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Illinois marriage coalition hires manager
113 days, $2 million and 71 vote goal
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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Illinois Unites for Marriage—the coalition pushing the state's same-sex marriage bill—has announced an aggressive campaign to bring marriage equality to the state, and at the center of that effort is a new campaign manager.

John Kohlhepp, a longtime campaign organizer and union lobbyist, has been tasked with passing The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, after the bill fell short of the 60 votes in needed to pass before Spring session in May.

Now, Kohlhepp said, $2 million has been budgeted for the 113-day push, with 15-20 organizers being hired to pass the bill by an ambitious 71 votes.

Kohlhepp, who lobbied for the bill on behalf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), grew up in New York and attended Tulane University in New Orleans. He ran political campaigns for Congresswoman Lauren Beth Gash and state Rep. Elaine Nekritz. He worked for the Blagojevich administration in 2003, ran the New Americans Vote project of the Illinois Coalition for the Immigrant and Refugee Rights and worked for Service Employees International Union. In 2006, he began lobbying for AFSCME, where he pushed for the passage of equal marriage this year.

Windy City Times sat down with Kohlhepp, who is openly gay. Just a day into the job, Kohlhepp provided some of the most specific information on efforts to pass the bill in a bold and expensive strategy.

Windy City Times: So tell me about your role as campaign manager.

John Kohlhepp: The partners that formed the coalition and the endorsing organizations that worked with the coalition, probably smartly, chose to work a Springfield strategy while they were in session. My background tells me that field strategy, which involves putting people in-district to do work with voters and activate them around issues that they care about, impacts legislators if you're in session or not.

The campaign that I'm building now reflects the fact that legislators have both said they want time to hear from constitutes and that they are now home in their districts.

So, I'm creating a plan and hiring a team that will go out and engage the voting public in targeted districts around the state to build activist teams that express the silent majority's desire to pass marriage equality.

WCT: What does that look like?

John Kohlhepp: The first thing that we do is we hire 15 organizers, a field director, one or two deputy directors. The staff, under the direction of the field director and myself, will go out into their targeted districts, which run all the way from the Wisconsin border to East St. Louis. The campaign previously identified hundreds of thousands of people in the state who took action by contacting their legislator or sent emails etcetera in support of marriage equality. We'll take the contacts we already have in these districts. The organizer goes in and does one-on-one meetings to take people from where they are to where a campaign that's going to pass marriage equality will need them to be.

From these people is where we will find a volunteer base in these districts. We need to take the silent majority and give it an opportunity to express its desire to pass SB10. This group of people is the group of people that will probably help us win in each district.

WCT: What does the timeline for this look like?

John Kohlhepp: We have 113 days from today to pass the bill… 113 days from now is the second day of the second week of veto session. If we do not have the votes by midnight on the second day of the second week of veto session, we will most likely not pass marriage equality in 2013.

WCT: Senate President John Cullerton said that it may make more sense to wait to pass the bill in January during the regular session, that if you do it in veto session you get an effective date of June 2014, whereas if you do it in January, it can take effect in 30 days.

John Kohlhepp: Our goal is get 71 votes in veto session.

WCT: You want 71 votes?

John Kohlhepp: Yes; 71 means you don't amend it. It means that in 30 days, marriages can start.

WCT: How are you going to get 71 votes?

John Kohlhepp: You work hard. Seventy-one, that's the goal. If we can't get to 71, then the steering committee [of the coalition] needs to have a conversation about whether or not we pass the bill in veto session or wait until January or February or March or April or May of next year.

Once you're in the January timeframe, you're not in a special session. You're in regular session again. So while the bill can be called at any point… the legal reason of, "hey let's wait for January" is a decent one because it says in 30 days marriages can begin. But the same people who are saying, "let's wait until January because I'll know who my primary opponent is," will say, "Let's wait until March because my primary will be over." Then you will have other people who will say, "I can't take the vote because I will be in my general election cycle… Why not wait until veto session?" The cycle that you end up on is an electoral cycle, and it's not a cycle that we get to pick the date that the bill passes.

The best strategy is to be able to work with Greg Harris and the other sponsors to ensure that during veto session, they have a roll call of 71 or more, so that they can go to the speaker and say, "Mr. Speaker, we do not need to amend this bill. Mr. Speaker, put the bill on the board. We are passing the bill today."

That is the best strategy to work for. I'm not saying we're going to get there. I'm saying it's the best.

WCT: If they couldn't get 60 over the course of months, what makes you able to get 71?

John Kohlhepp: I'm putting organizers in 30 to 40 districts in the state. The more resources we have, the more organizers we hire, the more districts we have. There's a clear majority in the state of Illinois to pass marriage equality. Let's go out and let these representatives hear from their constituents, and then it's up to them.

WCT: What are some the challenges in getting this done?

John Kohlhepp:The challenges are political and policy-based. The political challenges are whose running for governor. Both on the Democratic and Republican side, we will have decision makers running, and that will impact both of their party's representatives in the House.

The other, it's not about politics so much, it's about policy. While we are seeking the civil rights of civil marriage, the Supreme Court has decided to strike down one of the key tenants of the Voting Rights Act, and the Trayvon Martin decision seems to reinforce the arrogance of the Supreme Court's decision.

If the gay community is going to portray itself as the inheritors of the civil rights movement, then we have got to talk about all civil rights and not just civil marriage. Civil rights are voting rights. Civil rights are marriage rights. Civil rights are all the rights that Americans have as members of civil society. The gay and lesbian community needs to realize that civil rights for all Illinoisans as we are talking about for ourselves are something that we should be constantly vigilant in defending.

WCT: How does this coalition look different today than it did on May 31?

John Kohlhepp: On May 31, the coalition was not something I engaged with regularly. Today, how I envision the legislative piece of the program as well as the field piece of the program and the financial piece of the program is that everyone needs to be asked to contribute. We can't win in 113 days if everyone doesn't do something every day to pass the bill.

WCT: What are those contributions?

John Kohlhepp: Financial commitments, volunteering. If your parents live in Naperville, and they haven't called either Ron Sandack, Jeanne Ives or Darlene Senger and said, "I want you to support marriage equality," then that should be your task for the day.

WCT: Jeanne Ives? She made some very anti-gay statements. Does that mean every person who is not a yes vote is a target for you?

John Kohlhepp: They always have been. There is no reason why people in Jeanne Ives' district should not call her and tell her they want her to vote for the bill, absolutely none. She may argue with them. She may just say no, but Democracy only works when people show up. And if you live in one of these districts where you have representative who is a hard "no," you allow them to escape with the excuse that, "My district doesn't want this."

WCT: Have you done work in the LGBT community before?

John Kohlhepp: Other than raising money here and there? No. It was one of my interview questions. But I then said, "You all around this table and the people in these organizations have enough experience in the LGBT community. You need my experience running campaigns and in the Springfield legislature to add to your skill sets."

WCT: You have shared more information about strategy and money than we have seen in months from the coalition.

John Kohlhepp: The process now is an incredibly open process where we want the community to be as engaged as they are willing to be.

WCT: We were told that some of that silence was due to a need to keep strategy from anti-gays. Do you run that risk now in sharing this information?

John Kohlhepp: The silent majority is going to win this fight. We have outspent the opposition in most of our other state battles, but spending does not always equal victory. The people on the ground in Illinois want marriage equality. It's time that we ask those people to activate themselves in those districts. There's 113 days from today. If somebody hasn't done something today to pass the bill, then they've let a day go by.

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