Illinois House Majority Leader Greg Harris ponders term

House Majority Leader Greg Harris, the No. 2 Democrat in the Illinois House of Representatives, never imagined landing the role of state representative — or that he would leave office in having the feeling of having succeeded.

The first openly LGTBQ leader in Illinois history, Harris, 66, of Chicago, served eight terms in the Illinois House. He currently represents the 13th District encompassing parts of Uptown, Ravenswood, Lincoln Square, North Center, West Ridge and Bowmanville.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to be elected and to serve,” Harris said. “Even more to be able to play a leadership role and help the state overcome multiple challenges.”

In November 2021, Harris, who has become a leading Democratic voice on budget issues and countless others, announced he would not seek re-election after completing his term.

Harris said he was resigning because he had achieved most of his priorities over the years, and during the COVID-19 pandemic the discussion grew about the need to change the system and let new younger voices take control.

“It seemed like the logical time to leave and let a whole new generation of leaders take over in the House,” Harris said.

A native of Colorado, Harris moved to Chicago in 1977 with a journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder which he would instead use in marketing and government relations at the National Home Furnishings Association.

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The association eventually left Chicago in 1988, but Harris stayed and helped organize a program that delivered home-cooked meals to AIDS patients. He co-founded this program, Open Hands Chicago, replicating a similar program in San Francisco. It was the city’s first Meals on Wheels program for people living with HIV and AIDS and became Chicago’s largest supplier of food for this purpose.

“Back then, we were just groups of people sitting around our kitchen tables, figuring out how to get food to people or how to get health care for people,” Harris said.

Harris, who has lived with HIV for more than three decades, recalled at the time that there were no similar services offered by the federal government. As Harris and organizers continued to watch people they knew get sick and die from the virus, they decided to be proactive with the meal program.

Tom Tunney, Chicago alderman from the 44th Ward, said he first met Harris while volunteering and donating his Lakeview restaurant’s cooking to Open Hands Chicago. Tunney took over the Ann Sather Restaurant in 1980, helping to produce meals for the organization.

Tunney said Harris remained a close friend and political adviser to him over the years and that Harris always helped him when needed, including with work on the LQBTQ-focused Center on Halsted.

“Without Greg Harris, whether it’s funding the Center on Halsted to AIDS or the lakeside AIDS garden, this wouldn’t have happened without his help,” Tunney said. “He is a valued friend and leader for his generation and mine.”

Following his community activism, Harris served as chief of staff for the former 48th Ward Chicago Ald. Mary Ann Smith for 14 years before being elected to the Illinois House in 2006.

Harris was first named on the ballot in the November 2006 general election when Chicago Democratic Rep. Larry McKeon, who was, like Harris, openly gay and HIV-positive, announced his intention to retire in July of the same year.

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McKeon had already been nominated as the Democratic candidate in the March primary. Selecting a replacement candidate was the task of five members of the McKeon District Democratic Neighborhood Committee.

“I looked at what (McKeon) was capable of and saw there was so much for the LGBTQ community to do and I thought, I should take a chance trying to get this. work,” Harris said.

Harris has since been re-elected seven times, never facing a challenger.

One of the most notable bills Harris spearheaded during his tenure in the General Assembly was a measure legalizing same-sex marriage.

The measure passed the Senate 34-21 on February 14, 2013 and the House 61-54 on November 5, 2013. Then Governor. Pat Quinn signed it in November and it came into effect on June 1, 2014.

But the journey to legalize marriage equality in Illinois has been a long-running battle with opposition on both sides.

Harris first introduced marriage equality legislation in February 2007, but it died in committee. Over the next few years, he would reintroduce legislation at each new General Assembly, but it would fail to pass the committee.

But in January 2013, Harris and former state senator Heather Steans introduced Senate Marriage Equality Bill 10 which left the Senate Executive Committee in early February and was passed in the Senate for a vote. complete.

On the last day of the spring session in May, months after the Senate had already approved the bill, Harris opted not to call it for a final vote in the House.

He recalled that last day of the 2013 spring session, explaining that he had made the difficult decision because he was anticipating his defeat, and that seeing the bill fail would have been a “catastrophic strategic error”.

Fundamental rights were at stake, he said, and many members of the General Assembly were reluctant to support him.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris D-Chicago, right, receives a hug from Illinois House Speaker Emmanuel "Chris" Welch at the end of the April 9 session. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

Harris said Reps were willing to vote yes if they knew for sure they would be on the winning side of history that day.

“If you burn people, they won’t come back a second time and vote again,” Harris said.

Over the next few months, Harris and other marriage equality advocates lobbied representatives who were “on the brink of indecision.”

Harris noted that the driving force behind advocating for marriage equality comes down to motivating voters and their family members, religious leaders and other local elected officials to tell their representative how important the issue is to them. them.

“We really focused on finding people in all of these communities to tell their reps that there are people in this community that this is really important to,” Harris said.

When lawmakers returned to session in November 2013, the measure passed with a vote to spare.

In 2010, Harris was also the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 1716, which established the Illinois Religious Liberty and Civil Union Protection Act that recognized civil unions of same-sex couples in the state.

Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, who is also stepping down after this term, said he wishes there were more people like Harris in the General Assembly because he always kept an open mind and was ready to work with anyone.

Batinick recalls the first time he met Harris. Batinick was a freshman lawmaker, it was his first day in the House and Harris walked up to introduce himself, shook his hand and asked Batinick if he was one of those political regulators.

“I laughed and told him I’m just going where I think politics takes me,” Batinick said.

The couple worked together to improve mental health funding in the state, a common issue important to both lawmakers.

Harris reflected on his own past experiences and struggles with drugs, alcoholism and mental health, which he said reminded him that there are people who need help and that government officials have the obligation to guarantee the availability of support services.

“I was that guy once, who was desperate and kind of looking for people to help him and I want to make sure I think of other people the same way,” Harris said.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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