Illinois Senate to Elect Next President in Sunday Vote

Sens. Kimberly Lightford and Don Harmon, both Democrats and members of the chamber's leadership, have emerged as the two most likely candidates

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Illinois state senators will gather Sunday for a closed-door meeting in Springfield to elect the chamber's next president, its first new leader in more than a decade.

Per Senate rules, Gov. J.B. Pritzker will preside over the election in the Democrat-led chamber. The change in leadership comes in the wake of current Senate President John Cullerton's impending retirement.
Cullerton made the surprise announcement in November that he would be stepping down after nearly four decades in the legislature. He has been president of the Senate since 2009.

With 59 members - 40 Democrats and 19 Republicans - at least 30 votes will be required to win the presidency. With no debate or discussion allowed during the vote itself, the lawmakers running for the position have been campaigning among their colleagues privately in the days leading up to the vote.

The two senators who have emerged as likely successors to Cullerton are Sen. Kimberly Lightford and Sen. Don Harmon.

Lightford is the current Senate majority leader, second-in-command in the chamber, and has represented the 4th District - encompassing parts of Bellwod, Maywood, Westchester and other areas of the western suburbs, as well as part of Chicago's Austin neighborhood - since 1998. She is also the chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus and has said she's running in part on her record of bipartisanship.

"I’ve been through six governors and three Senate presidents, both Republican and Democrat alike," she said in an interview Thursday. "It’s the right time, and I’m ready."

If chosen, Lightford would be the first African-American woman elected Senate president - an achievement she downplayed.

"I don’t see a color issue," Lightford said. "I just see more of an opportunity and I’m going for it, and I hope at the end of the day that Sen. Harmon and I will continue to work together."

Harmon is currently an assistant majority leader in the Senate, where he's served since 2003. Harmon represents the 39th District, which is directly north of Lightford's district and includes parts of Oak Park, Franklin Park, Melrose Park, Bensenville and more, including O'Hare International Airport.

"I’m asking to be judged on my 17-year record of leadership and service in the Illinois Senate,” Harmon said in a separate interview Thursday. “The Senate presidency really has to tackle these three areas: the policy, the politics and the personal."

Harmon has highlighted his fundraising acumen as one reason lawmakers should support him for president. Across three campaign committees, state records show Harmon had more than $2.2 million in his war chest as of Thursday - far outpacing Lightford's $264,000.

"On the political side I think I’m in the best position to protect our caucus and to grow it," Harmon said. "I’ve demonstrated my ability to help my colleagues with their election and raising the resources we need."

Pritzker said he personally does not have a preference in the election, adding that he's collaborated with both of them - Harmon on the effort to implement a graduated income tax in Illinois, and Lightford on raising the state's minimum wage.

"These are two terrific leaders and I'll work with either of them when they get elected," Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference on Friday, noting that the election would be on his birthday and the new leader would be his "gift."

Cullerton's unexpected announcement that he would be retiring sent shockwaves through Illinois' political circles, already reeling over the specter of a federal probe into corruption in Illinois.

Multiple current and former members of the Senate have been implicated in the investigation in recent months - circumstances the next president will likely need to continue to navigate.

Sen. Tom Cullerton was indicted on 40 counts of embezzlement in August, charges to which he has pleaded not guilty. Sen. Martin Sandoval resigned effective in early January, months after federal agents executed search warrants at his offices in Springfield and Cicero. He has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

And a third unspecified senator was mentioned in a federal complaint against then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who was arrested in October and charged with bribery. Prosecutors allege Arroyo offered that senator - who cooperated with the investigation because he had submitted false income tax returns - $2,500 a month in exchange for the senator's support of sweepstakes-related legislation.

There is one major change to the election of the Senate president this time around: The winner will only be able to serve in that position for a maximum of 10 years, or five terms in the General Assembly, because the chamber passed term limits on its leadership positions in 2017.

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