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Michael Bauer reflects on a life of activism
by Matt Simonette
2019-08-21

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Activist Michael Bauer, originally an attorney and executive who has been active in fundraising in local LGBT, Jewish and womens' communities since the mid-'90s, recalls vividly sitting through the inauguration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot this past May.

"We were seated with the Lightfoot and Eshleman families in the middle section of the front row," he recalled of being with the relatives of the mayor and her wife, Amy Eshleman. At one point, Roger [Simon, Bauer's husband of 37 years] noticed that the mayor was looking straight at me because I was crying. What a phenomenal accomplishment for the mayor."

Bauer got on board Lightfoot's campaign in April 2018, when he became her finance chair.

"People thought I was crazy when I talked about her becoming the next mayor of Chicago," he said. "Part of that was, people were asking, 'Who is she?' The campaign was like like a rollercoaster. It was going great until Rahm [Emanuel] made the announcement that he would not run again. Then, all the big guys got in the race."

But Lightfoot, Bauer said, "was smart, thoughtful and determined to see this through, and I told her I was committed to seeing it through by her side."

Bauer has known Lightfoot for about 15 years but admitted he cannot remember where he first met her. Laughing, he added, "I must say, that's true of most people I know. I do at least remember how I met my husband."

Lightfoot was the latest in a number of prominent political candidates Bauer has put his money and support behind over the years.

"The common theme is they've all really been smart people," he explained. "I really like smart people in politics. They've all really been smart on policy issues, and I'd be the first to tell you that I'm not. If you ask me about city issues—what should we do about economic development, transportation or pensions, for example—I'm going to look at you and have no clue."

Bauer added that he is, first and foremost, interested in issues facing the federal government, but he recognized in Lightfoot "one of the smartest people I have ever met, so that attracted me to her campaign. … I was swept away with the notion of her being mayor of Chicago."

Among those he has supported were Judges Tom Chiola and Sebastian Patti; U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Dick Durbin; and Ald. Tom Tunney ( 44th Ward ). At some point he and Durbin "just clicked," Bauer said, leading to his own activism "just getting a life of its own." His work has centered around LGBT rights, the U.S.-Israel relationship, reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS funding .

Bauer is most proud of taking part in a campaign aimed at bringing down U.S. Rep. Phil Crane, who represented the Northwest suburbs from 1969-2005. Crane, whom Bauer described as "bitterly anti-choice and anti-gay," was notoriously removed from his constituents and was ultimately defeated by Melissa Bean, who served 2005-11.

Bean lost once in 2002 before defeating Crane in 2004. Bauer was her finance chair in her second go-round.

"Melissa was not a member of our community in any way, but taking out [Crane] was really important," Bauer said. "It's like rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies."

Bauer said that his activism was inspired by the late activist and physician Ron Sable, who ran to be the 44th Ward alderman in 1987 and 1991.

"Here was Ron, a medical doctor, and we were going through the AIDS crisis at the time," Bauer recalled. "No matter what we could raise in resources for healthcare, housing, food and social services, it just wasn't enough. We had no entree into government—the city, county, state and federal government had no interest in helping. Ron took the Harvey Milk approach and said, 'We have to elect our own. When they close their doors, he have to be behind them.'"

Sable lost both those bids, but his candidacy "cleared the way for Chiola, Patti and [state Rep. Larry] McKeon," Bauer added.

Another inspiration to Bauer was the late Tom Stoddard, who was was executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund during 1986-92 and who brought Bauer onto that organization's national board.

"I was suddenly on two paths, getting involved with nonprofits and getting involved with political campaigns, and they actually fit together," he said.

Many advocates decry activism such as Bauer's, which is dependent on raising money and forging connections with political and financial centers of power. But he said, "If we want to play the political game, where we are listened to and have access, then we need to understand the rules—and master those rules. I'm sorry to say it, but money comes into politics."

He added, "An elected official gets many calls a day. With all those calls, whose calls do you think that elected official is going to take first? It's just a reality in that situation."

Transgender members of the LGBT community need to be a key focus for the community, Bauer said.

"The trans community has come a long way in an incredibly short time, but there is so much hatred—I think that's the right word—towards people who are trans," he said. "The hatred displays itself in everything from murders to sexual assaults to discrimination. … I'm not sure how committed the rest of the LGBT community is to understand the issues involved with that community and their rights."

Bauer has been in poor health for the last several months. But his mother—a Holocaust survivor who recently turned 103—still offers him inspiration.

She first had difficulty coming to terms with Bauer being gay, but Bauer said his mother, who's now accepting of him and his marriage, exemplifies how a person evolves over time. He speaks to her several times a day.

"She tells Roger all the time how much she loves us," Bauer said. "I think it's important to understand that, just because someone has the views they do today, doesn't mean that we should ultimately give up on them. I think a lot of people do evolve, and will evolve."


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