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Greg Harris, high-ranking Dem best known for passing same sex marriage, announces retirement from Ill. House

Greg Harris
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the No. 2 Democrat in the Illinois House, will not run for another term in 2022, he announced Monday.

Harris, who has served in the legislature for 15 years, is best known for passing Illinois’ same sex marriage law in 2013. But he’s also been one of the chief architects of the state’s budget — including during Illinois’ two-year budget impasse under Gov. Bruce Rauner — and has taken the lead on Medicaid and other healthcare reform efforts.

Expanding healthcare coverage, particularly to marginalized groups, is personal for Harris, who became active in local politics when the AIDS epidemic hit Chicago in the 1980s. He is openly gay and has lived with HIV for more than three decades.

“As a person who’s HIV-positive, being able to access quality, competent healthcare literally saved my life,” Harris told NPR Illinois. “Back in those days…my friends were dying right and left. And you can see what happens when people don’t have access to healthcare.”

Harris has previously opened up about his struggles with addiction around the time of his diagnosis. It was only when his HIV status turned into a near-fatal AIDS infection that he got sober for the first time. Now he’s been sober for more than 20 years.

In 2006, Harris ran unopposed for the soon-to-be vacated 13th District House seat held by Rep. Larry McKeon (D-Chicago), who was also openly gay and HIV-positive, and who had been at times the only lawmaker fighting for LGBT rights. Harris continued McKeon’s work, most visibly with his effort to legalize civil unions for same sex couples in 2011, and then leading the fight for same sex marriage beginning the next year.

The now-widely held public sentiment in favor of LGBT rights has been vaunted as the most rapid shift in American public opinions in recent political history. But that didn’t make Harris’ job as sponsor of the marriage equality legislation easy.

Marriage equality sponsor Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) listens as Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) speaks during the same sex marriage debate in the Illinois House on Nov. 5, 2013.
Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
Marriage equality sponsor Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) listens as Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) speaks during the same sex marriage debate in the Illinois House on Nov. 5, 2013.

Between introducing the measure in February 2012 and its eventual passage in November 2013, Harris faced arrows from both sides of the issue — the “both sides-ism” itself almost an anachronism in present day when same sex marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision recognizing all Americans have the fundamental right to marry.

After working his bill for two legislative sessions in a row, Harris was emotional when announcing same sex marriage would not pass at the end of lawmakers’ time in Springfield on May 31, 2013. Two powerful forces — Catholic social service organizations and the Church, along with Black church groups — had put a stop to its passage in the House after it passed in the Senate earlier that spring.

Choking back tears, Harris vowed to bring marriage equality for a vote in the coming months after more negotiations with hesitant colleagues.

“Until that day, I apologize to the families who were hoping to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state,” Harris said in a brief floor speech in the waning hours of legislative session that evening, pausing for the angry reaction and booing from the House gallery.

After hearing his own eight-year-old words played back to him on Monday, Harris recalled the weighty responsibility he felt.

“That was a really hard day for me, but more importantly for hundreds of people who had come down to Springfield and thousands who were watching around the state thinking that marriage equality was going to pass that day,” he told NPR Illinois. “And there were not the votes to do it. And that was really, really difficult.”

The publisher of the Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBT newspaper, immediately called on Harris to step down as sponsor of the bill, and activists criticized his strategy, worrying the movement would suffer permanent damage.

Five months later, though, Harris got marriage equality across the finish line, and on Monday said he still stands by his decision to not call the bill prematurely.

“There are two schools of thought on this kind of thing: Put the bill up on the board, make people cast their votes and show who they are,” Harris explained. “Other folks say, you don’t put a bill like this that is key to basic human rights up to lose. You put it up there when you know you’re going to win. And that was a decision I made: It would be a mistake that would haunt us for a long time to put a bill like that up on the board and lose.”

Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature on the legislation two weeks later made Illinois the 16th state to legalize same sex marriage. Illinois is in the minority of states whose legislature approved marriage equality without prompting by a court decision or voter referendum.

Harris cited the Rauner years — especially the two years Illinois went without a budget as collateral damage for a feud between the GOP governor and powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan — as some of the toughest of his career. The state racked up nearly $17 billion in unpaid bills as a result of its inability to spend money, and many long-running social service agencies that depended on state contracts shut down permanently, or pared down to minimum operations to survive.

“Rauner’s strategy was divide and conquer,” Harris said. “He was trying to pit the human service agencies against each other…and was trying to pit human services writ large against organized labor and against colleges and universities.”

Harris fought against Rauner and his Republican allies, but eventually he and other Democrats used the governor’s “divide and conquer” strategy to defeat Rauner, picking off 15 GOP House members to vote for a budget and corresponding income tax to end the impasse. After the governor vetoed the package, 10 of those Republicans stuck with Democrats to override Rauner’s veto, ultimately ending the two-year stalemate.

GOP Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) was not one of those Republicans who broke with the governor, but on Monday praised Harris as “a tremendous legislator and a great public servant.” The bipartisan pair are regarded as top experts on both state budget and Medicaid issues in their respective caucuses, meaning hours of direct negotiation with each other.

“Working with him on budget and Medicaid issues has been a true highlight of my time in the House,” Demmer wrote in a Twitter post. “All of his colleagues, and the House as an institution, will miss his leadership.”

At 66, Harris said he’s been looking around at the influx of new and younger faces in the General Assembly in recent years, which he took as a sign it may be time to reevaluate his future.

“I think I’ve accomplished a lot of the things that I’ve wanted to accomplished,” Harris said. “I…realized it’s time to give a new generation of leadership a chance to move up.”

House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside), who took over leading the House in January after Democrats ousted Madigan as a federal corruption probe hones in on the former speaker’s inner circle, is part of that new leadership and thanked Harris for his service on Monday.

“As a values-oriented leader and as the first openly gay majority leader, Greg has given a voice to so many who have continuously felt left out of state government,” Welch said in a statement. “I am grateful for Leader Harris's support as I've navigated my first year as Speaker. I look forward to his continued guidance throughout the 102nd General Assembly, but I will forever be blessed to call him a friend.”

As a young legislator, Harris said he benefitted from mentorship from members like former Reps. Art Turner, Sr. (D-Chicago) and Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), whose majority leader title Harris would inherit when she retired in 2019.

Harris wasn’t new to politics when he first ran in 2006; he’d already served 14 years as chief of staff for former Chicago Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48), and spent years in leadership and government relations roles for the Chicago-based National Home Furnishings Association, in addition to general involvement in local politics for decades. But actually becoming a lawmaker was even more surreal — and provided for an even bigger reality check.

“Walking into the Capitol and actually walking into the House chamber on the House floor where they let you in and you have your desk with your name on it — that was incredibly moving for me. It just meant so much,” Harris said. “And then the debate started on all these topics and I sat in my seat thinking, ‘Oh my God, I literally don’t know what a lot of these subjects are even about.’”

These days, though, Harris is well-versed in most of those subjects he once found bewildering, and is also doling out advice to his House Democratic Caucus.

“Stick together, be sure that you’re the rising tide that lifts all boats," Harris said. "Don’t allow people on the outside — for their own reasons and means — divide us, and we’ve got to work together."

But he’s not giving away all his wisdom just yet.

“I have lots of other advice and I’m going to be around for a year and people can come around and hear it,” he joked.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving on to CNI in 2023.