Don Harmon is one of the most powerful politicians in Illinois but for the last seven weeks he has been working from home like most other people. In January Harmon (D-Oak Park) was elected president of the Illinois State Senate. But his first session leading the state senate has not been anything like he could have anticipated. The Senate has not met in two months because of the pandemic caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus virus.
So instead of presiding over the senate in Springfield Harmon has been hunkered down in his Oak Park home. He’s trying not to get in the way of the work of his wife Teresa, who is the managing partner of the giant Chicago based law firm Sidley Austin, and their three children, two of whom are in high school and one home from college.
Last month Harmon created a stir when he, writing on behalf of the 40 State Senate Democrats, sent a letter to the entire Illinois congressional delegation asking for at least $41.6 billion in federal aid for Illinois including $10 billion for Illinois’ woefully underfunded pensions. Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, immediately accused Harmon of trying to take advantage of the pandemic to get the federal government to bail out Illinois for decades of poor choices. Even liberal Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn called Harmon’s letter “a political blunder for ages.”
But Harmon defended his letter pointing out the request for pension relief was only a part of the aid he was asking for. He said Illinois state tax revenues will be much reduced as a result of the economic slowdown caused by efforts to control the pandemic and the federal government is best positioned to help.
“Whenever there is an economic crisis in this country Congress is quick on the draw to dole millions of dollars out to Wall Street and big corporate interests,” Harmon said. “I am not at all bashful about speaking up for the state of Illinois, for our first responders, for our public employees, for our retirees, and for the people that we serve. The letter was a broad request to Congress for relief from the profound economic consequences of the pandemic.”
Harmon, who in his letter also asked for $9.6 billion in direct aid for Illinois municipalities, noted that while state and local governments are mandated to balance their budgets the federal government can run a deficit.
“State governments and local governments are going to need help from the federal government, the only government that can successfully deficit finance an episode like this,” Harmon said.
Harmon said his request for pension relief was taken out of the context.
“The request I made for support for pension funding was not in any way a bail out,” Harmon said. “It’s a recognition that our revenues are going to be squeezed. . . I asked for many things. I asked for block grant funding to help us patch the general hole in our revenue stream. I asked for support for the unemployment trust fund that could easily run dry with all the claims for unemployment.”
Meanwhile on the homefront, Harmon said, “We’re running a virtual high school and a remote college from our house,” Harmon told Wednesday Journal in a telephone interview last week. “My wife is practicing law from the dining room table. My biggest challenges at home are trying to avoid making unscheduled appearances in AP Biology class and I’m finding that unplugging the router and counting to 10 before plugging it back in really does solve many of the world’s problems.”
Harmon said that when he wants to get work done and talk on the phone, he often goes to his nearby district office.
“I am lucky that I have my Oak Park district office so close to the house and it’s empty so I can even be more socially distant if I slip up here to North Avenue and I can get out from underfoot from the virtual high school,” Harmon said.
Harmon has taken advantage of his social isolation and lack of public appearances to grow a beard. He hasn’t shaved since March 17, the day of the Illinois primary election.
“I just didn’t shave for a few days and then I said, you know, it’s nice to give my face a break, nothing more than that,” Harmon said. “I didn’t need to be in many meetings or public appearances and in my job you don’t have too many chances to take three days in a row off of shaving and it went from there.”
Although he has not been making public appearances Harmon and his senate colleagues have been working and meeting over the telephone as they try to develop a pared down legislative agenda that they can act quickly upon when the legislature does finally meet again.
“We’re not shirking our responsibilities,” Harmon said. “At this point we’re still developing the legislation we’ll be called upon to take up and we’re ready to work when there is work to be done that can be done as safely as we can do it.”
Harmon is in frequent contact with senate colleagues, meeting by telephone and video conferencing.
“We’re having caucus meetings by telephone,” Harmon said. “I’m talking to individual members on a regular basis. We have informal working groups set up to meet by telephone or on video platform to start parceling through legislative initiatives.”
Harmon said he hopes the legislature can meet sometime in May. The state budget is supposed to be approved by May 31. If that deadline is not met the budget and all other legislation passed after May 31 needs approval of 60 percent of the both houses of the General Assembly to take effect immediately.
“We are prepared to go back when there is a concrete plan both as to what it is we will vote on and how we do our best to keep people as safe as possible, not only members, but our staff, our families and frankly our communities,” Harmon said.
Harmon said he supports the stay at home executive order that has been issued and extended by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
“A crisis like this calls for strong executive leadership and I think Governor Pritzker has done an excellent job,” Harmon said.
Harmon said when the General Assembly convenes it probably will be a limited session focusing on essential tasks such as passing a budget and passing legislation designed to ameliorate the hardships caused by the pandemic.
“There is a legislative response but it’s one that can and should be done in due time,” Harmon said. “We can’t go to Springfield and make COVID-19 illegal. This is a medical scientific issue, not a legal one.”
For now, Harmon, who typically spends a good chunk of every year in Springfield away from his family, is enjoying the time with his family.
“It’s a challenge, there’s an element of Groundhog Day every day, but I am trying to revel in those moments of playing cards or Sorry with my youngest daughter who I’m sure would rather be out with her friends,” Harmon said.
The additional time with his children is the bright side of being stuck at home.
“I love it,” Harmon said of the additional time with his children. “I’m not sure if they like having so much time with me as I like having as much time with them. When the whole gang gets at the table and have a family dinner or play a card game, I just remind myself that this is not the norm and we’re doing a pretty good job of making lemonade out of these lemons.”