In November 2021, Illinois House Democratic Majority Leader Greg Harris announced that he would not run for another termbringing an end to a historic era.
Harris was first elected in 2006, succeeding former Rep. Larry McKeon, who was part of the LGBTQ+ community and HIV-positive. However, Harris became the first openly gay individual with AIDS to be elected and eventually lead his/her/their party in the Illinois General Assembly. He also became known for, among many other things, his fights for civil unions and marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex marriage.
Harris recently talked with Windy City Times about his accomplishments and the future, among other topics.
Windy City Times: I'm going to start with the most basic question: Why now?
Greg Harris: Every two years, we have to decide if we're going to pass petitions and get our names on the ballot so it's always a question: Do I want to keep going?
So it's been 16 years. A lot of the things I came in to do [were things] I got done: marriage equality, fighting for trans fights. I've been through four governors, one of whom we impeached and one who we bitterly fought to preserve union rights and to avoid gutting human services. That was a huge fight and marriage equality was a huge fight. We had the Great Recession and COVID. It's been a lot and I've done a lotbut at some point, you've got to say, "I've done the things I want to do and it's time to move on and make way for people who want to do new and different things."
There are a lot of younger folks who are chomping at the bit to get into politics and to begin making policies for their generationbut if those of us who are there don't get out of the way, it makes it harder for them to do that. That was on my mind during the change of speakers. [Editor's note: The new speaker is Emanuel "Chris" Welch.] In my mind, it had to be a person from a different generation and it was important to support our first Black speaker. All of those things were on my mind.
WCT: Was being chief of staff to Ald. [Mary Ann] Smith [for the 14 years before being in the General Assembly] the catalyst that stoked your political fire?
GH: Actually, not really. It certainly gave me the basis for getting involved. I didn't go to that job thinking I was getting ready for a bigger job.
I went to that job because of AIDS hitting Chicago. I moved to Chicago in 1977 and, up to that job, my involvement with the gay community was bars and clubsthat kind of thing. There weren't that many LGBT organizations at that time, anyway, but I didn't seek them out then. AIDS came to Chicago and all my friends were getting sick and dying. That's when we all decided that we had to get into the fight and respond. That's when I got involved in community stuff. I had a good background: I was in management and I understood marketing and fundraisingskills that were easily transferable to this new thing. Then I learned about advocacy and political/community organizing as part of the AIDS movement.
But nowhere along the line did I think that I'd go be a state rep or elected official. As time went on, though, I looked at things that still needed to be done for the LGBT communityand a lot of them were things that came out of Springfield and state government: healthcare policy, equal rights, legal policy, family and domestic laws. So when the opportunity came alongwhen my predecessor, Larry McKeon, decided not to run againI thought, "Here's a chance. I'm going to throw my name into the mix." I think there were about 11 candidates then.
WCT: You never faced an opponent in a general election. That got rid of some worries.
GH: But you've got to work every year to be sureespecially in a diverse district like this one, with 91 languages spoken on a daily basisthat you're on top of things. You have to be helpful year-round. Some politicians coast during the year and then [rev things up] during the campaign season.
WCT: Take me back to the Greg Harris of 2006, when you were first in the General Assembly. Were you idealistic and hopeful?
GH: Yes; I was idealistic and hopefulbut, having had some government experience, I knew you had to have long-game strategies for some of these ideas that involved taking people along with you. I had seen coalitions get built so I saw how that worked. I also saw opponents can work behind the scenes to kill your ideas. Also, I had relationships with a lot of people and interpersonal relationships make a lot of these things work.
But, yes, I had a lot of hopes. I remember being introduced as the guy who was going to pass marriage equality. It turned out that a lot of people I was introduced to laughed and said, "That's not going to happen anytime soon." It happened seven years laterbut now it looks kind of quaint. People look back now and ask, "Was that a struggle? Was that a fight?"
WCT: It's interesting how time can change perspective.
GH: Yes, but the general public's perception of marriage equality has changed so much. Even when we were doing that, a lot of the national pollsters marveled at the fact that, in the decade they had polled about marriage equality, it was [approximately] 70% when DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] was introduced. When we passed marriage equality in 2013, the numbers were about 64% to 70% in favor. At the time we started on the trek to civil unions, the polling data showed that wanting equal rights was the most persuasive argument at the time. But just a couple years lateras people got to know more LGBT peoplethe most persuasive argument became that families just want to have their relationships, experience love and have a better world.
WCT: How concerned are you about marriage equality being lost in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned? [Editor's note: This question was asked before the developments regarding the Respect for Marriage Act that Congress is considering.]
GH: Oh, I think it's a real concern. Illinois was the last state that was able to pass marriage equality; national strategists didn't see another real opportunity. We were also the last state to pass it before the Supreme Court decided. At that time, the president was an Illinois native so, also, what did that say about the White House?
It's one of these things where MAGA nationalist Republicans… No one ever thought the arc of the moral universe would turn and bend the other way, but these people are intent on taking us back to a different time where, if you're not like them, you don't deserve a place in society. People have been warning us about Roe for many years.
Now Illinois has its local laws so if the Supreme Court says, "The states should figure this out," then we're protected. But what happens if you go on vacation in Florida? I talked with [a couple] who are traumatized; they're asking, "What are we going to do about documents and stuff like that if we go to a state where our family's not recognized?"
Also, there's the question of how businesses handle this issue. If the Supreme Court dissolves marriage equality on a national basis, then what do you do if you're in Indiana? I'm not sure some people get how suddenly this could all disappear.
WCT: What do you wish you had accomplished during your years in the Illinois House?
GH: [Pauses] There are a lot of things that I wish we could do more of, but that's building on previous successes. I'm having a hard time thinking of things I wish I had gotten done. There are some healthcare reforms that I wish were passed, especially for low-income people.
WCT: What's your advice for your successor [Hoan Huynh, who became the first Vietnamese American in the General Assembly when he was elected Nov. 8]?
GH: I've been giving him plenty. We've been talking about basics. The first six months to a year, I'd listen to people debate topics and I'd go, "I don't even know what this is." [Laughs] I think he's doing the right thingbuilding relationships and seeking experts in the fields he's interested in, like healthcare, housing and immigration. Also, I've told him to make sure that your word is your bond; that goes a long waydon't BS people. The other thing that I said to himthat took me a while to learnis that you can have all the policy positions in the world but you have to have the political power and understand the process to get things done. The rules in the chamber can help bring you success or used to torpedo you in no time flat.
WCT: What's in Greg Harris' future?
GH: I have no idea. We have a veto session ahead.
WCT: Do you see yourself running for political office again down the line?
GH: Well, that's a long time to look forward.
WCT: So anything can happen?
GH: [Harris nods.]