Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Harris to replace McKeon

Harris to replace McKeon
By Gary Barlow
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press
September6, 2006

Thirty-one days after Illinois’ only openly gay legislator, state Rep. Larry McKeon (D-Chicago), announced his retirement and withdrawal as a candidate for reelection in the November general election, 13th District Democratic ward committeemen met and chose another openly gay man, Greg Harris, to succeed McKeon.

The committeemen—40th Ward Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 47th Ward Ald. Gene Schulter, 46th Ward Committeeman Tom Sharpe and 48th Ward Committeeman Mike Volini—listened Aug. 29 as six candidates made presentations at the slating meeting at Swedish Covenant Hospital at Foster and California.

Four hours after they heard the final candidate speak and retired to executive session, they emerged to announce that Harris had won the contest.

“We realized the difficult decision that was before us,” Volini said. “We all took it seriously.”

The choice of Harris over McKeon’s recommended candidate, openly gay attorney Jim Snyder, and Schulter’s 47th Ward ally, Tom O’Donnell, surprised some, but Harris’ 14-year history of working with the committeemen and other district officials as chief of staff for 48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith proved persuasive.

“Greg’s strength came out, one, having worked with an alderman all these years, his constituent service would be strong,” O’Connor said. “And we thought he would have a great deal of empathy for the ward committeemen and neighborhoods.”

Sharpe was committed to Snyder and kept that promise to the end, even refusing to make the decision to nominate Harris unanimous in a public roll call after the committeemen announced their choice. Schulter was committed to O’Donnell, a longtime political operative who lost to McKeon in McKeon’s first Democratic primary run in 1996. O’Donnell is straight but underscored his commitment to GLBT rights in his presentation and in the weeks leading up to the slating meeting.

“I will have a GLBT person on my staff,” O’Donnell said. “I will fight for GLBTs all year round.”

But some GLBT community leaders, including Equality Illinois board president Art Johnston and the group’s political director, Rick Garcia, had lobbied the ward committeemen to commit to supporting one of the openly gay candidates to ensure that the GLBT community continues to be represented in the General Assembly.

O’Connor made that commitment and it played a key role in ensuring that Harris got the nod. Johnston praised O’Connor for keeping his promise.

“Ald. O’Connor has once again proven himself to be a man of his word,” Johnston said. “He made a commitment that he would vote for a gay person and he stuck to it. ÉHe’s a real hero for our community.”

Sharpe and Volini also made similar commitments, Johnston said, and kept their word.

“The whole thing was handled in such an above-board manner,” Johnston said.

O’Connor said he made the decision to support an openly gay candidate because of the district’s history of reelecting McKeon and because of his awareness of what McKeon’s presence in Springfield meant to GLBT people throughout Illinois.

“My feeling was that we needed to honor that commitment Larry had made,” O’Connor said. Going into the meeting, O’Connor said, he wasn’t sure who would win. He praised all six candidates, singling out Snyder, Harris and lobbyist and former Equality Illinois executive director Kevin Thompson.

“All had different things to offer,” O’Connor said.

The other two candidates—lesbian activist Mel Ferrand and longtime 40th Ward community leader Mary Gallagher—also impressed the committeemen.

“The field of candidates was very impressive and it was a very difficult decision,” Sharpe said.

McKeon spoke briefly at the beginning of the meeting and praised the committeemen for opening up the process.

“I commend each of them for the professional and dignified way they are carrying out their duty,” McKeon said, adding that he expects to remain “very active” in 13th District politics.

The district’s state senator, Carol Ronen (D-Chicago), said Harris would be able to “hit the ground running.”

“I think he’ll be fabulous, as all the candidates would have been,” she said. “But I’m especially proud for Greg. I think he’ll be a star in the Legislature.”

Two days after his win, Harris said he’d already taken calls of congratulations from House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), Mayor Richard M. Daley and other political and community leaders.

“The speaker was very gracious,” Harris said. “He called the first thing the next day and offered to help in any way he could, as did the mayor.”

Harris said the other five candidates for the job also congratulated him and agreed to meet with him soon to discuss issues facing the district. After 10 years working in the business community and 14 years working in Smith’s office, he acknowledged that being a state representative in Springfield is a new and very different challenge.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Harris said. “I hope I do it right.”

Johnston said he’s confident about the job Harris will do.

“Greg will be an outstanding state representative,” Johnston said. “I am thrilled at the prospect for our community’s issues with Greg in Springfield.

Harris, who is also openly HIV-positive, has no Republican opponent in the November election.


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