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Illinois House Majority Leader Greg Harris, a driving force behind legalizing same-sex marriage, won’t seek reelection next year

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/30/2021 Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune
House Majority leader Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) on the Illinois House floor at the State Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 29, 2020. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune House Majority leader Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) on the Illinois House floor at the State Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 29, 2020.

In May 2013, state Rep. Greg Harris choked back tears on the floor of the Illinois House when he told supporters that he wouldn’t be calling for a vote on his measure to legalize same-sex marriage, which already had been approved in the Senate and had the support of then-Gov. Pat Quinn.

In the face of opposition from Catholic and conservative Black church groups, Harris, an openly gay North Side Democrat, said he wanted to give fellow lawmakers more time to weigh the issue. He later called the decision to wait “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”

The wait lasted just a few months. The House approved the bill during its fall session that November, with a handful of Republican votes proving to be decisive, and it was later signed into law by Quinn.

That combination of progressive values and political pragmatism served Harris as he rose through the ranks for the House Democratic caucus to become majority leader in 2019. On Monday, Harris, 66, announced that he won’t seek reelection and will leave the House when his term expires in early 2023.

“When I stepped into this office 15 years ago, I was committed to making change,” Harris said in a statement. “I wanted to improve the lives of LGBTQ folks, support our immigrant community, increase the diversity of our caucus and fight for those who for so long have been ignored. As I look back at my time in Springfield, I can confidently say that I was fortunate to do that and more.”

Looking back, Harris said the effort to legalize same-sex marriage was emblematic of his approach to issues in the legislature.

“I go in things to win. I don’t go in things to put something up on the board and have it fail and go, ‘Oh, well,’ ” Harris said in an interview. “I go in things to win, and it takes a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of patience. And you’ve got to be able to put up with a lot of aggravation along the way sometimes.”

Harris’ decision to retire was part of the biennial exercise of evaluating whether to run for another term, he said. With the Democrats in Springfield “settling in” under the leadership of House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, Senate President Don Harmon and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Harris said, “it just seemed like a natural opportunity to move on and let other people have an opportunity to lead.”

One of the challenges of serving as the No. 2 leader of the 73-member House Democratic caucus has been trying to build consensus among a group that is diverse in its geography, its racial and ethnic makeup, and even its political persuasions.

“We’ve got ... (to) take care of a diverse state and a diverse set of needs, but also we have to govern,” Harris said. “We can’t just sit by the sidelines and heckle.”

Prior to becoming House majority leader in 2019, Harris was former Speaker Michael Madigan’s point man on budget issues during the Democratic-controlled General Assembly’s long-running standoff with former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

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He continued to be one of the chief architects of the state budget in the ensuing years, including the past two years as the state has grappled with financial uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Harris’ work on the budget and other key issues earned praise Monday from Pritzker, who said in a statement that Harris’ “service defines what it means to fight for all Illinoisans.”

“From marriage equality, to health care reform, to balanced budgets: you’d be hard pressed to find a recent Illinois legislative achievement that Leader Greg Harris didn’t help shape,” Pritzker said.

Harris said his remaining priorities include maintaining the state’s recent progress toward fiscal stability, marked by a shrinking backlog of unpaid bills and the first upgrades to the state’s credit ratings in decades. He also said he wants to work on measures aimed at improving access to drug treatment and mental health care, issues that have been underscored during pandemic.

With the announcement of his impending departure, Harris received praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Welch praised Harris in a statement as “a values-oriented leader.”

“Greg Harris embodies public service and throughout his 15-year career, he has been a passionate advocate for what’s fair and just,” Welch said. “His command of a wide range of public policy issues, particularly Medicaid and our state budget, has been such a vital asset to the entire state.”

Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, deputy leader of the GOP minority in the House, likewise lauded Harris as “a tremendous legislator and a great public servant.”

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

Harris took office in December 2006, having been appointed to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Rep. Larry McKeon. Harris had already won the November election for the term that began in January 2007.

Before becoming a legislator, Harris was chief of staff to then-Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th, for 14 years.

Harris said the timing of Monday’s announcement was intended to give potential candidates time to decide whether to run for the seat in the newly drawn 13th House District, which includes parts of the Lakeview, Uptown, Lincoln Square, North Center and Edgewater community areas. Candidates can begin circulating nominating petitions on Jan. 13.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

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