-white campaign T-shirts.

“I spent my whole life on the West Side of Cleveland,” she says.

She had hoped that fact would resonate with the more than 58,000 Democrats living in the district in Brook Park, Brooklyn, Lakewood, Middleburg Heights, Parma, Parma Heights, Seven Hills and parts of Cleveland.

Yet after 15 years in politics, the 63-year-old progressive Democrat remains somewhat of an underdog. 

Maybe it’s because she’s a former teacher who worked in social services. Maybe it’s because she’s the first in her family to hold elected office or because she’s the first openly gay member of Ohio’s House of Representatives. Maybe it’s also because she’s a woman.

“We’ve gone back and forth through time whether or not women have wanted to be identified as a ‘woman candidate,’” she says. “We’ve gone through that period of time where we’re like, ‘Oh, I’m just like everybody else. I’m just like the guys.’ ”

She pauses, then holds up her index finger for emphasis.

“I am not,” she says sternly. “I am not just like the guys. I have lived my whole life as a woman. I have been treated in this society first as a girl, then as a woman, and that has always meant second-class citizen in some degree.”

She points to the photos of her parents on her campaign literature. They divorced when she was 10. It’s when she first realized women were treated differently than men. 

After her parents split up, friends at their Lutheran church shunned her mother. When her mother, June, tried to get credit to maintain their house in Cleveland, she needed her mother and brother to co-sign the mortgage.

“Even as a woman with a full-time job, they would not let her have that mortgage by herself,” says Antonio. “But she had been there the whole time with my dad through everything.”

She felt the disparity again during high school. Antonio earned money babysitting to pay her way through Lutheran West in Rocky River because her mother couldn’t afford it. She took college prep courses and planned to earn a teaching degree after graduation, but her counselor said she’d be better suited for typing classes.

“What he knew was that my family didn’t have money for college,” she says. “But he didn’t say, ‘Maybe you should get a construction job that pays a whole lot.’ So even with that, it was this gender moving me in a direction.”

Antonio points to a photo of her mother, wearing a blue-and-pink floral blouse, standing beside her on the day she graduated from Cleveland State University in 1980.

“My mother always wanted to be a nurse, but never went and got the schooling,” she says. “I grew up hearing the stories from someone who wanted to do things a little bit differently for herself and didn’t. I was determined that I was going to have a career, that I was going to do what I wanted.”

Along the way from teacher to nonprofit executive to politician, Antonio has relied on that determination and spirit to turn obstacles into milestones, whether it was surviving a six-way race in her first-ever election to Lakewood City Council or overcoming the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s endorsement of her opponent, Martin Sweeney, in the May primary.

Sweeney, the popular West Side Democrat and former Cleveland City Council president, had vacated his Ohio House seat to clear the way for his daughter, Bride Rose Sweeney, so she could replace him in the 14th District. He chose instead to run against Antonio, who had been term-limited out of her seat in the Ohio House, for the 23rd District Senate seat.

When the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chose to endorse Sweeney over her on the same January day as the second annual Women’s March, Antonio felt it again. 

“I realized at that moment that I’ve been here before,” she says, staring out into some far-off place beyond the front window with tears welling in her eyes. “I know this. I know what it is.”

“Our family has a kind of built-in warrior aesthetic,” says Antonio’s daughter, Ariel Pittner. “From day one, she told me, ‘Question everything. Question me. Question authority. Question all of it.’”

That sense of social activism is part of what drew Antonio and her wife, Kosmac, together in the first place. They became friends in the mid-1980s through a child care group for their newborn daughters Ariel and Stacey. 

Antonio spent 10 years as a middle school special education teacher before earning her master’s degree in public administration from Cleveland State. In 1990, she became the executive director of the Westside Women’s Center, a support and mental health services center for women.

Over the course of six years, she tripled the center’s annual budget to more than $300,000 and provided assistance to nearly 7,000 women. Under her direction, the center created a certified outpatient alcohol and drug addiction treatment program, became the first organization to provide counseling for women living with HIV and AIDS, and organized the first bilingual HIV prevention program for women in Cleveland.

“I’ve always had a sense of service, a sense of wanting to make a contribution, of wanting to leave things better than you found them,” says Antonio.

During that time, Antonio and Kosmac’s marriages both ended in divorce. As their friendship evolved into a long-term relationship, they moved into a two-story house on Belle Avenue together in 1994. They were soccer moms carting their kids around in a minivan decked out in liberal bumper stickers that read “Silence = Death” for HIV awareness and “Women Power.” 

“It was a household where it was like, ‘OK, you’re into soccer, you’re into art,’ ” recalls Pittner. “ ‘That’s great but there’s also this whole world that exists outside of you.’ ” 

As the kids got older, they’d talk about the effects of child labor over dinner and would visit Walmart to slip pieces of paper into jean pockets asking customers if they knew where their clothes were made.

“As we were raising our kids and living in the community in Lakewood, we just got involved in stuff through my volunteerism and community involvement in things,” Antonio says.

She started going to City Council meetings and advocating for issues important to the community. When there was a debate about implementing a city skate park, she spoke on behalf of her daughter to see that a skate park was built.

In 2002, Antonio joined the staff of then-Lakewood Mayor Madeline Cain, the city’s first female mayor, as community relations director.

When an amendment to the state constitution made same-sex marriages and civil unions unconstitutional in 2004 by defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Antonio was activated to do even more.

“We had friends who left the state after that happened,” says Antonio. “What it told them was that they weren’t welcome.”

For Antonio, however, it meant something different. It told her she needed to act, to rise up, to fight for what she had spent her life advocating for — a family that was accepted, respected and supported by all those she came across. Rather than leaving, Antonio and Kosmac promised to stay and they would hold off on their own marriage until they were legally allowed to do so in Ohio.

Encouraged by then-state Rep. Mike Skindell, she also decided to run for one of three at-large seats on Lakewood City Council. 

There were two incumbents — including Ed FitzGerald who would later become Lakewood mayor and the first Cuyahoga County executive — among the six candidates who ran. While Antonio only collected 18 percent of the vote in that 2005 race, it was good enough to be the only non-incumbent to earn an at-large seat on council. 

“I believed I would make a good city councilperson,” she says. “I also believed that I was not a second-class citizen and I really wanted to push back on what that referendum said to all of us from the LGBTQ community.” 

Antonio co-founded the Lakewood Community Relations Advisory Commission in an effort to bill Lakewood as a welcoming place for all communities regardless of race or religion. On council, Antonio learned what it was like to be a legislator, serving as chair for Lakewood’s Health and Human Services and Economic Development committees and as a member of the Finance and Public Works committees. 

“I had an upfront seat seeing how public policy manifests itself in a community,” she says. 

It showed that even small things, like passing legislation that permitted sidewalk dining, could make an impact economically and in the city’s quality of life. 

“City council gave me that grounding, that confidence, that reinforcement that I understood public policy,” she says. It also played to her strengths of bringing people together and finding ways to get legislation passed. 

Voters agreed. In 2009, she received the most votes among five other candidates during her re-election. 

She joined the Cuyahoga Democrats for Principled Leadership, a group of around 300 politicians that included fellow Lakewood Council member Tom Bullock and Cleveland City Council member Matt Zone.

The informal coalition formed in response to the corruption scandal that engulfed the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party at that time. The investigation eventually resulted in prison sentences for Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair Jimmy Dimora, county auditor Frank Russo and dozens of others. 

“It was tarnishing the reputation of good Democrats who want to serve the community,” says Zone. “We wanted high integrity, high character people who could run for office and hold a seat and not embarrass the community that sent them there.”

Zone recognized those qualities in Antonio. He draws parallels between Antonio and his mother, Mary, who replaced her husband Michael on Cleveland City Council after he died from a heart attack.

“My mom was a tough, gruff woman, but she had a soft, sensitive side to her,” says Zone. “I see a lot of that in Nickie Antonio. She’s smart, kind and caring, but she’s no shrinking violet.”

In 2010, Antonio started campaigning for an open seat in state House District 13, comprised of Lakewood and parts of Cleveland’s West Side. 

“The situation of that time created an opening for somebody like me who really wanted to serve with integrity, serve honorably and have policies be the focal point,” she says.

Pitted against Bullock in the Democratic primary, Antonio won with 54 percent of the vote. Unopposed in the general election, the victory made her the first openly gay legislator to serve in the Ohio General Assembly.

But for her, the bigger accomplishment has been what she’s done since taking office.

“Since I’ve been in the legislature, not one anti-LGBT bill has passed through the Ohio General Assembly and been made into law,” she says. “That’s huge. That’s eight years of nothing negative happening on my watch.”

She’s focused heavily on civil rights and humanitarian values that inspired her initial activism. The first bill she introduced proposed an end to Ohio’s death penalty, replacing it with a maximum sentence of life without parole. While it never passed, she’s introduced the measure in every General Assembly since. 

She’s done the same with a bill that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to Ohio’s anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment. For seven straight years, it never got any farther. 

But on Jan. 31, the anti-discrimination measure had its second hearing in the house and support from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. In a packed room in Columbus, more than 95 people were on hand to testify in support of the bill and more than 150 written pieces of testimony were submitted to the committee. 

The last person to give testimony was a 9-year-old transgender girl named Sean who described being bullied and discriminated against by peers without support from her school’s administration.

“I know there are people who are losing jobs and places to live because they are like me,” said Sean. “In the Declaration of Independence, they say: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Please protect my happiness. Please protect my rights.”

Since then, the bill hasn’t moved out of committee, but Antonio says that’s OK.

“The incremental steps that one needs to take often serve as a way to educate and inform the public and help move public opinion into a place where one can pass the legislation,” says Antonio. “We’re in a period of incremental change.”

There have been other successes, too. Antonio introduced a bill that allowed more than 400,000 Ohio adoptees to access their birth records and she helped pass the Ohio Senate’s companion bill into law.

“If someone is truly committed to the policy change, it becomes less important whose name is at the top of the list and on the title than just getting the bill passed,” she says. “The No. 1 reason I do this work is about making a difference for the people I represent, not about my political career.”

On Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, thousands gathered in Public Square in solidarity with the inaugural Women’s March in Washington, D.C. 

They were there to rally for equality, to protest the election of President Donald Trump and to make themselves heard. Galvanized by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, women were being called to political action. 

As one of the featured speakers, Antonio stood wearing a purple, white and green sash that represented women and the genderqueer community.

“Today, we are all women,” she said.

She was there to march for her mother, who never lived to see her in office, and for Kosmac and their two daughters marching in Portland and Boston. She invoked Hillary Clinton’s words by saying, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely and the right to be heard.”

Surrounded by activists wearing pink hats and holding signs that touched on the intersectionality of each and every community at risk, she drew a picture of the kind of America she wanted to see.

“We march together in love because in our America, all people are equal,” she said. “In our America, black lives matter — period. Love wins. Peace is patriotic. Health care is a right not a privilege. People with disabilities are respected.”

This year, however, as 7,000 people gathered for the second Women’s March, Antonio wasn’t on Public Square. She was waging a battle on another front.

Antonio was at Euclid High School seated between a table for Zone’s Ward 15 and one for the city of Lakewood awaiting the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s endorsement for Senate District 23. 

It was an important moment. Either Sweeney or Antonio would walk away with the full weight of monetary, social and structural support from party organizers and leaders throughout the district. It meant having the winner’s name on a sample ballot for 58,000 registered democrats to see. 

Losing likely meant re-evaluating whether to even continue on to the May primary.

Going in, Antonio was already at a disadvantage. City and ward leaders had gathered the week before to recommend Sweeney for the endorsement. Rick Nagin, Ward 14 leader and a longtime supporter of Antonio, had cast the deciding vote in favor of Sweeney.

According to Sweeney’s expenditure filings, Sweeney paid Nagin $500 in December for consulting. He also paid Tom Mastroianni, treasurer for the city of Parma, $5,000 in November. Nearly all of Parma swung their vote behind Sweeney. Additionally, more than half of Lakewood’s city and ward leaders — where Antonio has called home for more than 25 years — voted for Sweeney. 

Throughout his 21-year career, Sweeney had garnered a reputation as a back-slapping politician who used his rumpled good nature to win over colleagues. But Sweeney’s career also has some heavy wrinkles. 

In 2007, then-Clerk of Council Emily Lipovan filed a sexual harassment claim against him during his time as council president. The suit was settled for $60,000, Lipovan resigned and Sweeney admitted no wrongdoing.  

When the party’s executive committee decided on Jan. 20, it was even more lopsided. They followed the city and ward leaders and endorsed Sweeney with more than 60 percent of the vote, throwing the party’s political weight behind his campaign.

It meant city and ward leaders could only publicly support Sweeney or risk losing future endorsements.

“The party supports her when it’s in their best interest, when there’s not any real opposition,” says Tristan Rader, co-founder of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus. “But then the party will throw her under the bus the second somebody starts calling in favors.”

Although Cleveland Magazine made several attempts to speak to Sweeney for this story, he was unavailable for comment.

“It’s a democratic process,” says Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair Shontel Brown. “I don’t think anybody can argue with the integrity of the process.”

Still, it wasn’t easy.

“There were people in that room who were longtime friends and associates of Nickie who couldn’t even look her in the eye because they sold her out over a vote,” says Zone. 

Antonio took it hard, he says. She felt abandoned by her party and betrayed by her colleagues.

“She was really at a low point, felt dejected and left that meeting totally frustrated about the democratic process,” says Zone.

She left the room, hinting to others not to count her out. An hour later, Antonio called Zone and said she talked it over with Kosmac. She wasn’t going to shrink away. She was going to run without the support of the party.

“I think it was really important to me as a woman — in this time — to say, ‘OK, so now I’m on the outside of the system again. I’m an outsider, not an insider, one more time,’ ” says Antonio. “I was determined to prove one didn’t need that endorsement in order to win, and I thought it was really important to stand up to the old boys and say, ‘You don’t always get to call the shots here.’ ”

Back in the cafe, Antonio sits still for a moment before absently reaching for a napkin. She then holds up the crook of her index finger to say she needs a second, and dabs at the tears welling in her eyes before they have a chance to fall down her cheek.

“It’s not about me,” she says, firmly.

In Ohio, women make up more than half of the population, yet only 22 percent of the Ohio Legislature are women. That may be changing as more and more women continue to step up and run for elected office.

“They used to say you’d have to ask a woman three times to run,” says Cindy Demsey, chair of the Cuyahoga Democratic Women’s Caucus. 

Most men, on the other hand, don’t have that problem, Demsey says. She believes they’re more likely to view themselves as able to do the job.

“What we’ve seen,” says Demsey, “as women see more women in office and they meet other women and feel empowered and supported, the ask isn’t as great.”

On a national level, Emily’s List, which works to support and elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, has heard from more than 40,000 women who were interested in running for office since the 2016 presidential election. To put that in perspective, only 920 women reached out to Emily’s List for support during the entire 2016 election cycle.

“You’re seeing women who aren’t content with sitting on the sidelines anymore because state legislators are passing some of the most anti-choice and anti-women legislation we’ve seen in years,” says Lindsay Crete, deputy director of state and local campaign communications for Emily’s List.

In March, two Ohio representatives introduced a bill that would ban abortion in the state and prosecute doctors who performed the procedure. At the same time, the Ohio Legislature was under scrutiny after a Republican and Democratic senator and a Republican representative resigned following various sexual harassment allegations. 

For many women, the confluence of issues served as motivation.

“The silver lining to my not getting endorsed was that more people got involved,” says Antonio. “For some of them, it was the first time they had ever tried anything like that.”

Women ran for precinct committee — the seats in the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party whose sole function is to advocate within their precincts for party members — and were simultaneously campaigning for Antonio, who had corralled a core team of women to see it through.

“She is tugging at the party structure,” says Rader. “I see her as this force that is pulling it in the right direction. She kind of stands up against that good old boy structure.”

Within weeks, Antonio received endorsements from the Cuyahoga Democratic Women’s Caucus, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, and the Matriots — an Ohio nonpartisan political action committee founded by a group of women who participated in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

“Often, especially as a woman, being approachable, kind, smiling, being down to earth is somehow translated into being soft, not tough,” says Antonio. “Women in general are redefining even what it means to be tough, competitive, successful — an entity to be reckoned with and what that looks like.”

After the party’s endorsement, the next few months of the campaign got nasty.  

Although Antonio had not won the party’s backing, her mailers, postcards and other literature featured “Endorsed Democrat” in bold white letters next to a growing list of organizations that did. 

Sweeney countered with a radio spot calling out “tricky Nickie” for her “dirty politics.” He also recruited Mary Devring, former executive director of the county party, to pen a letter to constituents voicing her “strong disapproval and disappointment with State Rep. Nickie Antonio’s desperate antics.”

“Through this whole campaign, women came up to me almost every day and said, ‘I don’t know if I could face the ugly,’ ” says Antonio. “Because it got real ugly in the end.”

Just weeks before the primary, a mailer sent out by D.C.-based Victory Fund, which supports openly LGBTQ candidates and endorsed Antonio, juxtaposed Sweeney alongside Hollywood powerbroker Harvey Weinstein, who had been accused by dozens of women of sexual abuse. For her part, Antonio says she was unaware of the mailing before it hit mailboxes.

Sweeney’s final assault depicted Antonio on a faded black background with a digitally edited wad of cash in her hand. “Don’t be fooled!” it read. “D.C. influence peddlers are funneling dark money to help Nickie Antonio and spread fake news about our endorsed Democrat, Martin Sweeney.”

On the back, the Capitol was cast in a dark cloud with the words “dark money is creeping into our community from Trump Land,” beside an upside down American flag void of all its stars. 

“I was told nice guys finish last,” says Antonio. “I was told I would never win if I didn’t go negative. I said, ‘I don’t believe that. I refuse to believe that.’ ”

Five days before the primary election, Antonio posted a video response to social media. In the video, she’s wearing a black suit jacket and a kaleidoscopic scarf while standing in front of a spindly and sparse yellow-leaved tree. 

“It’s unimaginable and sad that my opponent has gone to such lengths to try to discredit my good character and my name,” she says. “So I just want to say that I was very lucky a while back when the Obamas were in the White House, to meet Michelle Obama.”

In the video, a picture of the first lady standing beside Antonio appears, the two wedged between the United States flag and Ohio flags respectively.

“She knows a thing or two about people attacking, and she said, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and that’s what I want all of us to do,” says Antonio.

A barrage of images pop up with Antonio standing with various members of her district as she hits talking points about getting kids to college, finding good paying jobs and making our communities safe.

“Let’s make sure someone ethical,” she says, pausing with a half-hearted smile, “who really cares about the people of this district is your next state senator.”

On the night of the election, Antonio joined supporters at Deagan’s Kitchen & Bar in Lakewood to watch as the results came in. She gave a short speech thanking her volunteers and all the women who helped her on her campaign. 

In precinct after precinct, the tally swayed back and forth. With 41 percent of the votes in, Sweeney took a 200-vote lead that grew to 400 ahead within 15 minutes. 

With 63 percent of the votes in, Antonio came around, leading by 50. Just before 11 p.m., with 75 percent of the votes counted, Sweeney had 10,863 votes — just 10 more than Antonio. 

But by 11 p.m. Lakewood’s votes had finally been counted, pushing Antonio to victory with little more than 54 percent of the tally.

Wearing a pink shirt, she applauded the crowd. 

“We did the hard work,” she says. “The girls won!”

In July, Antonio drives down to Union Cafe, a small bar in Columbus’ Short North neighborhood. 

She had been asked to speak as part of an LGBTQ campaign event for Sen. Sherrod Brown, who’s seeking a third term as U.S. senator. Antonio is joined by Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that resulted in marriage equality, and Dr. Tayo Clyburn, Ohio State University’s executive director of strategic partnerships and mission.

As the first speaker, Antonio kicks things off with a hearty welcome. 

“I am fired up to see so many of you who are here today to support our federal senator and the re-election of our senator, Sherrod Brown,” she says. “I’m also proud and honored to be the first openly gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or queer person to ever be elected to statewide office at the Ohio House.”

The crowd, cramped into a private dining hall at the back of the bar, cheers, holding up rainbow signs that say “Sherrod Pride.”

Antonio recalls her story — how the 2004 Ohio constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage threw her into politics, how she’s served in the House for eight years. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman calls out, “You poor woman, God love you! That’s a horrible Legislature.”

It brings out a few laughs, but Antonio doesn’t waver. Heading into the election in November, her only opponent is a Republican write-in candidate. As she said during an annual fundraiser just the week before, there are only two ways to run — you run unopposed or scared — and she’s running scared.

“Every day people are saying, ‘What can we do? There’s something that bothers me about the way of the world right now. What can we do to change it,’ ” says Antonio. “Or they say, ‘Somebody ought to change it. Somebody needs to do something.’”

She pauses briefly, letting the crowd revel in the call.

“Each of you,” she says, “you are that somebody.”

Near the end of the event, Antonio shakes hands and takes photos in the crowd. Two middle-aged women come up to her. The first, Rebecca Reagan, juts out her hand and shakes Antonio’s vigorously.

“I just wanted to say thank you for putting up with all the crap you put up with,” she says.

Beside her, Tiffanie Roberts introduces herself as the first Democrat to run for any countywide office in Union County, just northwest of Columbus, since 1996.

“When I win,” she says affirmatively, “I’ll be the first woman ever to be county commissioner and the first Democrat since 1932.”

As a former social worker and married mother of two, Roberts felt activated by the 2016 presidential election.

“It’s important that the people are getting a voice,” she says.

Antonio congratulates her, and then turns back to Reagan.

“And the crap I put up with?” she asks. “What do you mean?”

“It’s an unbalanced state house right now,” says Reagan. “Ideas that are originated by progressives are taken by the Republican Party and watered down. I’ve watched it over and over again, and then credit is claimed and ideas aren’t implemented. So I appreciate people who are fighting the fight and living the life.”

For a moment, Antonio is frozen.

“I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for getting up every day and getting the tough things called against you, because I know that happens,” continues Reagan. “I really appreciate that you’re brave enough to do that.”

“OK,” says Antonio, unapologetically welling up with tears before hugging Reagan.

“We need your voice,” says Reagan, “so please don’t stop.”