The number 13 might be unlucky for some, but Greg Harris is probably liking it a lot right about now. In late August, the chief of staff for Ald. Mary Ann Smith was selected by several Democratic ward committeemen in a slate-making meeting to replace retiring 13th District State Rep. Larry McKeon on the Nov. 7 ballot. ( Harris is also guaranteed the seat since he is running unopposed. )
Windy City Times: You've talked about there being a distinction between being a gay state representative and being a gay man who happens to be a state representative. What is the difference?
Greg Harris: I think a lot of people in my district are concerned if I'm going to be looking out for the interests of an incredibly diverse district or if I'm going to down [ to Springfield ] with a very narrow special interest simply because I'm gay. I was chosen to represent all the interests of the people in my district.
My district has a wide variety of interests: you have very low-income people as well as some of the wealthiest in the city; people concerned about the environment; people wondering about affordable housing; about access to healthcare; people concerned about property taxes; and others. Those cut across all lines of race, gender, age and sexual orientation. I have to go and represent all of those interests. But as a man who's openly gay and living with HIV/AIDS, those are issues that I'm going to attend to—along with all the others because, despite the breakdowns in the district, I'm fortunate to represent a progressive group of people who care about equal rights, social justice, reproductive choice and equal access to healthcare [ among others ] .
WCT: On a scale of 1 ( not at all ) to 10 ( absolutely ) , how ready are you for the next phase of your life?
GH: It's very overwhelming at this point; I don't want to put a number on it at this point. I'm getting better and better every day. I'm very fortunate in that I'm able to hit the ground running so, to that degree, I'm probably a 7 or an 8. My background in government service [ gives ] me a pretty good understanding of plenty of the issues that I'll be facing in Springfield, including tax, fiscal, housing, transit, civil-rights and environmental issues.
Now, I have to get a lot more familiar with details regarding those issues. I have to learn an entire $53 billion budget, how it's allocated and how it's funded. I have to learn a new legislative process. And the part that I still have difficulty putting my arms around is meeting all the expectations that people have.
WCT: You listed a lot of issues. Are you concerned that any of those will be left out?
GH: I think that there'll have to be some prioritization. Everything seems to follow the money. I go to block and community meetings every week and something that everyone seems to bring up is revenue. Getting the state's fiscal house in better order is the first overarching priority. If all the money is going to fill these huge unmet needs, then the amounts available for healthcare and housing diminishes. We've got to find a steady stream of reliable revenue that's fair and progressive to people that doesn't put any undue burden on one sector of the economy. Right now, the property tax burden that's funding public education is crushing those who live on low income; they have to make some terrible choices about cutting back on necessities to pay these taxes.
People understand that revenue has to come from somewhere. They're willing to talk about raising an income tax that funds education while being relieved of other tax burdens that the local government [ imposes ] . There's a lot of concern about economics, but people are willing to do their fair share.
WCT: What would you say is your biggest disadvantage?
GH: I'm the new kid on the block and my learning curve has to be really fast. I'm fortunate in that some of my colleagues in the General Assembly have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes. Speaker [ Mike ] Madigan has been wonderful in getting me documents and helping me get up to speed. I've also got a wonderful advantage in having personal relationships with some people that stretch back years—and I don't just mean people in the legislature. There are Terry Cosgrove from [ pro-choice organization ] Personal PAC, Mary Dixon from the ACLU and Rick Garcia from Equality Illinois, who are all helping me figure out how to get things done.
WCT: Let's go back to that slate-making meeting. How confident were you of your chances going in?
GH: I don't think I was confident one way or the other. All of the candidates put forth their credentials. We all realized that we came from a variety of different experiences and backgrounds; I don't think anyone was certain what the committeemen chose as the key credentials.
WCT: And what was the first thought that went through your head when you were selected?
GH: 'Holy cow!' [ Laughs ] 'Now I have to do this thing.' My mind started racing about all the details, including fundraising, knowing issues and finding a place to live in Springfield. Meanwhile, the lawyers from the General Assembly and Democratic Party were buzzing around with forms to sign and things to notarize. It was a little overwhelming.
WCT: So how do you plan to reach out to your conservative counterparts?
GH: I think I would in the same way that I have in this job: on a very personal basis. I don't believe that simply because someone has different views than I do about an issue, that we have to be enemies. I think that people can have opposing views and still work in an collegial manner. That's one of the things that bothers me about Washington—everyone has to be victorious and if you don't agree with something, you're evil. I'm not sure that's necessarily the case; people can disagree for very good reasons. When you get to know people as individuals and develop mutual respect, I think that there's the possibility that minds can be changed; I think that's very important.
Also, there are 177 of us in the legislature—and we all represent different groups with different needs. I'm going to need some of my colleagues' votes on my issues and they're going to need my vote on their issues.
WCT: Is there anything you want to add?
GH: I really hope that we're have a lot of events where we attract new people to the political process. One problem we have is that people feel they can't make a difference. I would love to give young people and people who are new to the political process a chance to understand how campaigns, the government and the electoral process work.