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House majority leader reflects on his crowning achievement: Leading crusade to legalize gay marriage in Illinois

Greg Harris noted much of his career has been shaped by living for decades after diagnosed as HIV-positive. “I’m one of the few friends from that era that actually survived. … A lot of the stuff I do today is to honor them and the things they would have done if they had been here.”

House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, in 2019.
House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Retiring Illinois House Majority Leader Greg Harris on Friday reflected on his crowning achievement — leading the crusade to legalize gay marriage in Illinois — and talked about the dramatic changes in his own daily life as someone who is HIV-positive.

Harris, 66, announced this week that his current House term will be his last. He will not seek re-election.

House Speaker Chris Welch tried to talk Harris into staying, well aware that Harris’ exit would leave a giant hole in the speaker’s leadership team — particularly on budget issues, where Harris’ expertise and institutional memory have been invaluable.

But Harris could not be turned around.

He’s ready to call it a career after seeing Illinois through the political equivalent of an earthquake: The ouster of Mike Madigan as speaker, Madigan’s resignation as state representative and Illinois Democratic Party chairman in the wake of the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal and the me-too scandal on Madigan’s staff before that.

On Friday, Harris reminisced about his career as the first openly gay member of the legislative leadership team and about how much it has been shaped by the fact that he is, as he put it, the lucky one: He’s lived for decades after being diagnosed as HIV-positive.

“I’m one of the few friends from that era that actually survived. … A lot of the stuff I do today is to honor them and the things they would have done if they had been here,” Harris told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Harris received the diagnosis — once a death sentence — while serving as chief of staff to then-Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th). He recalled that Smith and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley were incredibly supportive at a time when most people weren’t.

Back then, he was taking 75 pills a day. The side effects were, he said, “worse than the disease.” He could barely get out of bed in the morning. Now, he takes one pill. No side effects.

“There were some pretty grim and dark days. ... I was down to like 90 pounds. ... Mental health and substance abuse issues. That was a terrible time. And I’ve struggled a lot of my life with depression, anxiety and substance abuse,” Harris said.

“I’m just glad that we can talk about these things very openly [now] and urge other people to acknowledge the struggles they have and to go get the care they need.”

Harris’ struggles with depression, anxiety and substance abuse continue to this day. How has he managed to tame that lion?

“See a therapist regularly. Try to get exercise. Have a rather decent diet. Day-to-day maintenance. There are things you need to do just to keep yourself protected and take some time for yourself. Sometimes, you just have to walk away from things,” he said.

“This job is really pretty high-stress. ... Sometimes, I just have to step back and say, `I’m gonna just take a break from you folks right now.’ “

The 2013 vote to legalize gay marriage in Illinois was one of those step-back moments.

In May 2013, Harris made the difficult and highly emotional decision to call off the House vote that would have sent the bill to then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk amid opposition from Catholic leaders and conservative African American ministers.

“Was that a horrible day on the House floor when I was ready to call it, then realized some of my votes were not gonna be there? Oh, yeah. Hell, it was. That was like a horrible day to be booed. There were people saying, ‘Call the bill. You’ve got to put it up there. You’ve got to make a record,’” said Harris, who choked back tears on that fateful day.

“I thought … to put up peoples’ rights for a vote and have them lose and lock votes in that might be with you on a future roll call would have been a huge mistake. It could have set us back years and years. So, we regrouped. We organized in every community. And in November, it passed. Illinois was the last state that was able to pass marriage equality legislatively.”

What that tactical legislative triumph demonstrated about Harris is the lesson he learned from Madigan.

He’s not interested in Pyrrhic victories. He’s not satisfied to introduce a bill, put out a news release and watch the legislation go down in flames.

“I’m in it to win it. Not for a show,” he said.