Don Harmon achieved a long-held dream and ambition Sunday when he was elected President of the Illinois State Senate after a tough battle with his colleague Kimberly Lightford. Harmon, a native of Oak Park who lives in his childhood home, represents most of Oak Park and the West Side while Lightford represents the portion of Oak Park that is south of the Eisenhower Expressway. Lightford also represents River Forest. Harmon and Lightford, who have sat just one seat apart from each other on the floor of the state Senate, had been fighting it out in a contentious battle for the top job in the Senate since mid-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 Sunday after Senate Democrats met behind closed doors for five-plus hours 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. Harmon got his start in politics after talking to Rock, who was the father of a St. Giles School classmate of Harmon, when Harmon was a first-year student at the University of Chicago Law School.
“When I got to law school and got interested in politics I made an appointment, I went to see him in his office and I asked him if I could recharter the Young Democrats of Oak Park and he looked at me over those reading glasses and said ‘Alright kid I’ll give you a shot’ and that led to all sorts of different opportunities to work with him in Oak Park on the political side,” Harmon recalled on Monday. “I miss him often and now, especially with this opportunity, I’d love to be able to pick up the phone and get his advice. I’m hoping his large hand is still hovering as I take on this new responsibility.”
In 2000 Harmon succeeded Rock as the Oak Park Township Democratic Committeeman and Harmon built the Democratic Party of Oak Park, known as DPOP, into perhaps the most active Democratic organization in the state. DPOP volunteers have worked on many campaigns throughout the Chicago area collecting chits for Harmon. Harmon said that the strength of DPOP helped convince many of his Senate colleagues that he would be an effective leader of Senate Democrats.
“I think it was a key ingredient in my message to my colleagues,” Harmon said. “That I’ve been doing this work for decades and I’m going to keep doing this work. It’s important that we marshal the resources we need and we employ them wisely and I’m grateful that we have so many politically engaged people in Oak Park who are willing to do the work necessary to elect good people and make good policies.”
Harmon’s combination of policy chops and political savvy, along with his impressive fundraising, convinced enough of his colleagues that he would be the best leader of Senate Democrats.
Harmon was elected Senate president late Sunday afternoon besting Republican Minority Leader Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) in a 37-12 party line vote on the Senate floor. But the real action took place earlier behind closed doors when Senate Democrats met in private offices at the state Capitol Sunday to choose their leader.
Soon after the Senate Democrats met at 11 a.m. Sunday they held a secret ballot vote. The result was 22 votes for Harmon and 17 votes for Lightford. From then on it seemed that Harmon had the upper hand but it took hours more of conversation and deal making for the Senate Democrats to work out a leadership team and for Lightford supporters to be comfortable, if not happy, with the result.
“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.”
Once on the Senate floor it was a display of unity as Lightford nominated Harmon for Senate president and the two hugged. Lightford said that Harmon would do a wonderful job of leading the Democrats in the Senate. Lightford is staying on in her current post of majority leader.
Monday Lightford told Wednesday Journal that despite the defeat, running for Senate president was a great experience.
“This has been an incredible journey for me over the past several weeks and one that I would never trade,” Lightford said in a text message. “While it is not the outcome I had hoped for, I know that the Senate Democratic caucus will emerge stronger and more unified than ever. I want to thank my colleagues who put their trust in me with their vote. To those who did not, I look forward to many battles ahead that we will fight together to make this state the very best it can be for every resident and family.”
Harmon in turn praised Lightford.
“Kim and I have been friends for 20 years,” Harmon said. “We’ve worked together on difficult issues. Notwithstanding anything anyone said, we never had a cross word with each other during the campaign. We stayed in touch and we got together to talk and to compare notes and it was always collegial between the two of us. So, I’m looking forward to her continuing on in this service as majority leader looking for more opportunities for us to continue to work together on big issues. She’s an immensely talented person. I’m glad that she agreed to stick around with this enormous job.”
Harmon and Lightford are very similar ideologically, both being strong liberals. The Senate president race came down to who senators thought would make the best leader.
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) Harmon assiduously courted his lesser known colleagues.
Harmon apparently won the support of members of the so-called X caucus, a group of moderate senators who thought that their voices were not often heard by Cullerton and his leadership team. Harmon also won the support of Senator Emil Jones III (D-Chicago) who bucked most of his colleagues in the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus who were supporting Lightford who chairs that caucus.
Harmon also showed that he could raise big money, an important consideration in leadership contests since party leaders in each chamber of the General Assembly typically provide most of the funds for members’ reelection campaigns.
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 significant contributions from labor unions including $100,000 from the Chicago Journeyman’s Plumbers Union.
In November after deciding to run for Senate president Lightford and her allies Steans and Manar created a new campaign committee, the Democratic Leadership Fund, which raised $556,215 in the final six weeks of 2019.
Lightford was bidding to be the first woman to lead a legislative chamber in the Illinois General Assembly and she would have only been the third black Senate president.
Harmon has a reputation as a shrewd legislative tactician with a keen understanding of both politics and policy. He is smart and articulate and one of the best educated members of the General Assembly having earned both a law degree and an MBA from the University of Chicago. But he also understands practical politics. He is 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 effort to put a constitutional amendment permitting a graduated income tax on the ballot in November. 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 a press conference after his selection as Senate president 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.
As Senate president Harmon will preside over the Senate, make committee assignments, manage the schedule of the Senate and manage the Senate Democratic staff. He will have a large say in what becomes law and will work with powerful House speaker Mike Madigan and Governor J. B. Pritzker to determine state policy. Despite the larger responsibilities of his new role as Senate president Harmon said that he would not lose touch with his constituents in Oak Park and the rest of his district which includes the West Side and runs from Oak Park northwest to Addison.
“The first rule of politics is don’t lose touch with the people who sent you to Springfield,” Harmon said. “I have no intention of diminishing my involvement in Oak Park and in all of my district. It’s going to be more difficult to juggle, but I’ve been juggling for 17 years and I’m ready for the challenge.”