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  Windy City Times

Editorial: The Marriage Fiasco
Update June 3 below. Also video embed, Rep. Harris answers strategy question.
by Tracy Baim, Publisher, Windy City Times
2013-06-01

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What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The marriage equality non-vote in the Illinois House May 31 is a historic failure with plenty of blame to hand out. The decision has led to an autopsy rich in potential villains, but it is also complicated and nuanced.

There was nothing to be gained in waiting for the fall veto session. If a bill does pass at that time, marriages would not likely begin until June 1, 2014. (This is what happened with the civil union law in Illinois, so it is the likely path for marriage.)

If indeed the vote had failed, there would have been more time to perhaps work for new elected officials in some districts, and plenty of time to lobby for a new bill next spring (at which point, if it passed, marriages might also have started around June). *

The biggest blame has to be placed on the chief sponsor of the marriage equality bill in the Illinois House, Rep. Greg Harris, an openly gay man. If you are out front for the credit when there is victory, you are also out front for the failure. The bill stops there.

Harris made promises he could not keep. In politics, that can be a reason to step down. Harris, who has dedicated his career to LGBT and AIDS issues, deserves the chance to prove his strategy right. If he wins, we all win, and that is all that matters. But if he does not succeed in passing this in the veto session this fall, he should not run for re-election in 2014. To be clear, this is not a call for Harris to resign (despite what many on social media and in the mainstream media have interpreted this editorial to say), but he will have lost the trust of the people he made commitments to, and it is very difficult to lead once that trust is gone.

In addition, Harris should step down now as chief sponsor of this legislation. He has proven he is tone deaf to the wishes of both the grassroots and leadership of this community. They almost all called for a vote "no matter what." Instead, Harris chose to give cover to his political colleagues, rather than follow through on his own on-the-record promise to call for a vote by May 31.

Why did a vote matter now? Because for months, no hard count has been possible on who really was for or against this bill. This limbo caused confusion and depleted valuable resources lobbying dozens more representatives than necessary.

Harris said he has promises from certain reps they will vote for the bill this fall, but we have seen how political promises pan out.

What's not clear is if it would have failed if the legislators had been forced to be on record. Several legislators said they believe some of their colleagues would have changed to "yes"—and indeed in other cities and states this has been the case. With four openly gay and lesbian representatives in the Illinois House as their colleagues, they have a much greater understanding of this battle.

In addition, Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, who is the most powerful man in Springfield, is also to blame. He and the Democrats pushed the LGBT community to help elect a majority in the House. They relied on LGBT votes and dollars. But when it came time to twist arms for this, Madigan did not flex his muscles. He is strategic, and this fight clearly was not for him. When his daughter (state Attorney General Lisa Madigan) runs for governor next year, it will be a difficult ballet she dances for the LGBT community's support. It may seem unfair (and North Korean-like) to punish the daughter for the father's sins, but it will likely be the reality.

It goes almost without saying that a lot of the blame for this comes because of the right-wing's efforts in Illinois, fueled by religious bigotry from officials in the powerful Catholic Church, and some Black churches. The anti-gays needed a win, after a string of embarrassing losses, and Illinois fed it to them on a platter.

The pro-gay Illinois Marriage Coalition must also take some heat. They did a tremendous amount of work, but in the end they were ineffective in getting the one thing they all wanted—a vote. Many questions remain about how and when they communicated with Harris about their demands, and how many strings were pulled to increase the pressure.

One key problem is that they deferred to Harris when they should have been running an independent effort, counting the votes and working with the entire Legislature. At times it seemed as if no one really knew what was going on—even during the last two days of the efforts. Years of work, and Harris alone had all the power to make this happen. This was a perfect example of a single-point of failure.

Another concern is how divided the Coalition seemed internally. With so many organizations, there were strategy leaks, strings being pulled by high-powered donors, and a spaghetti mix of sous chefs in the kitchen. With such a large coalition, were there simply too many opinions to make decisions quickly and forcefully?

Perhaps one of the biggest problems for the long term is that this entire process was dominated by white images and voices. Yes, there were some token efforts to include minorities (last-ditch adding of African American reps as co-sponsors, inclusion of some diverse couples for the media), but the vast majority of the paid staff working on this were white. Even those hired to work in African American districts were predominantly white, some not even from Chicago, untrained on the racial segregation deeply ingrained in Chicago's marrow. This is a hard lesson the community never seems to learn. And we paid the price.

This is no excuse for anyone not voting for marriage equality, and this is absolutely not blaming any one group of representatives. In fact, there was support even from white Republicans on this, though very little, and some African American and Latino reps also planned to vote for it. Not knowing exactly who would have done the right thing is why the community is so angry now that there was no vote.

Knowing the game in Springfield is all about lobbying and clout, to not lobby with a diverse set of voices was a mistake that must be rectified immediately. If any paid staff are hired for this new effort, they must include a wide range of experienced people of color with connections to Chicago's African American and Latino legislators. It is Politics 101 and the right thing to do.

All of the above would have been moot if Harris had just called for the vote. His allies in the House and in the community would have had his back and worked together on a future effort. But his arrogance and close-to-the-vest approach on an issue that impacts hundreds of thousands of people in this state is unconscionable—and unparalleled in our community's history. It also has national implications for two reasons: It allows our enemies to crow that marriage equality is not as inevitable as the pundits have been predicting, and it sends an incongruous message to the U.S. Supreme Court just as they are finalizing their decisions in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases.

Do the right thing, Rep. Harris. Apologize and step aside. And work for the community—not the glory—for marriage equality this fall.

* The one caveat here comes if Gov. Pat Quinn calls the legislature back into special session this summer to deal with the state's pension mess. According to the Illinois Observer, House Speaker Michael Madigan extended the marriage equality bill's shelf life until the end of August. But would the legislators who wanted more time to deal with this really be able to decide during these summer months? Another problem, as the Observer reports: " … House lawmakers would need to amend the bill and change the effective date from '30 days' from a gubernatorial signature to January 1 in order to avoid a 3/5th or 71 vote requirement, an insurmountable hurdle." And the Senate would have to OK the changed date on the bill. More on the extension here: www.illinoisobserver.net/2013/06/01/madigan-grants-same-sex-marriage-bill-approval-deadline-extension/ .

SPECIAL NOTE: This editorial was posted June 1 on the Windy City Times website. It caused a huge response in the community, especially through social media, where the opinions were evenly divided, but often vicious and personal. As a result, Rep. Harris and I worked jointly to issue the following statement:

"We as a community can work together for the common cause of marriage equality, even if we have differences of opinion on strategy and tactics. We both have a respect for the role that each aspect of the community plays, including elected officials, activists, donors and the media. All those things are needed to achieve full equality. We urge the community to understand that disagreement is part of our work, but we can all still be civil and achieve success. When there are disagreements, it is about politics, it is not personal. In the years of ACT UP, the successes against HIV/AIDS came because of work from all sides of the community—those in the streets, those in the suits, those in the media, and those in power. We must unite fiercely as a community and focus our efforts on carrying the beacon of hope and equality for all families, and against those who wish to defeat the full promise of America for all her peoples."




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