By Andrew Schroedter, Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth
Oak Park has a reputation as a progressive place, where education and the arts matter, where voters care about social issues and aren't afraid to challenge the status quo.
They'd be "lakefront liberals" if the Eisenhower was water instead of exhaust-stained pavement.
Don Harmon, the state senator who represents the near western suburb and lives in town, says he takes pride in embodying Oak Park's values and independent spirit.
But after researching how much state-government business his law firm has been getting, among other subjects, we have to wonder: is Harmon really a Machine Democrat in (organic, grass-fed) sheep's clothing?
The Better Government Association recently found that the small Chicago law firm that employs Harmon has been paid millions of dollars over the years to provide legal services for state agencies -- which Harmon, as a member of the General Assembly, helps oversee. He's also voted on a piece of gaming legislation that his firm helped craft.
That's a clear conflict of interest.
But even beyond all that, Harmon's street cred as a "reformer" or progressive has to be questioned.
Why does his law firm advise public-sector clients not to speak to the media?
Why did he vote to water down the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which ensures journalists and regular citizens can access most government documents?
Why did he accept $300 in campaign donations just a couple months back from D & P Construction, a waste-hauling company that's repeatedly (and publicly) been linked to the Chicago mob?
Why did he introduce a piece of legislation that would allow office holders to "double dip" -- hold two elected positions at once?
Peter Silvestri, a Cook County commissioner and Elmwood Park's village president, told the BGA that Harmon fronted that bill at his request. After the BGA learned of the legislation, Harmon relayed that he changed his mind and was withdrawing his support.
But about a month later he quietly resurrected the bill in the form of an amendment to an unrelated piece of legislation. When we tried to ask him about the flip-flop, Harmon wouldn't return our calls. He later told the BGA he regretted getting involved in the matter. The legislation was never approved.
Lastly, although we're not into branding people with "guilt by association," it's worth noting Harmon started out his career as an aide to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who is the ultimate Machine guy -- one of the most powerful political figures in the state and one of the largest obstacles to reforming our troubled government system.
This isn't to say Harmon hasn't done good things. In fact, he's worked with the BGA on legislation, including a successful effort to kill the misused and abused "legislative scholarship" program.
But judged through a larger prism, Harmon isn't challenging the status quo. He is the status quo.
This blog post was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Andrew Schroedter, Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9035.