With four months left in 2009, including a fall veto session in Springfield, Oak Park’s state senator, Don Harmon (D-39) has already had a year unlike any he’s likely to ever again experience.
During an intense four-week period in January, Harmon saw a governor impeached and removed from office, a former colleague sworn in as U.S. president, and his own political fortunes advanced with his ascendance to a leadership role in the state senate.
Harmon said that early on in his career he decided he was “going to vote the way I think I should, and explain (myself) to voters if they don’t like it.”
Looking relaxed in a suit coat and open collared white shirt, Harmon did just that during a sitdown with Wednesday Journal’s editorial board Friday afternoon. He talked about his recent experiences, how some local issues are faring at the state level and about specific issues facing him and his colleagues in the state legislature. He also spoke openly about his views on state government, his philosophy of governance and public service, and of his own political ambitions.
A historic January
Harmon said he often now starts speeches with a recollection of his January experiences.
“The first week of January, the House of Representatives impeached the sitting governor,” he recalled. “In the second week of January, the new general assembly was sworn in, we elected a new senate president, and the House of Representatives impeached the sitting governor for the second time in two weeks.
“In the third week of January most of us went out to Washington to celebrate the inauguration of one of our former colleagues as president of the United States. And in the fourth week of January, the senate tried, convicted and removed from office the then governor, and swore in a new governor a few minutes later.”
History was just getting started, as the state legislature struggled with crafting and passing a budget to address an $11 billion dollar deficit during the worst economic downturn in nearly 80 years. The legislature also crafted widely applauded changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and not so celebrated ethics legislation that was ultimately vetoed by Governor Pat Quinn.
What problem are we fixing?
Whatever history remains to be made in the coming years, Harmon will likely be part of it. Almost seven years into his senate career the lifelong Oak Parker finds his star rising rapidly. At 43, he is in the prime of his professional life, open and non-evasive in discussion, exhibiting a firm yet easy grasp of the issues.
Harmon was open regarding his desire to replace longtime Democratic senate leader Emil Jones as senate president last winter. With several strong candidates, including 30 year veteran John Cullerton of Chicago, Harmon opted to avoid a divisive battle for the office and threw his support behind Cullerton. Harmon was subsequently named one of four assistant majority leaders, along with Maywood senator Kimberly Lightford.
Harmon said he feels lucky to be in the spot he’s in, as part of “a progressive leadership team, with the opportunity to chart a course on public policy and on the political side.”
Harmon’s role as a top assistant to Senate President John Cullerton has given him a seat at the table while the Illinois legislature works to re-invent itself into what he described as a more open, responsive and deliberative body. His state senate assignments suggest he’s earning the type of “go-to guy, get the job done” status that former colleague Barack Obama earned during his eight years in Springfield. Last January, Harmon was one of nine senators who wrote the rules for Rod Blagojevich’s senate trial. He serves on the redistricting committee which will address the 2010 state redistricting, and is vice chair of the judiciary committee.
Harmon’s work will likely keep him in Springfield for the foreseeable future. He said he won’t allow any personal political ambitions to threaten a diligently crafted racial coalition with minority West Side politicians, a concern that led him to decline a race to replace 7thDistrict Congressman Danny Davis.
“I’ve worked very hard locally and in Springfield to build a multi-racial coalition,” he said. “I’m not willing to risk fracturing the collation we’re building.”
While acknowledging the low regard in which the state’s political process is currently held, Harmon expressed a solid belief in the necessity of politics and government to assist in solving problems. There are, he said, good people serving in Springfield, for the right reasons. State government can change, Harmon said, and it must.
“State government shouldn’t be an embarrassment,” he said. “It should be an institution that we are proud of, and that does good things for an awful lot of people.”
Most of his colleagues in Springfield, he insisted, are good people, serving for the right reasons, looking to do good for their constituents. They are, he said, disheartened by the attention paid those whose ethics and motives are corrupt.
“They don’t get the attention in the media,” Harmon said of honest legislators. “The folks who get the attention in the media, understandably, are the folks who are in it for the wrong reasons.”
Harmon expressed particular consternation over media accounts that negatively portray the legislature’s efforts at ethics reform.
“It’s puzzling to me that the immediate reviews of the past legislative session suggest that we somehow failed on ethics reform,” he said. “Look at the record. We passed, in a single legislative session, more governmental reforms, more ethics related legislation than in a decade before that.”
Harmon said the legislature passed “meaningful and important changes” that have been discounted in the press, including revamping a procurement process he said is at the heart of most corruption.
He called the overhaul of the state procurement process “probably the single most important piece of legislation we’ve passed.”
A point Harmon raised repeatedly in response to questions on issues ranging from ethics to finance to the upcoming redistricting process was “What problem are we trying to fix?” He suggested it’s counter productive to make change for change’s sake, and advocates a more focused treatment of reform issues.
He acknowledged that not everyone is satisfied with changes to campaign finance laws. “We didn’t go as far as we were asked for it to go,” he said, noting leadership continues to dialogue with more reform focused groups.
The legislative process, he insisted, is changing for the better, with a greater respect for process and the need for that process, he said.
“It’s opened up dramatically,” said Harmon, who said he’s observed a “sea change” in the legislature, with a shift away from a top down decision making process, and with less blatant political considerations.
“There is a greater focus on public policy, within a political framework, rather than a focus on politics with a collateral concern about public policy,” he said.
“It reaffirms my faith in the design of the system,” he said. “Political pressures are not necessarily a bad thing. So if the residents of Illinois are saying we want you to behave differently, to be more open and transparent, and consider legislation on its merits, and that happens, that’s a good sign that the framers of the system had a pretty good idea.”