CHICAGO — When the Illinois House failed to take a final vote on marriage equality legislation this spring, the bill’s chief sponsor stood and tearfully told supporters his colleagues promised to return this fall to go on record with their votes, setting the stage for a renewed campaign to pass the bill during the fall “veto session.”
Now, as the start of the session on Oct. 22 creeps closer, marriage equality proponents say they are “cautiously optimistic” about the prospect of passing the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act this year, but questions about the timing, the legislature’s priorities and the vote count itself could push a vote into 2014.
The stark reality of the state’s multi-billion dollar pension crisis, the need to address state budget concerns, and fears some House members have about tough primary elections next March, could potentially derail the bill’s chances of passing this year, leaving key marriage equality advocates eying January as an option — if not their next best shot.
“We just need to be sure that the votes are there and be mindful of the other things that are facing the state like the pension crisis and the legislator pay veto and other issues that may affect scheduling,” Greg Harris, a Democrat from Chicago and the bill’s chief sponsor in the chamber, told BuzzFeed. “We have to monitor the situation and make the decision when the time is right. The key is to continually evaluate and reevaluate.”
The warming toward a January vote is a significant change in message compared to a few months ago when House members said they would need more time to hear from constituents before they could cast a vote on the marriage equality bill. The bill had already been approved by the state Senate and Gov. Pat Quinn had pledged to sign it.
John Kohlhepp, campaign manager for Illinois Unites for Marriage, the coalition working to pass the bill, told BuzzFeed that while supporters still are focused on a fall vote, there could also be advantages to passing the bill in January. Due to a quirk in the law, he said, if the bill is passed then, “marriages can start in 30 days,” he said. “By passing it in veto session, marriages won’t begin until June 1 of 2014.”
Questions have been raised about how many votes have been added to the ‘yes’ column in recent months, since no additional House members have publicly come out in support of the marriage equality. However, several internal roll calls by coalition organizations indicate they are at 56, a source told BuzzFeed, putting a 60-vote veto session victory in reach.
If approved in the House, the bill would then have to go back to the Senate for another vote, where advocates expect easy passage after it sailed to victory on Valentine’s Day in a 31-24 vote.
Illinois Unites’s strategy is not unexpected.
“Our goal is to make sure every one of the representatives hears from thousands of their constituents and we are well on our way to having each one of our legislators hear from their constituents in great numbers,” Kohlhepp said. “The campaign is rolling along at an incredible pace and we have definitely exceeded our expectations in some areas of the state that I did not expect.”
Illinois Unites has employed 19 field organizers, who have been placed in the districts of 40 targeted lawmakers to activate local supporters.
Last month, the ACLU of Illinois hired Pat Brady, the former Illinois Republican Party chairman, to directly lobby GOP House lawmakers. Brady made waves earlier this year when he broke with party lines and publicly announced his support for marriage equality and faced attempts to oust him from his chair until he resigned in May.
No major breakthroughs have been made on that side of the aisle, though. “We are working full steam ahead,” Brady said. “We are continuing to talk to members, following the plan of the coalition. Nothing hugely significant to report.”
Brady said the state’s pension problem may be a greater priority for lawmakers than passing marriage equality. “Pensions may impact marriage equality,” he said. “The pensions issue is probably top of mind.”
There is a cost for every day same-sex couples must wait to marry, Harris said, referring to the story of Steven Rynes and Robert Smith who could not get legally married in Illinois before Rynes passed away after battling cancer Sept. 10.
“This illustrates that this couple couldn’t wait,” Kohlhepp said. “And for leaders in the gay and lesbian community and our elected officials, this is the kind of thing that weighs on them — whether or not we feel comfortable saying to people who are ill or people who are in difficult situations, that they have to wait.”
The Civil Rights Agenda’s Anthony Martinez went further, saying a January vote is definitely on the table, but that failure to pass the bill in November could also lead to other consequences, potentially damaging the movement for marriage equality in the state.
“People only have so much energy and with all the inability to get things done in Springfield and in Washington, for that matter, there is a lack of trust in legislators and the legislative process that will come to bear if we don’t do this as soon as possible,” Martinez said. “But again, we have to get to 60 votes.
“We have to push and hold these legislators to their word who said they’d vote for this in November,” he added. “That has to come from constituents, the community, everyone in Illinois that stands on the side of equality.”