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Illinois Unites for Marriage reports on Fall veto session strategies
by Matt Simonette

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The numbers facing Illinois Unites for Marriage activists at first seem daunting. Two million dollars needs to be raised. Four hundred thousand phone calls need to be made. And 71 legislative votes need to be gathered.

But officials from the organization, speaking at Center on Halsted July 29, outlined an ambitious strategy they hope can get SB 10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, passed sometime during the House's fall veto session.

Illinois Unites was formed from a coalition of many activist organizations. Its current, reorganized initiative came after much reflection following SB 10's defeat at the end of March, said Chairman Jim Bennett.

"Many people did not feel like that they had been at the table before, or had skills or resources that we did not utilize, and we did not want to make that same mistake twice," he added. Illinois Unites will focus on building a sustainable momentum for activists and supporters, and mobilize power from outside the Statehouse in order to get the bill passed.

The coalition needs to raise about $2 million, though they are working alongside and sharing resources with other organizations, among them Citizens United, Urban League of Chicago, Human Rights Campaign, Equality Illinois, Lambda Legal and The Civil Rights Agenda. "We formed a committee of people and asked for either $10,000 or $25,000 to get us started. …Between those groups, we've raised about $300,000 in cash and $200,000 in in-kind commitments," said Bennett.

Illinois Unites will hire 20 field operatives to work throughout the state; each will handle two targeted legislative districts. A religious director has also been hired to reach out to African American church communities and

The coalition's various teams were put together over the course of a week, said John Kohlhepp, campaign manager. "It just goes to show how dedicated people are in winning the freedom to marry in Illinois. …We have allies in so many different places that we have yet to activate."

Illinois Unites was a significant presence at Chicago's Pride parade this year. They organized seven floats and recruited many politicians; numerous parade participants held up their signs, according to Kohlhepp. "This was a massive show of unity, showing that even one month after the bill's failure, we were prepared to show the one million people watching the parade that this was the commitment of the LGBTQ community in Illinois."

The veto session consists of two three-day weeks, one in October, the other in November. Kohlhepp said Illinois Unites will try to secure 71 votes for the legislation. He admitted that it would not be easy, but if the bill passes with fewer than 71, it would require an amendment in order to go into effect before June 1 of next year. The amendment would entail floor and committee votes in the House, as well as SB 10 having to be returned to the Senate.

"With 71 votes, there's no amendment. SB 10 becomes law thirty days after the governor signs the bill and SB10 does not have to back to the senate. Seventy-one votes is very, very hard to get, but we should be reaching for that goal. We should not have to go through three votes to get marriage equality in the state of Illinois," said Kohlhepp.

A key talking point will be a Crain's poll taken in May that says about 50 percent of Illinoisans support gay marriage; 29 percent oppose it and 20 percent are undecided, he added. "That's a huge margin of support, and we know that this margin exists in many of the districts in which we're going to work."

Everyone is in our target who has not publically stated that they are a yes vote for marriage equality," Kohlhepp added. "…There is no reason that anyone from any district should be able to say that their district wants them to vote against marriage equality. We know that we have thousands of supporters in each of these districts, and it's our job to contact them and get them to talk to their legislators."

Illinois Unites has pinpointed several thousand voters across the state that they think will be supporters of the legislation. Kohlhepp estimated volunteers and staff will have to hold about 400,000 phone calls and conversations.

"That's just to get people to be supporters—people who would put up a yard sign or a bumper sticker on their car. Field organizers have to get 10 percent of those people to come in on a semi-regular basis to make phone calls and knock on doors—basically, to become activists," he said.

Oak Park resident Pam Cameron also spoke at the forum, describing the activism work that she gradually became involved with after her son came out to her during his senior year in high school. The work was difficult for her, she said, because she is naturally introverted, making reaching out to people uncomfortable. But she views the denial of marriage rights as fundamentally unfair.

"I started this because of my son but now, also, I do this for all of you," Cameron said. "Because everyone is somebody's son and everyone is somebody's daughter, and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be protected under the law."

Field Dir. Keron Blair added that there would be a number of strategies supporters can use to raise awareness and encourage their friends and family to get involved, such as fundraising gatherings, for which Illinois Unites will provide party kits, or town hall meetings. He also mentioned the planned March on Springfield Oct. 22. He was not subtle about the importance of the work being proposed for the community.

"There is something about being able to locate ourselves in the annals of history," Blair said. "What we are doing, and inviting you to do, is answer the call of history."

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