Don Harmon was elected Sunday as the next Illinois Senate president, becoming the first new leader of the Illinois General Assembly’s upper chamber in more than a decade.
Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat who was elected by a 37-12 margin, will replace Sen. John Cullerton, 71, who last year announced his retirement after four decades in the General Assembly, including five terms as Senate president.
Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, began his career in 1979 in the House as a protege of House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has become the longest-serving speaker of a state House in U.S. history. Cullerton won a Senate seat in 1990 and won the Senate presidency for the first time in 2009.
Harmon assumes the top leadership post in the Senate at a time when Democrats hold a supermajority in both General Assembly chambers. The new Senate president needed support from a majority of the chamber’s 59 members. Democrats currently hold 40 seats.
Harmon, 53, was elected in 2002 from the liberal Chicago suburb of Oak Park, and has been a staunch advocate of restrictions on firearms, earning him the ire of gun-rights advocates. His legislation to license firearms dealers in Illinois was rejected by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 but a fresh version was signed in January 2019 by Rauner’s replacement, Democrat JB Pritzker. Harmon was president pro tempore of the Senate, often wielding the gavel for floor sessions, from 2011 until Cullerton abolished the position last year, and briefly worked as chairman of the powerful Executive Committee.
Sunday’s selection came down to Harmon and Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat. Both have been part of Cullerton’s leadership team and have been campaigning furiously since Cullerton announced his retirement. Lightford, who is also chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, would have been the first woman to lead either chamber of the General Assembly.
“I can’t think of anyone else who would do a wonderful job leading our caucus,” Lightford said Sunday as she rose to nominate Harmon for Senate president, following a closed-door caucus prior to the final vote.
The Chicago Tribune reported Sunday that Democratic senators said Lightford and Harmon reached an agreement late Sunday afternoon in which Lightford conceded to Harmon but will maintain a leadership post.