Harris this coming week, on Jan. 11, will officially retire as Illinois House majority leader. The 67-year-old North Sider will do so with a bucket full of accomplishments, a sterling reputation and a long list of admirers on both sides of the legislative aisle. Whatever your political persuasion is, he’s a testament to the fact that, even in these dark times, American democracy can and does produce surprise winners.
“Never in the world” did he expect to become one of the powers in Illinois government, the highest-ranking openly LGBTQ person ever to hold office in this state, Harris said in a phone chat the other day as he prepared for—what else?—one final legislative session.
Yet, “I’m leaving pretty happy,” with no real regrets, he added, pointing to accomplishments including enacting the state’s same-sex marriage law and climate-protection measures, and being one of the behind-the-scenes wizards who balanced the state’s budget while finding more money for social services, especially health services.
“Working with him on budget and Medicaid issues has been a true highlight of my time in the House,” tweeted state Rep. Tom Demmer, a Republican who often served as point person for his caucus on budget and Medicaid issues. “All of his colleagues, and the House as an institution, will miss his leadership.”
Harris grew up in Denver but moved here to take a governmental relations job with a trade group. The group moved, but Harris soon found himself a new gig, heading an agency that delivered meals to those afflicted by the then fully raging AIDS epidemic. He was hit by full AIDS himself when running now-U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley’s campaign for 46th Ward alderman and, with friends falling left and right, melted down.
Asked recently by a Reader interviewer about his attempted suicides then, Harris says he paused for a moment and then answered the question. People need to understand that severe mental health problems are everywhere, and can be treated, he told me when I asked why he was so candid. If nothing else, the episode made him “understand, when you’re down and out and struggling, what kind of (government) resources you need.”
He survived, becoming chief of staff to former Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th. When Larry McKeon, then the state’s only out legislator, announced his retirement in 2006, Harris was appointed and then elected to the post. He since has been re-elected seven times.
Harris became majority leader when another lakefront liberal that then-Speaker Mike Madigan had advanced to the job, Hyde Park’s Barbara Flynn Currie, retired. He expresses no regrets about serving as a top lieutenant to Madigan, who since has been indicted on federal corruption charges. But Madigan, a once staunchly conservative Southwest Side Catholic, did more to the political left over time with the rest of his caucus, Harris says.
Currie, interestingly, says about the same thing. “Madigan did a solid job of passing legislation and solving problems,” she told me. “There’s no doubt he moved to the left over time.”
The new speaker, Emanuel “Chris” Welch, kept Harris on, and has been effusive in his praise. So is Quigley, whose life could have been a lot different had his campaign manager been able to function. “He’s a great story,” Quigley puts it. “Illinois and Chicago have been lucky to have him.”
Harris says he’s not sure what’s next. Friends recently feted him at an event at which he was presented a tiara—“a really nice tiara.” Having, like a lot of us, been effectively married to his job for so long, he says maybe he’ll now have time to focus on building a personal life.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he says. “We’ll find out.” But he’ll always have the tiara.
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January 9, 2023 at 06:57AM