News (USA)

Momentum builds for gay marriage vote in Illinois next week

CHICAGO — After months of energetic lobbying, both sides in the Illinois same-sex marriage debate are ready for a vote next week that supporters say would fulfill a pledge by the sponsor to bring the issue back to Springfield.

Anticipating a likely vote during the final week of the veto session, some lawmakers previously on the fence have announced their position on the question. Others are quickly drafting proposed changes so they can support the bill. More activists are calling for immediate action. And even opponents are planning for fallout ahead of the campaign season.

Illinois state capitol in Springfield.
Illinois state capitol in Springfield.

One legislator who firmed up his support is Rep. Al Riley, an Olympia Fields Democrat who’s been hesitant to discuss his position publicly. He told The Associated Press he’s now a “yes.”

“I’m not in the business of discriminating against people,” he said. The road to “good public policy is that you don’t talk about it all the damn time.”

The home state of Pres ident Barack Obama has been surprisingly resistant to same-sex marriage, even with Democrats leading the House, Senate and governor’s office. The Senate passed the measure on Valentine’s Day, but it wasn’t called for a vote in the House because sponsor Rep. Greg Harris said he didn’t have the 60 needed votes. In the waning hours of the spring session in May, he gave a tearful speech saying he’d give his colleagues more time and vowed to bring up the bill again.

Now those on both sides are gearing up for it next week, when lawmakers return to Springfield. And without much progress so far on other high profile issues like pensions, their focus is magnified.

“We have done everything we could to help ensure Greg Harris’ promise to the people of the state of Illinois: Their representatives would go home to their districts and come back and vote on the bill,” said John Kohlhepp, a union lobbyist hired to lead the same-sex marriage campaign.

Backers of the legislation wouldn’t discuss vote tallies, saying it’s too fluid. But those close to the bill appear to have a little more confidence.

“I’m feeling good,” said Harris, a Chicago Democrat. “Things are moving in the right direction.”

He said the number of states allowing same-sex marriage has continued to climb: currently there are 14 plus Washington D.C. Also the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision over the summer to strike down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act has added to the momentum, Harris said.

Aside from Riley, others have voiced support. Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, a Hillside Democrat who wavered, said he’s now solidly in favor. He said he sees it as a civil rights issue.

Opponents have vowed to line up primary challenges to lawmakers who vote in favor. That’s the case for both Republicans who’ve said they support the measure – Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove and Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. of Mundelein – and potential Chicago area Democrats.

Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church and his coalition of African American pastors around the Chicago area have spoken out against same-sex marriage with aggressive robocall and radio ads. He said the group, which argues marriage should remain between a man and a woman, has started lining up challengers, though he declined to name any. Candidates who want to run for office face an early December petition deadline.

“We have some very serious candidates who are going to run in several of these districts,” Trotter said. “They can’t come to church with our support and then go and vote (against our interests) in Springfield.”

However, some gay rights activists also have been divided. A handful picketed Harris’ office last week, calling for an immediate vote out of the belief that it’s mere politics preventing a vote.

“It feels like somewhat of a betrayal. This is a man who is one of us,” Kelly Imgrund of the Gay Liberation Network said of Harris, who is openly gay. “He’s been mum on everything.”

The push for gay marriage began after Illinois legalized civil unions in 2011. Over the summer, the campaign included efforts to recruit more Republicans, though no more have come forward.

“We’re having discreet conversations,” said Pat Brady, the former head of the Illinois Republican Party who was hired to lobby Republicans.

Still, some Democrats have also been reluctant to endorse same-sex marriage.

Rep. Fred Crespo, Democrat from Hoffman Estates, said he was leaning “no,” until this week when he made up his mind. He said he was torn as a practicing Catholic who also has a lot of gay friends. He said he’s keeping his decision to himself until the vote.

“I’m at peace with my decision,” Crespo said.

Rep. Anthony DeLuca, a Chicago Heights Democrat, said it is by far the top issue constituents and advocacy groups have contacted him about. He said some of the advocates’ arguments – particular ly equality for families – have been convincing but he wants to amend the bill to add more protections for church groups. Harris said he’s not interested in altering the bill.

“There are very strong opinions on both sides I’m taking it all in,” DeLuca said.

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