The question in Illinois going into November is: How much is enough?
Support for same-sex marriage has climbed as high as 54 percent in recent polls. The state Senate passed a bill granting marriage rights to same-sex couples on Valentine’s Day 2013, and Governor Pat Quinn says he’ll sign it. Both Illinois Senators in DC support marriage equality, including Republican Mark Kirk, as does Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Chicago’s own President Obama. Even Pat Brady, former chairman of the state GOP, endorsed the bill, a stand that cost Brady his chairmanship (he’s now lobbying on behalf of the legislation for the ACLU).
But when the state House took up the matter in May they fell short, deferring the measure until November.
Greg Harris, openly gay state rep from district 13, has championed the bill from day one, sponsoring it four times since 2007, but now Harris faces criticism from the least likely source: LGBT activists who say he hasn’t done enough.
“With all due respect to Mr. Harris, he’s the front-man for the Democratic Party on this, and he’s providing cover for his colleagues who are against it,” Roger Fraser of the Illinois-based liberal activist group Gay Liberation Network told 429Magazine. “We’re never going to be able to get this legislation passed unless we know who is for it or who is against it. Harris is making sure people don’t have to own up to their position.”
The bone of contention lies in the May legislative session where an emotional Harris took to the House floor to say he would not bring the bill up then, because he was not confident there were enough votes for it. Harris said he wanted to give House members on the fence more time to consult with their districts and make a decision. Harris choked up several times during the address and voices in the gallery clamored, “Vote now,” some even jeering Harris.
Harris told 429Magazine that he understands advocates’ frustration but that the realities of politics demanded delaying. “To call a vote then would hamper this issue not just for months but for years. Once someone votes no on this, it’s very hard for them to turn around and vote yes if we bring it up again,” Harris said. “I think we all understand how legislative bodies work. It’s hard work and slow going, but as Dr. King said, the arc of history bends toward justice. When we pass this, everyone will be happy and proud.”
GLN activists rallied outside Harris’ office on Saturday, calling on Harris to more aggressively lobby Illinois’ Speaker of the House Mike Madigan. “[Madigan] has used his power to benefit the fat cats and the politically connected, and he can use that same power to pass something that is truly popularly supported around the state,” GLN member Andy Thayer told a CBS News affiliate at the rally. “He’s failed thus far to do it.”
“Madigan is the man behind Harris,” Fraser told 429Magazine. “His endorsement is not only necessary but sufficient for getting his caucus into line. He’s been able to get less popular legislation through. Democrats have a supermajority in both houses, so it’s got to be someone in their apparatus holding this up. It can all be laid at the doorstep of Speaker Madigan.”
Steve Brown, spokesman for Madigan, said that such comments indicate a “lack of understanding of how the legislature really works.”
“The speaker supports this legislation, and he always has,” Brown says. “We’ve been working with Mr. Harris to get enough votes and when we do we’ll move ahead with it, but there’s no telling when that’ll be.”
Brown says the real obstacle is that the opposition, though a minority in polling, have been more vocal and aggressive in their grassroots campaigning, catching key state reps in a bind. “Jim Meeks had some impact,” Brown said, citing the former Democratic state senator and Baptist minister who has lobbied against the bill. “Until that gets counterbalanced, it’ll be hard for a number of legislators to come out for this.”
The dust-up around Harris’ office over the weekend illustrates the puzzle of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Bill: it’s a public demonstration in which both the protestors and those being protested all express the same opinion on the same issue.
Randy Hannig, director of public policy for Equality Illinois, the foremost lobbying group promoting the bill, says protestors should check their fire. “We have no greater champion than Greg Harris, and Greg Harris made the right call in May. I don’t know what these protestors are trying to prove.”
Hannig says that, from a lobbyist’s perspective, even the pronounced support for the measure can be deceptive. “When you’re close to a majority vote in the House but it’s not yet clear whether it’ll quite make it, you’re going to lose 10 or 15 people who don’t want to risk voting on the losing side.”
Some lawmakers, Hannig says, have expressed personal support for the bill but are afraid to cross their constituents. “For many of these reps this is the only job they have, and voters could put them right out of work next year. We’ve tried to make the case to them that what their district thinks now might change down the line, and what will their kids and grandkids say about their vote today?”
No one would stake out a position on whether a vote may be pending in the final days of the session. “I’m just hoping my colleagues whose votes we need are listening very closely,” Harris says. “We have majority support in all counties, but the people who are against it have been very vocal with their untruths. We need to get this done.”