Larry McKeon died Tuesday. He was 63.
The obits will tell you that he was the first openly gay member of the Illinois General Assembly–which is a lot different than being the first gay member of that august body, as McKeon once said to me.
Politically, McKeon came of age in the 90s, an opportune time for gay politicians in Chicago. Mayor Daley, son of Bridgeport, had decided that it would be politically worth his while to build an alliance with the city’s north-side gay community. In 1992 he hired McKeon to be his liaison to the gay and lesbian communities.
Four years later, in 1996, Daley gave McKeon his blessing to run for state rep in what would become the 13th District, which includes parts of Uptown, Ravenswood, Andersonville, and North Center. The seat was open because incumbent Nancy Kaszak was stepping down to run for Congress, and 47th Ward Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly had put up his own guy, Luke Howe. McKeon’s Daley connection — which he played up on his campaign literature — helped him defeat the machine candidate by convincing conservative Democrats that it was OK to vote for the gay guy. I still bump into folks who tell me their allegiance to Daley will never die because he helped elect McKeon.
Once in office, McKeon was unbeatable, and he served until 2007, when illness (cancer and AIDs) forced him to step down.
I liked him because he was never afraid to answer my questions, he didn’t hold grudges (at least not against me), and he had a pretty good sense of humor. The last time I talked to him was shortly after he had retired from office. He was telling me about how he’d used his contacts with house speaker Michael Madigan to win some state money for Truman College.
I teased him that he was the Man, calling the shots with the big boys in Springfield. He joked that if you’re going to have connections, you might as well use them for someone other than yourself.