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State Sen. Napoleon Harris enters U.S. Senate race

Former NFL linebacker turned state senator Napoleon Harris on Tuesday announced his bid for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination with the hefty support of state Senate President John Cullerton and powerful south suburban Democratic figures.

Harris said the nomination has been brewing on his mind “for a while.” And it’s no surprise Harris is interested in higher office. In 2013, he briefly launched a bid for Congress following the resignation of U.S Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. — even before Harris’ inauguration in the state Senate.

Harris will face former Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth for the nomination in the March primary. The winner will then face Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in the general election.

“I’ve been traveling the state, just hearing the needs of the people of the state of Illinois and I think at this time, when we look at it, Illinois needs leadership,” Harris said.

He announced his bid in the athletic building of Thornton Township High School in Harvey, where he excelled as a student and athlete before playing college football for the Northwestern Wildcats, and ultimately spending seven seasons in the NFL.

He said it was an “easy choice to make” with the support of his wife, three children and of course, Cullerton.

“I think his support is necessary to make sure that you end up in the victory lane. I think the president is going to be very supportive in ways of fundraising for the campaign as well as helping me by giving me good advice, as well,” Harris said.

Harris said he has a great deal of admiration and respect for Cullerton: “I’d like to think it’s mutual. He values my opinions in caucus. … He saw my passion.”

“Napoleon is a celebrity, but he’s a celebrity with substance,” Cullerton said on NBC.

Harris also has the support of Thornton Township Democratic Committeeman Frank Zuccarelli, a powerful political figure in the south suburbs, as well as Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, and Rep. Will Davis, D-Hazel Crest, who all helped launch Harris’ bid on Tuesday.

Zuccarelli said the township has developed a good rapport with Harris — “the closest relationship we’ve had to a senator in that district in a long, long time.”

“We believe he’s our best opportunity for the United States Senate. He won’t forget those of us in south Cook County. That certainly doesn’t diminish the authenticity or the credentials of his opponents. … But I don’t believe in either case that Tammy or Andrea will really give us the kind of attention that we need, specifically in south Cook County,” Zuccarelli said.

Zuccarelli said Harris has demonstrated the ability to effectively communicate with south suburban mayors and other legislators. He plans to help pass out literature and help ring up support for Harris after petitions are challenged in the race.

Harris, former NFL linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and owner of two Beggars pizzerias, was elected to the Illinois Senate in 2013 when former Senator James Meeks decided not to run.

Harris says he’ll focus on the needs of Illinois residents, beginning with jobs.

“I think jobs are so key. We need a huge amount of economic development throughout our state,” Harris said.

In a statement, Zopp called Harris’ entry into the primary “extremely late,” but said she welcomed him “to this important conversation about the future of our state and country.”

Harris’ campaign office say a Mckeon and Associates poll in late October showed Harris would be Duckworth’s “chief opposition” should he run.