SPRINGFIELD — Don Harmon achieved a long-held dream and ambition Sunday when he was elected President of Illinois State Senate after a tough battle with his colleague Kimberly Lightford. Harmon, a native of and resident of Oak Park, represents most of Oak Park while Lightford represents the portion of Oak Park that is south of the Eisenhower expressway. The two, who have sat just one seat apart from each other in the state Senate for years, had been locked in a tough and contentious battle for the top job in the Senate since November when John Cullerton announced that he was resigning in the middle of his term.
Lightford, (D-Maywood) was seen by some as the early favorite. She was bidding to become the first female president of the state Senate. But Harmon emerged victorious after Senate Democrats met behind closed doors for more than five hours Sunday at the state capitol.
The win was especially sweet for the 53-year-old Harmon because his mentor was former state Senate president Phil Rock who moved to Oak Park from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago and served as Senate president for 14 years, from 1979 to his retirement in 1991. Rock died in 2016.
“Choosing a new leader, especially from among your peers, is a leap of faith,” Harmon said in his first remarks from the podium in the Senate chamber after being sworn in as Senate president. “I stand before you humbled by your confidence. At times the contest was vigorous and sometimes contentious so as Martin Luther King said, ‘unity is the great need of the hour.'”
The battle with Lightford was hard fought and emotional. After the Democratic senators gathered at the capitol Sunday, they took a secret ballot vote and Harmon got 22 votes to 17 for Lightford. They spent the rest of those hours working to come to a consensus before Lightford would concede because it takes 30 votes on the Senate floor to become Senate president. Finally, Lightford and her allies stood down. Lightford will maintain her current post as majority leader.
With Democrats holding a 39 to 19 majority in the Senate the official senate roll call was just a formality.
After a hug between the two leaders, Lightford nominated Harmon for Senate president on the Senate floor. In the roll call on the Senate floor Harmon received 37 votes to 12 votes for Republican minority leader Bill Brady. In a show of bipartisanship Brady voted for Harmon and Harmon voted for Brady.
“We built a coalition ticket reflecting the diversity of our caucus,” Harmon said. “We worked through some of those rough edges and I’m very pleased that everybody came together in the end and that everybody will have a voice and a role in the Senate.”
Harmon and others described the Democratic caucus meeting as contentious.
“We’re Democrats, we fight with each other, but we always seem to come together and rally around the important issues for working families in Illinois,” said Harmon in a brief press conference after the Senate adjourned. “I have no doubt that there’ll be work involved, but we’ll be able to do that successfully and move forward with a very united caucus.”
Harmon, (D-Oak Park), has long dreamed of becoming Senate president. In 2009 he made a bid for the office but bowed out before the final vote when Cullerton was elected. Harmon has served in the Senate since 2003 and has built a reputation as quiet, but brainy liberal who often did his best work behind closed doors.
While Lightford had the early support of some big names in the Senate such as Heather Steans of Chicago and downstater Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) and some felt that Governor J.B. Pritzker might favor Lightford because Harmon endorsed his then Senate colleague Daniel Biss in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor Harmon assiduously courted his lesser known colleagues.
Harmon got a big boost when Senator Emil Jones III (D-Chicago) backed him, causing some hard feelings among his colleagues in the Senate black caucus.
Taking a break while the Democrats were meeting Jones briefly talked to reporters saying that there were strong emotions among Democratic senators.
“People support their candidate,” Jones said. “Tensions are high. We’re either going to make history (by electing a black woman as Senate president) or we’re not.”
Jones said he thought Harmon would be best for his district and said that he had not been promised a leadership position in exchange for his support.
Tensions between Lightford and Jones, as well as Jones father Emil Jones, Jr., spilled out late Sunday according to published accounts. Lightford charged that Jones had misled her about his support for her candidacy.
Harmon is also the leader of the Democratic Party of Oak Park (DPOP) and DPOP volunteers have worked on numerous Democratic campaigns throughout the Chicago area. That work may have helped Harmon win support from some wavering Democratic senators.
Harmon has also proven to be prodigious fundraiser. His campaign committee, Friends of Don Harmon for State Senate, raised nearly a million dollars in the final quarter of 2019, most of that coming in after Harmon became a candidate for Senate president. DPOP itself kicked in $150,000 and Harmon personally loaned his campaign committee a little more than $100,000. His committee also received some big contributions from labor unions including $100,000 from the Chicago Journeyman’s Plumbers Union. This fundraising prowess may have proven to be a decisive factor in his victory since legislative leaders are the primary funders of members campaigns.
Harmon is also known as a shrewd legislative tactician with a keen understanding of both politics and policy. He is also considered a good listener who is sensitive to the perspectives of his colleagues. For about seven years he served as the president pro tempore of the Senate where he played a key role in shaping policy and moving legislation through the Senate. He was a long-time sponsor of the move put a constitutional amendment permitting a graduated income tax on the ballot. He also sponsored bills to expand access to preschool through the Preschool for All program and to make same day voter registration a permanent option.
Harmon said at his press conference that restoring public trust in government and promoting fairer taxation would be two of his main goals as Senate president.
“As I traveled around the state visiting with my colleagues and campaigning two things I heard the most often from my colleagues was the urgent need for us to work together to help restore the public’s trust in Illinois government while at the same time a similarly urgent need for us to rationalize our tax policy by adopting the Fair Income Tax on the ballot in November and finding a way to push down the pressure on property taxes,” Harmon said.