Greg Harris – a top Democrat known for successful gay marriage – announces his retirement

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Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago), Illinois’ second House Democrat, will not be running for a new term in 2022, he said Monday.

Harris, who served in the legislature for 15 years, is best known for passing Illinois’ same-sex marriage law in 2013. But he was also a major architect of the state budget, including included during Illinois’ two-year budget stalemate under Governor Bruce Rauner – and took the helm of Medicaid and other healthcare reform efforts.

Expanding health care coverage, especially to marginalized groups, is personal for Harris, who became active in local politics when the AIDS epidemic hit Chicago in the 1980s. He is openly gay and lives on. with HIV for over three decades.

“As a person with HIV, having access to quality, competent health care literally saved my life,” Harris told NPR Illinois. “Back then… my friends were dying right and left. And you can see what happens when people don’t have access to health care.

Harris previously spoke about his substance abuse issues at the time of his diagnosis. It wasn’t until his HIV-positive status turned into a near-fatal AIDS infection that he got sober for the first time. Now he’s been sober for over 20 years.

In 2006, Harris ran unopposed for the soon-to-vacant 13th District seat held by Rep. Larry McKeon (D-Chicago), who was also openly gay and HIV-positive, and who had at times been the only lawmaker in fight for LGBT rights. Harris continued McKeon’s work, most visibly with his efforts to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples in 2011, and then leading the fight for same-sex marriage from the following year.

The now widespread public sentiment in favor of LGBT rights has been touted as the most rapid change in American public opinion in recent political history. But that didn’t make Harris’s job easier as the godfather of marriage equality law.

Hannah Meisel / NPR Illinois

The Godfather of Marriage Equality Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) listens to Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) during the same-sex marriage debate at Illinois House on November 5, 2013.

Between the measure’s introduction in February 2012 and its final adoption in November 2013, Harris faced arrows on both sides of the issue – “two-sided-ism” itself is almost an anachronism these days. same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. since 2015, after the historic United States Supreme Court ruling recognizing the fundamental right of all Americans to marry.

But after working on his bill for two consecutive legislative sessions, Harris was moved when he announced that same-sex marriage would not be passed when lawmakers ended their term in Springfield on May 31, 2013. Two powerful forces – the Catholic social service organizations and the Church, as well as black religious groups – had ended its passage in the House after its passage in the Senate earlier this spring.

But choking back tears, Harris pledged to bring marriage equality to a vote in the coming months after further negotiations with hesitant colleagues.

“To this day, I apologize to the families who hoped to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state,” Harris said in a brief speech during the closing hours of the legislative session this that evening, pausing for the angry reaction and booing from the gallery of the House.

After hearing his own eight-year-old words played back to him on Monday, Harris recalled the heavy responsibility he felt.

“It was a very difficult day for me, but more importantly for the hundreds of people who had come down to Springfield and thousands who were watching the state thinking marriage equality was going to pass that day,” a- he told NPR Illinois. “And there weren’t the votes to do it. And it was really, really difficult.

The editor of the Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBT newspaper, immediately called on Harris to step down from his role as sponsor of the bill, and activists criticized his strategy, fearing the movement would suffer permanent damage.

Five months later, however, Harris crossed the finish line for marriage equality and said Monday he still stands by his decision not to call the bill prematurely.

“There are two schools of thought on this sort of thing: putting the bill on the board, getting people to vote and showing who they are,” said Harris. “Other people say you are not losing a bill like this which is the key to basic human rights. You put it up there when you know you’re going to win. And this is a decision I made: it would be a mistake that would haunt us for a long time to put such a bill on the board and lose.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s signing on the legislation two weeks later made Illinois the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Illinois is one of the minority of states whose legislature has approved marriage equality without being prompted by a court ruling or voter referendum.

Harris cited the Rauner years – particularly Illinois’ two budgetless years as collateral damage to a feud between the GOP governor and Madigan – as one of the toughest of his career. The state racked up nearly $ 17 billion in unpaid bills due to its inability to spend money, and many long-standing social service agencies that depended on state contracts have been shut down or downsized. to a minimum of operations to survive.

“Rauner’s strategy was divide and conquer,” said Harris. “He was trying to pit social service agencies against each other… and trying to pit social services at large against unions and against colleges and universities. “

Harris fought against Rauner and his Republican allies, but ultimately he and other Democrats used the governor’s “divide and rule” strategy to defeat Rauner, choosing 15 GOP House members to vote for a budget and the corresponding income tax to end the deadlock. After the governor vetoed the package, 10 of those Republicans stayed with Democrats to override Rauner’s veto, ultimately ending the two-year standoff.

GOP Representative Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) was not one of those Republicans who broke with the governor, but on Monday hailed Harris as “a great lawmaker and a great public servant.” The bipartisan pair are considered the top experts on the state budget and Medicaid in their respective caucuses, which means hours of direct negotiation with each other.

“Working with him on budget and Medicaid issues has been a real highlight of my time in the House,” Demmer wrote in a Twitter post. “All of his colleagues, and the Chamber as an institution, will regret his leadership.”

At 66, Harris said he was watching the influx of new, younger faces to the General Assembly in recent years, which he saw as a sign that maybe it was time to reassess his to come up.

“I think I accomplished a lot of things that I wanted to accomplish,” Harris said. “I… realized it was time to give a new generation of leaders a chance to grow. “

House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside), who took over the House in January after Democrats ousted Madigan as a federal corruption probe examines the former’s inner circle president, is part of this new leadership and thanked Harris for his service on Monday. .

“As a values-driven leader and as the first openly gay majority leader, Greg has given voice to so many who have always felt excluded from state government,” Welch said in a statement. . “I am grateful for the support of Chief Harris during my first year as President. I look forward to his continued guidance throughout the 102nd General Assembly, but I will forever be blessed to call him a friend. “

As a young lawmaker, Harris said he benefited from the mentorship of members like former Reps Art Turner, Sr. (D-Chicago) and Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), whom Harris would inherit as chief of the majority upon retirement in 2019.

Harris was not new to politics when he first ran in 2006; he had already served 14 years as chief of staff to former Chicago Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48) and spent years in leadership and government relations roles for the Chicago-based National Home Furnishings Association, in addition to her general involvement in local politics for decades. But becoming a lawmaker was even more surreal – and offered even greater reality check.

“Going into the Capitol and going into the house bedroom upstairs of the house that they let you in and you have your office with your name on it – that was incredibly moving to me. It meant so much, ”said Harris. “And then the debate started on all of these topics and I sat in my seat thinking, ‘Oh my God, I literally don’t know what a lot of these topics are talking about. “

These days, however, Harris is familiar with many of the topics he once found confusing, and also gives advice to his Democratic House caucus.

“Be united, make sure you are the rising tide that lifts all boats. Don’t let people on the outside – for their own reasons and means – divide us, and we have to work together, ”Harris said.

But he is not yet giving everything.

“I have a lot of other advice and I’m going to be here for a year and people can come and hear it,” he joked.

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