Lightford, Harmon eye runs for Senate president

Cullerton's surprise retirement will force vote in January

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By Bob Skolnik

Contributing Reporter

Two local state senators are among the leading candidates to succeed the retiring John Cullerton as the president of the Illinois Senate.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) and Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) spent last weekend on the phone, calling colleagues trying to line up support for their respective bids to become the leader of the state Senate. 

Cullerton (D-Chicago) set off the scramble when he made the surprise announcement on Nov. 14 that he would retire in January in the middle of his term. Cullerton's successor as Senate president will be chosen in January after he resigns in a vote by the members of the Senate. 

Lightford's 4th District includes all of North Riverside and part of Brookfield's north end. She also represents LaGrange Park, south Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park in addition to other Proviso Township communities.

"I know that I have the experience and the capabilities to lead my colleagues and my caucus," Lightford said Monday in a telephone interview.

On Nov. 16, Harmon announced his intention to seek the post of Senate president at a special meeting of the Democratic Party of Oak Park (DPOP), which Harmon leads. 

In a telephone interview on Monday, Harmon slightly hedged his intentions.

"I would love the opportunity to serve as Senate president," Harmon said. "I ran for the office 11 years ago when John Cullerton was first elected, and I expect that I will be a candidate again this time. I'm just still working my way through talking to a handful of colleagues I haven't connected with."

But on Saturday morning, DPOP volunteers were urged to go to the far South Side of Chicago to gather signatures for the nominating petitions for state Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) to put her on the ballot for the March primary. DPOP volunteers helping Collins get on the ballot could influence Collins to vote for Harmon as Senate president in January.

DPOP volunteers, guided by Harmon, have been sent to help out many Democrats across the state over the years.

"My colleagues recognize my track record and experience in helping others," Harmon said. "That's what a good Senate president would do, help 40 Democrats get re-elected. And as we go into redistricting and the 2022 election when all the senators will be on the ballot, that's a critical skill."

The new senate president will be voted on by the 59 members of the state Senate, 40 of whom are Democrats, so the race is essentially will be determined by the Democratic senators. 

"It is the most unusual election in that we are competing against our colleagues and friends," Harmon said. "Our colleagues in the Senate will have to assess whose strengths in the race are best suited for the job at this time."

Lightford, who serves as the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate as majority leader, says she would bring needed diversity to leadership of the General Assembly, noting that the four current leaders of the General Assembly and the governor are all white men.

"I bring an entirely different perspective," Lightford said. "I bring the women's perspective, I bring the mother's perspective, I bring the African-American perspective. I bring diversity."

Lightford, 51, has served in the Illinois Senate since 1999 and has built a reputation as a leader on education issues. 

The race for Senate president comes at a time when three Senate Democrats are involved in federal investigations. Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park), a distant cousin of John Cullerton, has been charged with embezzlement in a federal indictment claiming that Cullerton was a ghost payroller for the Teamsters Union. Tom Cullerton has pleaded not guilty. 

Sen. Martin Sandoval's (D-Chicago) home and offices were raided by federal law enforcements officials in September and he has stepped down from his role as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. He has not been charged with any crime. 

And, Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills) reportedly wore a wire and taped then state Rep. Luis Arroyo offering him a bribe to support legislation in the Senate. Arroyo resigned from the General Assembly after being indicted on bribery charges and Link has denied being an informant.

"We've got like this big black cloud over our caucus right now and a lot of investigations that I believe we should address," Lightford said. "I want to go in a new direction."

Harmon, 52, also said that he would address the ethical issues facing the General Assembly should he be chosen Senate President.

"I'd like to think I can bring a policy expertise, a commitment to deliberate and steady change and improvement in the environment in Springfield along with the political experience necessary to protect our majority and, thereby, protect our policy victories over the years," said Harmon who currently serves as an assistant majority leader and has been a powerful, often behind-the-scenes player in the Senate, especially influential in developing policy, since being first elected to the Senate in 2002.

Harmon was mentored by former Senate President Phil Rock, who died in 2016. Harmon said that if he is selected as Senate president he would model his leadership on Rock's inclusive style.

"Phil Rock was absolutely my mentor and certainly my role model," Harmon said. "He was an extraordinarily effective senate president and his prevailing virtue was fairness."

Lightford said Monday that she has the support of a couple other senators who had been talked about as possible contenders, Sens. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) and Heather Steanes (D- Chicago).

Other potential candidates include three Chicago Democrats, Sens. Tony Munoz, Elgie Sims and Emil Jones III, as well as Sen. Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake) and Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Chicago).

One senator said he has received calls from a number of contenders seeking his support.  

"I would say that the activity among all the potential candidates has been brisk," said Sen. Steve Landek (D-Bridgeview). 

Landek hasn't decided yet whom he will support for senate president.

I'm not committed at this point," Landek said. "They're all fine candidates. We'll have to see how it shakes out."

Both Lightford and Harmon said that it is somewhat awkward to be running against each other.

"He's also another member that could very well lead the caucus," Lightford said of Harmon.

But Lightford said competition is good.

"It brings about lots of conversation to help bring out issues that we need to address," Lightford said. "A lot of differences of opinion at the table is always very helpful in coming up with a sound conclusion."

Harmon said that after the leadership battle, Democrats will have to unite.

"We're each going to have our supporters and when this is all done we're going to have to come back together and work together as a caucus," Harmon said.

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