“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.”