Column: Sen. Napoleon Harris unifies rivals in new role for Thornton Township Democrats

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Political rivals who have waged bitter battles over power and money gathered Thursday night in Dolton and projected an impressive display of Democratic Party unity.

State Sen. Napoleon Harris III, D-Harvey, hosted his first Democrats of Thornton Township meeting since besting four others in the June 28 primary election to fill the party committeeperson vacancy created when Frank Zuccarelli died in January.

“We talk about unity a lot. We talk about bringing people together,” Harris said. “Who would have thought the senator, the committeeman, could put such a robust group in the same room at the same time?”

The standing room only crowd in the penthouse of a U.S. Bank building off Sibley Boulevard felt like a friendly reunion of the feuding Hatfield and McCoy families. Attendees included Harvey Mayor Christopher Clark and former Mayor Eric Kellogg, whom Clark replaced when Kellogg was forced from office because of term limits.

Calumet City Mayor and state Rep. Thaddeus Jones mingled with guests and shared space with two of his political adversaries, city Clerk Nyota Figgs and Ald. Monet Wilson, who challenged Jones in the recent primary for the 29th District House seat.

Former Dolton Mayor Riley Rogers attended, as did five Dolton Village Board members who are battling Mayor Tiffany Henyard in brutal legal and political fights. Henyard. who replaced Zuccarelli as Thornton Township supervisor, looked like a no-show but made an appearance just as Harris concluded his public remarks, 90 minutes after the event’s scheduled start.

Harris delivered a clear message that even if people do not like each other, they will be expected to work together for the betterment of communities in Thornton Township.

“There is a new sheriff in town,” Harris said.

All four of the other committeeperson candidates turned out to show their support for Harris, who finished with 41 more votes than Jones, 4,689 to 4,648. Rounding out the field were community activist Troy O’Quin, former Thornton Township High School District 205 Board President Kenneth Williams and Phoenix Mayor Terry Wells, who replaced Zuccarelli as chair of the board that oversees South Suburban College in South Holland.

Harris, 43, earned a business degree from Northwestern University and was a first-round pick in the 2002 NFL draft. He played linebacker for seven seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs. He owns Beggars Pizza restaurant franchises and has represented the 15th District in the Illinois Senate since 2013.

He paid tribute to Zuccarelli, who died Jan. 3 at age 70. Zuccarelli was committeeman since 2002 and as township supervisor since 1993.

“He did a tremendous job serving the township, providing services for seniors and youth an building communities he represented,” Harris said.

State Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey, presents a Senate resolution to Frank Giglio, 88, a former Chicago alderman, state representative and Thornton Township Democratic Party committeeman. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

Harris also honored Frank Giglio, 88, who was a Chicago alderman, member of the Illinois House for 22 years and as Thornton Township Democratic committeeman from 1973 to 2002.

“He overturned a predominantly Republican voting bloc in Thornton Township that has lasted for over 20 years,” Harris said.

Thornton Township regularly generates more Democratic votes than any other township in Illinois, Harris said.

“We’re going to keep the momentum going,” Harris said.

More than 250 elected offices serve the township, he said, including federal representatives, state lawmakers, Cook County officials and local representatives of municipalities, schools, parks, libraries and other taxing districts.

“This is a political organization,” Harris told the group. “Our job is to elect good Democrats to make our communities better.”

The township organization’s support will be critical to candidates seeking to run in local or regional elections. Qualifications and experience are important, he said.

“We’re going to have a vetting process,” Harris said. “We want the strength and energy of the young and the wisdom of the old.”

State Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey, newly elected Democratic Party committeeman for Thornton Township, greets guests Thursday during an event in Dolton. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

Harris called on political foes to set aside differences and work together to support other Democrats in the November midterm election.

“Families fight, that’s what families do,” Harris said. “When you come together you have a larger impact.”

Democrats are sometimes criticized for having a “wait your turn” mentality. Prospective candidates for political office are sometimes rewarded with party support because they have worked for years to collect petition signatures or get out the vote for other candidates.

That can be discouraging to younger hopefuls who are enthusiastic about entering public service but are told to be patient.

“I am living proof you can attain all your hopes, dreams and aspirations,” Harris said.

Harris said he wanted to use his role as township committeeman to train the next generation of public servants.

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“I don’t plan on dying in this seat,” he said. “I plan on making leaders.”

Also attending was Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Kari Steele, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary against Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi.

Harris welcomed Monica Gordon of Flossmoor, a Prairie State College trustee and Bloom Township committeeperson who recently defeated Hazel Crest Mayor Vernard Alsberry to win the nomination to represent the 5th District on the Cook County Board.

Harris told the group he recently met for the first time with Democratic committeepersons who represent Chicago’s 50 wards and Cook County’s 30 townships.

“Thornton Township has a heck of a reputation,” he said. “People were lining up to speak to me. U.S. senators were made in Thornton Township. Presidents were made in Thornton Township. Thornton Township is a launching pad.”

Ted Slowik is a columnist with the Daily Southtown.

tslowik@tribpub.com

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August 19, 2022 at 04:36PM

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