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  WINDY CITY TIMES

IN THE DETAILS The marriage bill's past and future
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times
2013-06-19

This article shared 3437 times since Wed Jun 19, 2013
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For state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the first sign of trouble came Thursday afternoon, May 30.

"Someone that I had confirmed wasn't there all of the sudden, and I thought this was not a good sign," Cassidy said, sitting in a coffee shop in her North Side district.

Cassidy had checked and double-checked with the lawmaker in question, who she declined to name. He planned on voting yes, he had said. But that changed on Thursday.

"Folks that I thought were really solid really weren't," said Cassidy. "And that's what happens. Something starts to bleed and then it just keeps going."

On May 31, the Illinois House delivered a demoralizing blow to families seated in Speaker Mike Madigan's gallery when they closed spring session without voting on equal marriage. The 60 votes were not yet there, chief sponsor Rep. Greg Harris told the packed chamber. Reps had promised to return during November's veto session and support the bill, he said.

The shortfall sparked outrage as both sponsors and LGBT organizations had repeatedly forecast the bill's success before session's end. Illinois Unites for Marriage, the coalition of organizations pushing for the bill, slammed Harris for not calling for a vote.

But how Harris went from seemingly certain on the bill's success to sure of its failure in a matter of days went unexplained.

Setting the stage

For most of the marriage push, Harris was reserved with his predictions. He would call the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act when the votes were there, he told media and supporters, but gave little indication about when that would be.

Just ten days before session's end on May 21, Harris told Windy City Times that he would "absolutely" call the bill before session ended.

"When I put it up on the board, it's going to go up to win," he added.

It was the first commitment on a timeline to come from Harris, and coalition leaders, growing antsy to see a vote, began to promote that statement to supporters.

Harris reiterated that commitment to coalition leaders, said Lambda Legal Midwest Regional Director Jim Bennett, who also chairs the coalition.

Tackling the House

Two strategies had dominated thinking on how best to approach the vote in Illinois.

One line of thought was that sponsors should secure votes in both the Senate and House before calling for a vote in either. The reasoning was that Senators who voted "yes" would not take heat for a bill that couldn't pass the House and that anti-gay activists would be left with little time between the two votes to mobilize.

The other strategy was to pass the bill in the Senate and ride that momentum to a win in the House.

Backers aimed to achieve both strategies, planning to pass the bill in the Senate and work that momentum towards quick success in the House. Talk in the coalition suggested that plan could be complete by February's end.

"The idea was to keep the momentum moving so quickly that we would not give our opponents time to organize in a strategic way," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois.

A successful Senate vote on Valentine's Day put that goal into focus.

"I was so proud of the Senate and how they handled this vote," said Sen. Heather Steans, the Senate chief sponsor of the bill. "There was no arm-twisting involved."

But the House proved to be a much tougher push.

The bill needed between 55-58 votes to put it within reach. Backers thought that if they could meet that threshold, Madigan would pull in remaining votes and help it pass.

But coalition leaders had not kept a firm roll call, and Harris had declined to share his. Confidence from LGBT leaders had been founded on faith in Harris and his perceived rapport with Madigan. Leaders felt that Madigan would throw his weight behind Harris if it came down to the wire.

Further, the campaign for marriage equality had largely been funded by Fred Eychaner, one of the biggest backers of Democratic politicians and causes in Illinois. It seemed unlikely that Madigan would burn his supporters.

Still, weeks passed after the Senate's success without a vote. Anti-gay groups began to organize weekly rallies against the bill.

The coalition, seeing momentum dwindle, fought to keep the story in the news, releasing statements of support from celebrities and politicians and stating repeatedly that a vote would come any day.

On March 13, House Speaker Michael Madigan told reporters that the bill was 12 votes short of the 60 it needed to pass. The statement set off panic among some LGBTs, but members of the coalition quietly scoffed at the number.

In fact, a vote had been anticipated the following day. Madigan's statement, rather than alarm coalition leaders, was taken as a bluff in advance of a vote, a tactic to energize LGBTs and prevent anti-gays from flooding the capitol the day of the vote.

The following day, coalition leaders headed for Springfield in hopes of seeing a vote. The day came and went without one.

There were several times, sources say, when the bill could have passed during the spring session. In mid-March, organizers had counted 58 yes votes, four to six of them Republicans. With several lawmakers still in the "undecided" column, LGBT organizers felt confident that Madigan and Harris could secure the final votes to pass the bill.

That outlook started to turn when reports began to circulate that Republican House Leader Tom Cross was considering a run for attorney general. The news set into motion a scramble among Republicans eager to move up in leadership. At least two Republican yes votes were reportedly lost, as Republicans aimed to appease their base.

By mid-May Senator Steans felt a twinge of concern.

"Once you get caught into the end of session and all the stuff that needs to happen, that's just complicating," she said. "So when it hadn't happened by two weeks out, then I started going, 'OK…' But I still felt it was ultimately going to pass."

Thursday

By the time the last week of session arrived, sponsors and coalition leaders were anxious to see a vote. Many predicted the bill would see a vote on Thursday, May 30, and LGBT families headed for Springfield.

In the capitol building, coalition leaders predicted the bill's passage by early Friday morning. Thursday, however, ticked on without a vote or a signal from House leadership.

Coalition leaders started to get restless.

On Thursday around lunchtime, coalition leaders gathered in Rep. Deb Mell's office to strategize on how to pressure Harris and Madigan into calling for a vote. Mell, one of four openly gay legislators in the House, was not present at the meeting.

The coalition decided to hold a press conference in front of Madigan's office to pressure Madigan and Harris.

Jim Bennett, coalition chair, told media that the bill would pass if called. LGBT families also spoke, urging the assembly to act.

Estimates on the vote count on Thursday vary. One source said that the bill had 53 firm votes going into the last few days of session. Another totaled the support at 58.

But late in afternoon Thursday saw a quiet rumor that there would be no action on the bill. That rumor went unconfirmed, and with conflicting reports circulating throughout the capitol, LGBTs were simply left to wait.

With time running short, the coalition organized a rally in Springfield for the following morning and asked supporters to travel to Springfield.

Friday

Friday, May 31, the last day of spring session, opened with a sense of urgency. The coalition sent out an email impelling supporters to contact their reps. LGBTs convened in the capitol rotunda to show support for the bill. But a bus of about 20 supporters organized by the coalition ran an hour late. Approximately 100 people were present for the rally.

Some believed the bill had 58 or 59 votes that morning, enough to pass if Madigan could pull in the last remaining votes.

That understanding was affirmed that morning when Madigan opened his House gallery to LGBT families who had come to witness history.

Bill after bill was called throughout the day, with no vote on marriage discussed.

At 1:30 p.m., the House recessed for lunch. Harris made his way up into Madigan's box to visit with families who had come for the vote. Harris took pictures with the families and said he was optimistic about the vote.

When the assembly reconvened hours later, coalition leaders were nervous but confident.

Sponsoring reps were not put on alert until later that afternoon, but word that votes were falling off the bill sent sponsors into a scramble.

"We were working the roll call like mad," said Cassidy of Friday afternoon.

At around 5:10 p.m. Madigan appeared in the House chamber. His presence alerted many who had waited all day for a vote.

Soon after, Madigan pulled the four openly gay reps into his office.

The bill did not appear to have the votes, he said. It was up to Harris to decide what to do.

"We talked about various options," said gay Rep. Sam Yingling. "There was definitely dialogue between everyone at the table."

Harris also consulted with Steans.

The two had been in touch all day, but Steans said it was not until Friday afternoon or evening that the situation became evident. Harris asked Steans what she thought he should do.

Her initial gut reaction was that he should call the bill, she said. She quickly realized that was emotion speaking and told him not to call the bill.

In fact, other sponsors had the same temptation, they said.

"The reality is that would put us off at least a year, maybe longer," said Cassidy, who added that she also understood the desire to see a vote.

"You don't burn down the house just because you don't like the color of the dining room," she added.

"Calling the vote would have been so personally satisfying," said sponsoring Rep. Ann Williams. "In retrospect, I have to really commend Greg Harris [for waiting]."

"A first, there were was a great deal of disbelief," said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz. "My sense was that we were very close."

Feigenholtz called Harris's decision to wait "wise."

"I thought it was the toughest call that he'll ever make in his career, undoubtedly," she added.

By Friday evening, the shortage of votes was significant.

"Enough that it would have gone very badly had it gone up on the board," Cassidy said.

Several close to the bill estimate the "yes" votes would have been in the 40s, a devastatingly low number.

"I was stunned," said Yingling. "My partner and our kids were on the floor, and there were a number of families from across the state that were in the gallery. That was my immediate thought as well as the other legislators. It was very surreal."

The Rita Mayfield issue

Among the most frustrating fence-sitters on equal marriage had long been Waukegan Rep. Rita Mayfield.

Mayfield voted "present" on civil unions because she could not bring herself to vote against the bill despite the will of her district, she said. The issue was close to her heart, she added, as her best friend is a gay man living Florida.

Mayfield had been on LGBT target lists since the civil union vote, with multiple organizers working to turn her ambivalence into a "yes" on the issue of equal marriage.

In spring 2012, Equality Illinois held a Springfield lobby day that focused on marriage, despite the fact that a marriage bill had yet to be introduced. The lobby day signaled that groups were preparing to push for equal marriage in the coming months.

Mayfield was among the targets for the lobby day. Approached by a constituent that day, she explained that her district contained many churches. She did not feel she had the support to vote for same-sex marriage. She also reiterated that she voted "present" on civil unions because she could not bring herself to vote "no."

LGBT groups continued to court Mayfield after the lobby day.

So difficult was that push that some activists considered supporting a primary candidate to oppose her. But Mayfield's district sat next to that of candidate Yingling, whose victory would make him the first openly gay rep elected in Illinois outside of Chicago. In the end, the money and energy was put into Yingling's campaign. Yingling won, and Mayfield remained in office.

According to Mayfield, she surveyed more than 108,000 constituents on the issue of same-sex marriage a year ago, and just 20 percent supported equal marriage, with 70 percent opposed.

But activists did not give up on Mayfield, stating that the phrasing of the survey questions encouraged bias against equal marriage.

Mayfield and LGBT groups agreed to tackle the issue at a town hall forum in the district. The ACLU's Khadine Bennett fielded questions from more than 100 attendees at the Waukegan meeting. But that plan backfired, with the overwhelming majority in attendance opposing the bill. According to residents, attendees on both sides of the issue had been brought in from out of the district.

According to sources, Mayfield had in fact told coalition leaders not to invite supporters to the meeting, stating that she wanted to hear from the community. But the low turnout in favor of marriage equality followed by Mayfield's statements that her district appeared opposed raised eyebrows in the coalition.

The town hall meeting was the last straw for some LGBT activists, who grumbled that Mayfield was anti-gay, and that she simply wanted cover for not supporting equal marriage. LGBT organizers made the call to invest energy into other lawmakers, but the Rita Mayfield question never went away.

Several sources close to the bill said that with the clock winding down in session, Mayfield began picking off support for the bill in the Black Caucus.

Sources estimate that as many as 10 lawmakers got cold feet in the final hours.

Those that saw Mayfield as a problem did not elaborate specifically on why she might have worked against the bill behind-the-scenes. Some felt she was anti-gay, while some speculated that she didn't want to take a vote that would put her odds with other Democrats.

But Mayfield strongly denied that version of events.

"That's absolutely not true," she told Windy City Times. "That is definitely not what happened… there is so much finger-pointing."

Mayfield said that several colleagues had told her they felt they needed more time, a message she passed along to Harris in the weeks leading up to session and in the final hours, she said.

"I spoke to Rep. Harris more than once," Mayfield said.

Mayfield said that about eight Black Caucus members wanted the opportunity to return to their districts and educate their constituents on the issue before voting "yes."

As for her own vote, she said, she is still looking at voting "present."

"I'm definitely leaning 'yes,'" she said. "I don't know what it will take to push me over the edge."

Gay activist Michael O'Connor, a former 34th District legislative staffer, said he felt that stories about Mayfield were very unlikely.

"She doesn't have that kind of power," he said. "I'm highly suspect when I hear stuff like that."

Issues with outreach

Suggestions that the Black Caucus prevented the bill's passage have been refuted by Caucus Chair Ken Dunkin and LGBT organizations alike.

"We shouldn't be wearing the jacket for this," Dunkin told reporters May 31. "That would be unfair and disingenuous to have the Black Caucus wear the jacket because you have 71 Democrats."

Dunkin later declined to comment to Windy City Times on the reports about Mayfield.

But some close to the bill argued that even if Mayfield had worked against it, the damage would have been minimal had more work been done within the Black Caucus. Many felt the caucus was taken for granted, with two lobbyists hired in the final 48 hours to target Black lawmakers.

Kim Hunt, executive director of Affinity Community Services, also said that Black LGBT leaders were not called on to aide in outreach to Black representatives.

"We could have been educating and mobilizing our constituents," said Hunt. "We did have some constituents that we knew of that were very interested in going to Springfield. We don't have the resources for that. There could have been things that we could have done in the Black press, which we tried to do a little bit … but it wasn't part of a larger strategy. It was just us stepping in because we weren't seeing anything visible in terms of support marriage equality."

Hunt and O'Connor were among a group of Black LGBTs to travel to the capitol independent of the coalition to lobby lawmakers.

A look at leadership

Sponsors of the bill have called for unity in the wake of the non-vote. Cassidy, Steans, Yingling, Feigenholtz and Williams all stated on-record that they felt Harris made the best call.

Still, sources suggest that Harris kept both his colleagues and the coalition at arm's length.

Several sponsors made a habit of asking coalition leaders when a vote might come, rather than Harris. Some key sponsors did not appear to have access to the roll call, and at least two were not given target legislators to work on.

Williams, a consistent LGBT supporter and close ally to gay legislators was not working off a roll call.

"I had no access to any master list or target list but would talk to people that I was close with on both sides of the aisle," Williams said.

Another rep was told to talk to "everybody."

Still, Harris reportedly assured sponsors and coalition leaders that everything was under control. In fact, many LGBT organizers were simply told not to work on the bill, numerous sources confirmed.

This lack of communication about strategy coupled with the bill's ultimate shortfall in the final hours appeared to be the source of tension between Harris and others working to pass the bill.

Many in the coalition felt that they could have helped pass the bill but were not utilized, while others felt shut out from the process.

Coalition leaders first heard rumors Friday night of the vote shortage. They got confirmation through lobbyists less than an hour before Harris announced it. The coalition unanimously wanted to see a vote, they said. However, they were not consulted.

"All of our groups had already made the decision," said Bennett, coalition chair. "There was no one on a different page."

LGBT organizers began texting people in the gallery, asking them to yell at Harris to call for a vote when he stood to speak. When Harris rose, onlookers did just that.

Among those yelling was Bennett.

"Justice delayed is justice denied!" Bennett shouted from the gallery.

According to Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU did not discuss the possibility of shortfall with Harris.

"That is something we should have all prepared for and been prepared for and been prepared to speak about in a fashion that would have been less reactive and more affirming in terms of keeping the movement going forward," said Yohnka.

Despite anger at Harris, many in the coalition also blamed Madigan for the shortfall, stating that he did nothing to drum up support for the bill beyond state his support for marriage equality.

Of the sponsoring reps, however, only Mell said she felt the speaker did not fully prioritize the bill.

Mell said she wanted to attend an LGBT protest held outside Madigan's Chicago district office June 16, but that a personal commitment prevented her from doing so.

Moving forward

Both coalition leaders and reps have urged LGBTs to direct their energy into unifying rather than tearing each other apart.

Reps point to the campaign's many successes—numerous media editorials in favor of equal marriage, swift progress in the Illinois Senate and rapidly evolving public opinion. Supporters note that it took three decades to pass the Illinois Human Rights Act, and that the marriage push is less than a year out of the gate.

In Bernard Cherkasov's Equality Illinois office hangs a large hand-written timeline of goals. The timeline moves from the passage of civil unions to marriage equality, and it has clearly been on his wall for years now. He points toward the end of the timeline. In 2012, the goals were to protect and elect supportive lawmakers. This year was to see the introduction of a marriage equality bill. Next year, that bill was slated to become law.


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