When Don Harmon voted for pension reform last year he knew it would be a tough vote. It was and that vote has resulted in a primary challenge for Harmon as the Oak Park Democrat seeks a fourth term in the State Senate in next Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Harmon is being challenged by Bob Galhotra, a 47 year old assistant Cook County public defender who headed the public defenders union until last year. Galhotra, who lives in the Galewood neighborhood of Chicago, said that the pension vote motivated him to make his first try for elective office.
"I'm running because I'm very disappointed about the direction the state is going in," Galhotra said. "I'm running because I became very upset about the way people were being scapegoated about the pension problem. It's not the people who are the participants in the pension funds who are the problem. It's people like Don Harmon and other people in the General Assembly who screwed it up for everybody."
Harmon (D-Oak Park) says that he knew his pension vote would be controversial but said that it was the right thing to do.
"We have an incredible burden on the state that we need to fix," Harmon said. "We need to put the state back on firm fiscal footing so that we can fulfill our promise to pay a pension to all the public employees to whom we've promised pensions and still provide the base level of government that people expect from the state. It was the most difficult and painful vote I have cast in my time in Springfield, but it was necessary."
Galhotra also criticizes Harmon for sponsoring a bill that would allow psychologists to prescribe drugs.
He rejects Harmon's argument that some people with mental problems can't get necessary medication because they do not have access to psychiatrists.
"It's not a situation where there's not enough psychiatrists," Galhotra said. "It's really a situation where the pharmaceutical companies, the pharmacists and the psychologists are basically lobbying him because they want to provide second class mental health care to these folks and it's not right. I've never had a client come up to me and say I didn't have my medication because I don't have a psychiatrist. These people, they have prescriptions; they just don't have the money to get the prescriptions filled."
Harmon says that safeguards are built into his bill which has passed the state senate and is awaiting action in the House. He says psychologists would have to obtain a master's degree in pharmacology and have a contractual collaborative arrangement with a medical doctor before being allowed to prescribe drugs.
Galhotra also opposes a Harmon bill that would force businesses to post a guns welcome sign if they wish to permit people to enter their premises under Illinois' new concealed carry law. Galhotra favors the current approach of posting no guns signs on public buildings and other places where guns are not allowed.
But Harmon said that the presumption should be that guns are not allowed unless a sign specifically says otherwise.
"I just think you shouldn't carry a gun on to someone else's property without their permission so if you're a business and welcome people who carry concealed weapons you should post a sign saying your weapons are welcome, but the presumption should be you shouldn't carry a weapon on to someone else's property without their permission" Harmon said.
Harmon has a huge financial advantage in the race in the 39th District which ranges from the Austin neighborhood in Chicago northwest into DuPage County as far as Wood Dale.
State records show that Galhotra's only donation of more than $1,000 was a $4,000 contribution from his parents.
But Harmon said that he isn't taking anything for granted since the pension vote angered many teachers and other public employees who are part of the Democratic base.
"The pension vote in particular is one that has caused a lot of grief and I understand that," Harmon said. "Because of that, as much as anything, I've taken this campaign very, very seriously."