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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Chicago civil-rights attorney vies for Board of Elections post
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-12-13

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On Dec. 13, 1943 soldiers of the 117th Jager Division of the German army surrounded and then descended upon on the town of Kalavryta, which was quietly nestled amidst the mountains of Central Greece.

They rang the church bell and pulled people from their homes, dragging them to the local schoolhouse. Men and boys as young as 13 were separated from their families. The Germans marched over 500 husbands, fathers, grandfathers and brothers up a hill called Kappi Ridge.

At its summit, the soldiers opened fire. Bodies fell one on top of the other. The Germans then methodically shot anyone who still showed a sign of life. The dozen who survived only did so because they were buried underneath the dead.

It was a brutal reprisal for the actions of rebel guerillas who had been gaining ground against the Nazi occupation of their country.

One of those killed was the grandfather of Chicago civil-rights attorney Betty Tsamis. Her grandmother, mother and uncles were in the schoolhouse when the Germans locked the doors and set it ablaze. How they escaped is a matter of contention. There are those who maintain that the terrified people were able to charge down the door. Others say that a sympathetic German soldier freed them.

Tsamis's mother was the last to leave the schoolhouse alive, desperately holding the coat of her murdered father and almost trampled to death as people fled the building.

She helped bury the body of her father using her bare hands.

"They wanted to execute everyone in that town," Tsamis told Windy City Times. "Some of the rebels probably included my relatives who were fighting for their rights."

On Dec. 14—one day after the 72nd anniversary of the Massacre of Kalavryta—Tsamis will go up in front of Chief Judge of the State of Illinois Circuit Court Timothy C. Evans as part of an application process for an open position on the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners left vacant when Election Board Chairman Langdon D. Neal announced his decision to step down at the end of the month.

According to a press release from the State of Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County, there are seven finalists vying for the role. They include Tsamis (Democrat) Robert W. Bertucci, Cook County Circuit Judge (Democrat), Fred Fortier, attorney at Fortier Law Offices and general manager of Galena Development (Democrat), Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (Democrat), Thomas E. Soule, attorney (Democrat), Jonathan T. Swain, chairman of the City of Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals and president of Kimbark Beverage Shoppe (Democrat) and Sean Vinck, director of Enterprise IT Transformation and senior legal adviser for the State of Oregon (Democrat).

According to the Circuit Court, Commissioners serve three-year terms and "manage voter registrations; safeguard the rights of all voters to cast ballots independently in a safe and quiet atmosphere, free of interference or intimidation; and inform voters of all of their balloting options, such as Election Day voting, Early Voting and Vote By Mail."

"In addition, the board serves as the quasi-judicial arm of the courts and issues decisions when a voter objects to the nominating petitions of a candidate who wants to be on the Election Day ballot. Such offices include Chicago Mayor, Chicago Alderman, Ward Committeeman, City Treasurer, City Clerk and certain Congressional, Illinois Senate and Illinois House of Representatives Districts that fall partly or entirely in the City of Chicago."

Tsamis's candidacy is a moment in her long career that is particularly profound—born from the blood of fighters less than a year after her family emigrated to the United States in 1966 and eventually settled in Alsip, Ill., where, with little education, fewer resources but an understanding of the value of hard work, her father started and built Alexander's Ice Cream Distributors into a giant.

Shaped by the stories told to her by her family and the memory of the grandfather she never met, as early as elementary school Tsamis began what would become a lifelong battle against injustice.

"I wrote about being involved in our society and in government," she recalled. "I loved writing about my family's history and I felt that it was important for people to have a sense of self determination, understand the mechanisms of government and be involved in it."

In the mid 1980s, Tsamis's world opened up even further. "I was in the city and I saw two men holding hands crossing the street," she said. "I couldn't stop looking at them. I'd had feelings towards women for a number of years. It started to come together for me at that moment. I began to read gay publications in the city for the first time, which was very often about what was happening in Chicago in terms of gay rights and I was enthralled."

On Sept. 7, 1986—while Tsamis was in the midst of writing for Windy City Times—the TV show Crime Story was filming at her North Side apartment complex situated above the Medici on Surf Restaurant. The show's producers decided to stage a mock explosion in the building's elevator shaft.

"They blew up our building," Tsamis remembered. "The walls of the restaurant came crashing down on diners."

Five people were injured.

"I was outraged," Tsamis said. "I was contacted two days later by a woman putting together a tenant's organization and they nominated me to be their president. That was the beginning of community activism for me."

After graduating from the University of Illinois Chicago ( UIC ), in the summer of 1990 Tsamis was given a scholarship to the New Pacific Academy ( NPA )—a 30-day LGBT activist training program co-founded by HIV and LGBT rights legend Cleve Jones.

"I spent my summer studying and having my eyes opened," Tsamis said. "I came back and did a lot of volunteer work for various gay organizations. That appeals to me to this day I want to give from my heart and share my skills in a way that is meaningful."

In 1995, Tsamis left the family business and moved to Colorado. Three years later, she began law-school at the University of Denver and graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. "I gained an understanding of how positive social change could be accomplished," she said. "I discovered that I needed to have a lot of interaction with people. They fascinate me and I'll never get over that."

But Tsamis's heart was always in Chicago. When her father was diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer, she returned home to take care of her mother and family. "I couldn't leave," she said. "So I started over professionally. It was the right decision."

After passing the Illinois Bar exam, Tsamis set out to serve the LGBTQ community with her own law practice. "I thought 'this is my life'," she remembered. "That I could do a great job representing people who really need help."

Tsamis would eventually go on to take a lead role in some of the community's most defining cases including the 2004 discrimination case filed by a transgender woman against a Denver-based grocery chain and a 2011 suit brought by a same-sex couple against two bed and breakfast businesses who refused to recognize their civil union.

She served as an election judge and worked on various campaigns. A number of Illinois political leaders have written letters of support in her bid for a place on the Board of Elections.

"Elections are very statute-driven," Tsamis said. "There are extremely detailed processes articulated from how someone can get their name on a ballot to how the election is conducted and the results are tallied. Election commissioners have to be engaged in ensuring that the democratic process works. They are at the heart and soul of that process. Vetting is super important because too many people in public office profit personally and I think the public is sick of that."

It is Tsamis's lack of a desire for personal gain that she believes makes her the perfect candidate for the City's Board of Elections. "It's a culmination of all the things that have been really important to me about civic service," she said. "I really have been wanting to focus and dedicate myself to that role."

Tsamis is throwing her hat into the ring against a backdrop of historic public and political upheaval in the Chicago. "People are engaged," she said. "They are asserting and empowering themselves in the democratic process. I am a good coalition builder and I have a lot of passion to do this job. It is very exciting to be able to serve the people in this way with a fresh and unique perspective. I want to see transparency in government. I would like to see more outreach to schools to help kids understand the election process and I would like to challenge ourselves to use new technology."

"We have to do better," she added. "Educating ourselves in the systems of electing the individuals that represent us. I want to be part of the process that ensures people the fundamental right to vote, to have their vote counted accurately, meaning their voice is heard accurately."

Where her grandfather fell 72 years ago there now stands a memorial. When lit at night, it casts a radiant glow over a ridge that once flowed red with the sacrificial blood of those who defied tyranny and fell under the horrific outcome when it goes unchallenged.

Tsamis has dedicated her life to ensuring that it always does.

According to The Circuit Court, to join the board candidates need the approval of a majority of the Circuit Judges. Evans will submit one candidate from the interviews to submit to those judges. The decision of the Circuit Judges is anticipated by the end of December.


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