#1 Harris looks on as Ald. and Committeman Eugene Schulter and attorney Mathias Delort do the paperwork for his appointment. #2 Rep. Larry McKeon. #3 Harris is congratulated by the crowd, which included state Sen. Carol Ronen. #4 The four openly gay candidates, Mel Ferrand, Greg Harris, Kevin Thompson, and Jim Snyder. All photos by Tracy Baim
Openly gay and HIV-positive Greg Harris, chief of staff for Chicago's 48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith, was announced as the replacement for retiring openly gay and HIV-positive state Rep. Larry McKeon of the 13th District in the early morning hours of Aug. 30.
History was made as four of the district's five Democratic ward committeemen—Patrick O'Connor, Eugene Schulter, Tom Sharpe and Michael Volini—took more than four hours in an executive session to choose between six candidates—four of which were openly gay or lesbian. The stakes were high because the replacement will head directly to Springfield since there is no Republican opponent on the November ballot. Committeeman Bernard Stone was not present because he has no registered voters in his ward. ( His sliver of the 13th District is a park. )
McKeon, who is currently serving his fifth term as an Illinois General Assembly representative, announced his retirement on July 31 after 42 years of public service. McKeon has represented the 13th District since 1996. He recently battled rectal cancer, and has been living with HIV ( and now, AIDS ) for over 20 years.
The four openly gay candidates were Harris; attorney and community activist Jim Snyder, who received McKeon's recommendation; Equality Illinois board member Kevin Thompson; and lesbian schoolteacher and community activist Mel Ferrand. The two heterosexual candidates were Schulter ally and long-time political activist Tom O'Donnell and labor activist Mary Gallagher.
Harris won by a full majority, receiving the votes of three committeemen who represent 7,868 voters: Volini, O'Connor and Schulter. Sharpe, who represents 3,614 registered voters, chose Snyder.
Community members and politicians packed Swedish Covenant Hospital's Anderson Pavilion, and roughly 25 percent remained to hear the 12:45 a.m. announcement. Many well-known faces were among the crowd, including Alds. Mary Ann Smith and Tom Tunney; State Sen. Carol Ronen; activists Art Johnston, Michael Bauer, Rick Garcia and Coco Soodek; and Cook County judicial candidate Mike McHale. Those who stuck around passed the time by guessing who would be chosen, putting down quarters on when the announcement would come and making trips to the hospital's vending machines. A majority of the crowd expressed relief when told an openly gay candidate was chosen, particularly because many in the GLBT community were concerned about whether or not the committeemen would recognize the need to continue gay representation downstate—McKeon is still the state's first and only openly gay representative.
Equality Illinois' Rick Garcia was amazed that four of the six candidates were gay or lesbian, and so many people from the community stuck around for the results.
'I think this is great,' he said. 'Ten years ago, we had a struggle to get just one gay candidate.'
Garcia added that he was pleased by the committeemen's pick. 'All of them would have served us well, but now they can go out and run for other offices.'
Each candidate was given five minutes to speak, and prior to their speeches, McKeon chose to say a few words.
'Serving as state representative for the last 10 years has been a privilege and special honor,' he said. 'I hope that in some small way, I have made a difference in the lives of the 110,401 constituents and for all the people in Illinois.'
McKeon stated that he chose to retire for very personal reasons. 'After 42 years in public service, I am looking forward to taking some time to travel with my family, friends and my two rescued greyhounds. But for me, retirement won't mean sitting still. I [ intend ] to be very active in the community and the Democratic Party, both locally and statewide.'
During his speech, Harris acknowledged that McKeon is leaving 'big shoes to fill,' but assured the committeemen and audience that he will work for the people.
'I know the issues that are on the minds of the people in the neighborhood because I've dealt with them every day for a decade,' Harris said. 'I have tried to make my community a better place for all, and I will fight for our community in Springfield.'
O'Donnell, in his remarks, made it clear he was not going away no matter what the outcome would be later that night. He said his campaign for the 2008 primary had already begun with this meeting—as evidenced by many of his supporters wearing O'Donnell T-shirts handed out that night prior to the slating.