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Illinois Unites manager looks back on campaign
by Matt Simonette
2013-11-11

This article shared 2392 times since Mon Nov 11, 2013
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Supporters of gay marriage in Illinois came several steps closer to the end of a long, winding road Nov. 5 when the General Assembly passed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Marriage Fairness Act 61-54.

The vote culminated several years of work from many politicians, activists and other supporters, on SB10's behalf, as well as months of speculation as to when the vote would actually take place. The bill's chief sponsor, State Rep. Greg Harris, would not publicly say when to expect a vote.

But Harris privately told colleagues the evening of Nov. 4 that the vote would happen the following day, according to Illinois Unites for Marriage Campaign Director John Kohlhepp.

Harris had called together members of the steering committee for Illinois Unites for Marriage, as well as State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and State Rep. Sam Yingling. "We decided at that point to call the bill, and the next morning, Greg started to move on it," Kohlhepp said. "There are behind the scenes phone calls, and so forth, that go on."

As with many significant votes, rumors were rampant as supporters tried to conceive of the most rational strategy for the session. Tuesday morning, word circulated that the bill would be called in late afternoon. It turned out to be the first order of business Tuesday afternoon, when a vote was called on an amendment to SB10.

The amendment passed, signaling to supporters that the original bill likely would as well.

By that point, Kohlhepp said, "The debate was about how far over 60 we would be, not whether we were at 60. We knew that as soon as the Speaker engaged with the bill, with the governor and the mayor, and everybody else pulling in the same direction as everybody else, that we would get there."

House Speaker Michael Madigan sat alongside former Rep. ( and current Alderman ) Deb Mell for much of the debate. Near the end of the afternoon, he spoke on its behalf, citing Pope Francis' recent calls for tolerance.

Madigan was "incredibly engaged" through much of the campaign, Kohlhepp said. "The speaker was our ally." Rep. Thaddeus Jones and Rep. Michael D'Amico both told Chicago Sun-Times that they had met with Madigan about SB10, and each voted in favor of the bill. Madigan ultimately claimed that he was able to persuade about five to 10 members to vote for SB10; he was criticized by many supporters for doing too little during the push for a vote in the spring.

Kohlhepp had lobbied for SB10 in his work for District 31 of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers in the spring.

When Harris said in May that he would not be calling a vote, "I was broken-hearted like everybody else," Kohlhepp said. "There was a whole lot of emotion for me, as with everybody else, and I sat on the side of the chamber just crying. I couldn't believe that it hadn't passed, that it hadn't been called."

He thought that the campaign needed someone with a skill set like his, and he was hired to be Illinois Unites' campaign manager, taking a leave of absence from AFSCME.

"The consensus was we needed to run an outside game that engaged constituents of targeted legislators, as well as an inside game, which was lobbyists and all the internal political machine that exists here on both sides of the aisle," Kohlhepp said.

He spoke frequently in public on building targeting districts statewide from "Wisconsin to East St. Louis."

"Everyone really had the sense that that's what was needed," according to Kohlhepp. "Constituent contact, no matter what the issue, really drives a legislator's thinking, and the campaign was built to drive thousands of constituents—because that's what those legislators called for. They'd asked to go home to their districts and speak to their constituents."

"We chose our target list very carefully," he added. "So there really are no surprises."

The campaign had announced a fundraising goal of $2 million. Kohlhepp was unable to answer what the actual amount was. "We are still counting," he said, adding, "But we are very close to our goal. There wasn't anything we wanted to do that we couldn't do because of our finances."

Many politicians would have preferred to wait until January or March for a vote, so unopposed House representatives would not have to worry about a primary challenger should they vote in favor of SB10.

"The truth is, there always is a difficult political reality," Kohlhepp said. "It was now or never," Kohlhepp said. "We built the campaign based on Harris' floor speech [May 31, saying he would bring the bill up in the fall veto session], and we helped to fulfill that promise."

Momentum from events such as the Oct. 22 March on Springfield "created a sense of movement," Kohlhepp said. "It bought us at least two crucial votes." He would not reveal who the votes belonged to, but said one legislator was persuaded by the sight of supporters marching around the Capitol.

He said all thoughout the campaign that there was no "Plan B"—had the bill not been called in the fall veto session, Harris and the coalition would essentially have been back to the drawing board come 2014.

"But these people were incredible—they passed this bill," said Kohlhepp. "Everybody had a part to play, and in the end, they came through. That came along with some incredible leadership from Greg Harris. He kept his promise, and we should be thanking him for working tirelessly on this."


This article shared 2392 times since Mon Nov 11, 2013
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