Statehouse
7:30 am
Wed September 25, 2013

Same Sex Marriage Activists Target House Republicans

Greg Harris, IL State Rep. sponsoring same-sex marriage legislation
Greg Harris, IL State Rep. sponsoring same-sex marriage legislation
Credit AP
 A bill to legalize gay marriage in Illinois will be waiting for lawmakers when they head back to Springfield next month. The bill already passed the State Senate - but is stuck in the House. Now, proponents are in the midst of a lobbying campaign targeted at an unlikely group of lawmakers: House Republicans. But as WBEZ’s Alex Keefe reports, there are big hurdles to getting GOP representatives to vote yes:  

This could be any political fundraiser in Chicago. Smartly dressed professional-types sip beers and crunch nachos at a bar in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Every once in awhile, somebody discreetly hands an envelope to an event organizer, who’s working the door. But you know this fundraiser is different when its headliner - State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka - has to remind her audience which party she belongs to.

TOPINKA:  First of all, for those of you who don’t know me, I am a Republican, all right? (laughs) So let’s start that. I’m also a conservative, but I’m not crazy. (fade under)...

The fundraiser is being thrown by Equality Illinois, a Chicago-based gay rights group. And the lawmakers they’re raising money for - are three Republicans. State Senator Jason Barickman has already voted in favor of same-sex marriage. And Representatives Ron Sandack, of Downers Grove, and Ed Sullivan, of Mundelein, say they’re planning to. Sullivan says this vote comes easy - but it could be harder for some fellow Republicans.

SULLIVAN: But if you believe in the conservative philosophy of pro-family, of freedoms, this is the vote. This is the day. And it’s unfortunate we don’t have more with us. We will. We’re working on it.

This fundraiser is just one way pro-gay marriage groups are trying to woo House Republicans who might be persuaded - or who are are retiring and have little to lose. They’re also building grassroots pressure - and tapping big-name donors to press their influence. It’s tough to know how many Republicans might buck the party’s platform. Leading advocates say privately it could be just a handful - but they’re still lobbying against the clock before next month’s session of the General Assembly.

BEVERAGE: Um, Hi, is this Theresa?...Um, Hi - this is Ash from Illinois Unites for Marriage,( ..fade under)

One night last week, about 10 volunteers join a phone-bank in the community room of a church in Clarendon Hills - a traditionally conservative western suburb. Illinois Unites for Marriage is a coalition targeting lawmakers in forty House districts around the state - 16 of them held by Republicans. Sandi Pihos is one of them - even though she tells WBEZ she’s a solid “no” vote. Organizer Martin McAlpin says it’s the group’s goal to try and change her mind...

McALPIN: Wheaton and Glen Ellyn are conservative strongholds, but this is not gonna pass without Republican votes.

Behind the scenes, advocates are making sure lawmakers also hear from prominent business leaders and other Republican politicians. They argue gay marriage could attract new talent to the state - and that it jives with conservative ideas about limited government. But former GOP leader Pat Brady - who now lobbies for the American Civil Liberties Union - says there’s one big potential obstacle here: the political calendar. GOP lawmakers won’t officially know whether they’ll face a primary challenge until AFTER the legislative session is over.

BRADY: And that’s a real concern - the fact that these folks who are leaning toward voting for it because they believe it’s the right thing to do might catch a primary. So the timing of the veto session - you know, last week of October, first week of November - ah, could be problematic.

Meanwhile, supporters of same-sex marriage aren’t the only ones gearing up for a fight.

PLANTE: Well, we are planning as if it will come up. Uh, that’s the only way that we can do this.

Chris Plante is with the National Organization for Marriage, which has been doing its own lobbying AGAINST the gay marriage bill. Plante’s group is vowing to help defeat lawmakers who vote in favor of same-sex marriage - especially Republicans.

PLANTE: They will not stand for candidates, or for representatives who betray their constituency, who do not vote their values. And so the consequence will be that they will lose their seat.

Back at the fundraiser, organizers say they’re aiming to bring in at least 5-thousand dollars for each of the the GOP candidates who are publicly supporting gay marriage. Representative Ron Sandack says he’ll take it - because he expects a conservative challenger in next year’s primary.

SANDACK: I have no fear about that. It doesn’t cause me any pause. That’s part of the process. I signed up for it. If that’s what they wanna do - Godspeed.

Whether Sandack remains that confident could depend on what happens when - or if - Illinois’ gay marriage bill comes up in the next session.

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