Don Harmon

State Senator Kimberly Lightford, who represents North Riverside and part of Brookfield, came up short in her bid to become the first woman to lead a chamber in the Illinois General Assembly losing a close contest with Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) to replace the retiring John Cullerton as president of the Illinois Senate.

Before the formal vote on the Senate floor, which Harmon won by a 37-12 margin over Republican Minority Leader Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), Democratic senators met behind closed doors in the Democratic offices in the state Capitol for five-plus hours to decide whether Harmon or Lightford would be their choice. The two had been campaigning furiously since mid-November when Cullerton announced he would retire before the Senate reconvened in January.

The die was cast early in the closed-door meeting when Democratic senators took a secret ballot vote. Reportedly, 22 senators voted for Harmon, 17 voted for Lightford. The rest of the time was apparently spent reaching consensus about leadership positions.

“I think once we did the first ballot, everyone kind of knew where things led,” said new state Senator Celina Villanueva who had an interesting first day serving in the Senate after being sworn in on Jan. 7 to replace Martin Sandoval who resigned in the wake of raids by federal law enforcement agents on his offices in September.

In a show of unity on the Senate floor, Lightford, who will retain her current position as majority leader, nominated Harmon for Senate president. She and Harmon hugged on the Senate floor.

Lightford (D-Maywood) and Harmon are veteran senators whose desks have been one desk apart in the Senate chamber. They are both strong liberals, represent adjoining districts and have been friendly. But they had been locked in a tough political battle for the top job in the Senate and only one could win.

“This has been an incredible journey for me over the past several weeks and one that I would never trade,” Lightford told the Landmark on Monday in a text message. “While it is not the outcome I had hoped for, I know that the Senate Democratic caucus will emerge stronger and more unified than ever. I want to thank my colleagues who put their trust in me with their vote.”

In her brief floor speech nominating Harmon, Lightford said her colleague would do a wonderful job leading the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Harmon in turn praised Lightford.

“Kim and I have been friends for 20 years,” Harmon said on Monday. “We’ve worked together on difficult issues. Notwithstanding anything anyone said, she and I never had a cross word with each other during the campaign. We stayed in touch and we got together to talk and to compare notes, and it was always collegial between the two of us. So I’m looking forward to her continuing on in her service as majority leader, looking for more opportunities for us to continue to work together on big issues. She’s an immensely talented person. I’m glad she agreed to stick around with this enormous job.”

Senator Steve Landek (D-Bridgeview) apparently played a key role in Harmon’s victory. According to Capitol Fax, Landek was a leader of what was dubbed the X caucus, a group of 10 moderate Democratic senators who met about a week before the caucus vote. These senators felt that under Cullerton their voices were not often heard. Many of these senators, perhaps all, supported Harmon. Although Landek declined to tell the Landmark who he voted for in the closed-caucus secret ballot he did not challenge the accuracy of Capitol Fax’s reporting.

Villanueva also declined to say who she voted for in the caucus.

“There was a reason why it was a secret ballot,” Villanueva said.

Chris Crisanti, founder of the Brookfield Democratic Organization and the West Suburban vice chair of the Cook County Young Democrats, said that Harmon was a good choice for Senate president, but noted that Lightford was also a strong candidate.

“I think both have a strong sense of public policy and political skill to move our state forward and continue to be a big presence in Springfield,” Crisanti said. “Personally, I think it’s well deserving for Don Harmon. In my opinion he is one of the most effective legislators in the General Assembly, so I was very pleased he got elected. But that’s not to say Kim was a bad choice. Both were strong candidates.”

Crisanti said Harmon’s combination of policy chops and political savvy makes him ideally suited to lead the Democrats. Harmon has led the Democratic Party of Oak Park, known as DPOP, one of the strongest Democratic organizations in the state, for the past 20 years. DPOP volunteers have worked on many different campaigns earning Harmon the gratitude of other senators. Harmon said the strength of DPOP was probably a significant factor in his victory.

“I think it was a key ingredient in my message to my colleagues,” Harmon said.

Harmon also showed his colleagues that he can raise a lot of money. His Senate campaign committee raised nearly a million dollars in the fourth quarter of 2019 as Harmon sought to demonstrate to his colleagues that he could be counted on to financially support them in their re-election efforts.

“I asked my colleagues to evaluate me on my 17-year record of service and leadership in the Senate, my ability to work both on policy matters inside the building and also on political campaigns outside the capitol building and in the end my colleagues very generously rallied around me,” Harmon said. 

Lightford and her allies, senators Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), created a Senate Leadership Fund campaign committee after Lightford decided to run for Senate president in mid-November. In the final six weeks of 2019 that fund took in $556,215 in contributions.