A survivor retires

Greg Harris is a survivor. He made it through the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics on the far north side, managing campaigns and serving as chief of staff to former alderman Mary Ann Smith (48th) before serving in the Illinois House for more than a decade. 

Harris, appointed in 2006, became the first openly gay man to succeed another openly gay man in the state legislature, the late representative Larry McKeon (D-13th). During his tenure, Harris spearheaded the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois and was the Democrats’ chief negotiator in the years-long budget fight against former governor Bruce Rauner. 

He was elevated to majority leader in time for the General Assembly’s groundbreaking 2019 spring legislative session, which passed a $45 billion capital plan, legalized marijuana, raised the minimum wage, and established abortion as a fundamental right in the state. He continued leading the majority through the COVID-19 pandemic; the election of a new speaker, Chris Welch (D-7th); the passage of the Legislative Black Caucus’ four-part post-George Floyd agendaeducation, economic equity, health care, and criminal justice reform—in 2021; and the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act that following summer.

“Leader Harris is the embodiment of a public servant, and throughout his 15-year career he has been a passionate advocate for what’s fair and just,” Welch said in a statement. “His command of a wide range of public policy issues has been a vital asset for our state. As a values-oriented leader and the first openly gay majority leader, he has given a voice to so many who have continuously felt left out of state government. I am grateful to have worked alongside Leader Harris in the House chamber, and I am remarkably blessed to call him a friend.”

With Harris’ departure, Illinois will lose a state legislator whose lived experience includes gay Chicago life before and activism during the AIDS crisis. Harris tested positive for HIV in 1988 and lived for years with AIDS himself before the arrival of effective antiretroviral therapies. He survived drug and alcohol addiction and suicide attempts, continuing membership in a 12-step program and sponsoring those who continue to suffer.

“Almost everyone else I know, my friends back then, died during that time,” Harris said. “I still think, ‘Why did I survive that, and others didn’t?’”

He got involved in community organizing and local politics almost a decade later when he was politicized by the AIDS crisis. He tested positive in 1988 and developed AIDS in 1990, at which point most of his friends were sick, dying, or dead.

“There was just literally no support system, no medical care, no organized gay community to speak of,” he said. “There was no corporate support. It was the Reagan years; he wouldn’t even say ‘AIDS.’”

Many HIV-positive Chicagoans were losing their homes, and unable to access food, pastoral care, and the meager health care treatments available. Motivated to change the circumstances, Harris found activism. As others worked on housing, legal assistance, and did direct action with ACT UP, Harris’ group Open Hand Chicago provided home-delivered meals: 41,476 in 1989, its first year of operation, and 750,000 by the end of 1994. He also chaired the city’s first AIDS Walk in 1990.

“Everyone sort of went and did things where they were comfortable,” he said. “I think everyone went where they thought they could do the most good. Getting people food seemed to be a really important thing.”

Harris took AZT, the first HIV treatment available. Asked if it helped, he said, “I’m still here.” He nevertheless developed cryptosporidiosis, an opportunistic infection, surviving by getting nightly intravenous nutrition. He also suffered from substance abuse and mental health issues. He made more than one unsuccessful attempt at suicide.

“This time around, knock wood, I’ve just been participating in a program of recovery and doing things that people suggest I ought to do. And it’s worked, but it’s not been easy,” Harris said. “It’s not, I don’t think, unusual for people to do those things or go through these things, but for politics in particular it’s always been, ‘Oh, you never talk about that.’ That’s been one of those things historically that people have wanted to keep within themselves because of all the negative attacks that can be used against you.”

He decided to be open about his recovery from the very beginning, saying that doing so takes away power people could have held over him, and adding that he’s glad more elected officials are being open about depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

“A lot of people you meet on the street are like, ’Thank God you’re willing to talk about this openly. We see a lot of hope that maybe one day in our job we’ll be able to talk about the struggles we’ve been having,’” Harris said. “It’s always been very interesting to me, that so many people have taken note of the fact that I’ve talked about depression, suicide, those kinds of things.”

Harris (right) with then-state representative Larry McKeon (D-13th) Courtesy Greg Harris

Legislative gridlock and the state’s cataclysmic budgetary impasse began at the end of June 2015, when Rauner vetoed a budget in June 2015 that spent more than it collected in taxes, which the legislative majority said should have been fixed with certain cuts and new sources of revenue. 

“What Rauner did in particular was he went through the budget, and he targeted about a dozen or 14 human service items that were of particular interest to Democrats who were involved in the budget process: homeless youth, immigrant and refugee rights, autism programs, after-school programs for kids,” Harris said.  “It was political and personal at the same time.”

“I’m really upset at the number of people who got hurt because he just had this really evil, intentional way of targeting human services and folks in need and making them pawns in his fight against Democrats and organized labor,” he added. 

Compromise was out of the question. “[Rauner] had essentially taken the state hostage, and I don’t think we wanted to negotiate. We wanted to be sure that we won.”

Harris soon began working to gain enough votes to override Rauner’s veto. That work lasted through a 2016 stopgap budget until the summer of 2017 when some legislative Republicans broke ranks and voted with Democrats to override the governor’s veto. The governor and General Assembly did manage to pass an education funding compromise

Harris noted that the state was $17 billion in debt by the time the imbroglio ended. 

“It just made so many things difficult for the state, and it’s been a lot of work since then, over the past four years with Governor Pritzker, to build the state back up, where we’ve paid off our backlog of bills,” he said. “We’re essentially paying our bills timely, as they come in. We’ve made all of our pension obligations; we even contributed more than required by law into the pensions. We have $1 billion in a rainy day fund, which is the most Illinois has ever had, I believe. And are getting upgrades from Moody’s, Fitch, Standard & Poor’s, where they’re saying, ’Illinois is on the path to a good fiscal future but still has a lot of work to do there.’”

Madigan said he always wanted strong majority leaders and that Harris’ experience as his budget coordinator positioned him well for the goal. 

“Like anything else in the legislature, the members are concerned about the issues, but one way or another, to a certain degree or less, everything is driven by personality consideration,” Madigan said. “What you have in the legislature are 118 people in the House, 59 in the Senate, elected from districts. They go to the capitol building with their agenda, which has been shaped by the people in their district; it’s been shaped by their experience and their campaign. Their predisposition is not to come together as one. The predisposition is to go in and pursue their individual agenda. 

“Well, that’s reflected in the budget-making, and somebody like Harris has to deal not only with the issues and how much money is allocated to different types of spending, especially when there’s a lot of tension around the budget-making, but they have to deal with the personalities.”

Governor Pritzker and his legislative supermajorities passed a $40 billion budget in the governor’s first year, increasing funding for K-12 education and human service agencies by hundreds of millions of dollars while also paying in full a mandated multi-billion-dollar pension payment. 

“You have Democrats in control, you have a lot of things that were priorities for us, like leading the nation in climate change,” Harris said. “If you look at the equity reforms in the health care arena, the way that we’ve fundamentally expanded access to higher education and trades during that period, the energy bill, expanding trans rights, becoming the first state in the country to require education about Asian American history in our schools, adding LGBT health care to the (sexual education) curriculum, protecting abortion rights and reproductive rights—any of those would have been monumental achievements.”

At his exit, Harris remarked on the state Democratic Party’s big-tent nature; Madigan was always good at elevating women, non-white, and LGBTQ+ people to leadership positions. Harris’ predecessor as House majority leader, former representative Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25th), said he was not one to shove a progressive agenda down less-progressive Democrats’ throats.

“He had to craft things that were responsive to the progressive left wing and also be responsive to people who were concerned about spending too much money,” suggesting that his experience working on diverse constituents’ needs in the aldermanic office prepared him well for that role.

“I’ve done the things that were on the top of my priority list to do, and it’s time for new leadership and a new crop of people to come in and make their dreams come true for their communities,” Harris said. 

“When I announced I was retiring, I sort of thought people were going to come up and say, ‘Thank you for passing this bill or that bill. You did a good job,’” he said. “More people came up and said, ‘Thank you for being willing to talk about your personal struggles. That meant so much to me or to one of my kids.’ That’s the thing people remember.”

The all-hours 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available toll-free at 9-8-8. The free and confidential Crisis Text Line for emotional crisis support is also available 24/7; text HELLO to 741741.

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