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Harmon Elected President Of The Illinois Senate

Sen. Don Harmon shakes hands as he makes his way to the Senate president's podium to take the oath of office.

SPRINGFIELD – There is a new president of the Illinois Senate: Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park, won the support of his colleagues during a special meeting Sunday afternoon.

Brian Mackey reports from the State Capitol.

Harmon won after a contentious fight. His main opponent was state Sen. Kim Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood who would have been the first woman — and the first African-American woman — to hold the top position in the Illinois House or Senate.

After Sen. John Cullerton resigned the presidency, he watched from the wings as Gov. J.B. Pritzker fulfilled his constitutional duty to preside over the Senate until a new president was elected. Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

But after two months of campaigning and a five-hour, closed-door meeting among Democrats, Harmon emerged the winner.

In his first public remarks as president, he said unity is key.

“I want to assure my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that my door will always be open,” Harmon said. “And I want to express my gratitude to Sen. Lightford for her commitment to partner with me to heal whatever rough edges may have emerged during the contest.”

After losing the contest in the caucus meeting, Lightford formally nominated Harmon for president on the Senate floor. She will continue in her role as Senate majority leader — the number two position.

Sen. Emil Jones III, a member of the Black Caucus, says he expects Democrats will heal.

“Our constituents elect us to serve, and to work together. And if we can’t come together as a caucus, then we don’t need to be here,” he told reporters.

Jones publicly endorsed Harmon before the election. He says he liked the idea of a woman leading the Senate. But when he thought Lightford did not have the support to make it happen, “I chose to be with the winner.”

Later on Sunday, Lightford told the Chicago Sun-Times she blames Jones and his father — former Senate President Emil Jones Jr. — for working against her election.

Harmon takes over at a time of scandal in the Illinois General Assembly. In the last year, three of his fellow Democratic senators have been indicted, investigated, or otherwise implicated in corruption.

“While we build on the success of the past, let also use this occasion to think about who we are, what the people need us to be, and how we can reset the tone of the culture here in Springfield,” he said. The position of Senate president is powerful — with significant control over what legislation is considered in the General Assembly.

Harmon is succeeding Sen. John Cullerton, who retired from the presidency after 11 years.

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