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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2015-11-25
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Marriage advocates wavering on vote timeline
Gay-marriage push may change course
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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It's a matter of strategy and not an issue of support, say advocates, but sponsors and leaders might wait to call for a vote on marriage equality until winter, despite promises to push for this fall.

John Kohlhepp, campaign manager for Illinois Unites for Marriage, told Windy City Times that leaders have their sights set on the fall veto session. But he added that the team is also debating holding off on a vote until January, a move that would give the bill an earlier effective date but might raise eyebrows among supporters who expected to see a vote sooner.

"Everything in our whole strategy is pushing for a vote in veto session," Kohlhepp said. But, he added, coalition leaders have not ruled out push during regular session.

If passed during the legislature's veto session, SB10, the marriage equality bill, would not take effect until June. But if sponsors pass it in January during regular session, it can go into effect the following month. That could mean fewer months of waiting for same-sex couples anxious to see marriage in Illinois.

Waiting on a vote, however, would be controversial. A shortfall of support in May that delayed a vote already sparked outcry and backlash against sponsors who opted to wait until the bill had votes rather than see it fail. Chief sponsor Rep. Greg Harris stated then that his colleagues assured him they would come ready to vote on the bill in November, during the legislature's veto session.

Harris has since repeatedly declined to give a timeline or vote count on the bill but said that growing support is sending the right message to lawmakers.

"People wanted to hear from their constituents, and they're hearing from their constituents," Harris said.

Following the May shortfall, the Illinois Unites coalition hired Kohlhepp to oversee the campaign. Kohlhepp then announced an ambitious strategy to pursue 71 votes ( it needs 60 to pass ) during veto session, a vote count that would allow sponsors to amend the effective date to earlier without waiting until January.

But despite months of organizing and hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the campaign, not a single new lawmaker has come out for the bill publicly. That leaves room for many backers to pull support on the controversial vote, especially as lawmakers fear primary challenges over the bill.

Kohlhepp said that his campaign is designed to get the bill passed, and that it remains on track.

"I can say the program we built is incredibly strong," said Kohlhepp.

According to Kohlhepp, the consideration over waiting came in the wake of a video put out by the coalition that details one couple's dashed dreams over their inability to marry.

That video tells the story of Steven Rynes, whose wish to marry his partner Robert Smith, fell short when Rynes passed away. Kohlhepp said that story drove home the consequences of passing a bill that would have a later effective date. He denied that consideration to postpone a vote was a delay tactic as organizers struggle to pull in the final votes.

Still, organizers say their sights are set on veto session.

Jim Bennett, chair of the coalition and Midwest regional director for Lambda Legal, said he is uncomfortable with any revisions to the plan that do not include community input.

"My feelings are veto session," Bennett said. "When we left [the Capitol] on May 31, that was the promise that Greg's colleagues made to him, and that's what we're working toward. … It's always easier to push it down the road than it is to act … . I want the vote."

Rick Garcia, policy advisor for The Civil Rights Agenda, said his stance is that the bill should be called when it has the 60 votes it needs to pass, not before and not after.

"If the votes are not there, we don't call the bill," he said. "Call it when the votes are there."

Pressure will be on lawmakers to vote this fall, however.

A group of independent activists, including Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim, has organized a Springfield rally at noon on Oct. 22, the first day of veto session. The March on Springfield for Marriage Equality is expected to draw thousands, and it is aiming, at least in part, to hold feet the fire over promises made in May.

"The focus of the march is holding people accountable for what was said on the 31st [of May]," said Kim Hunt, executive director of Affinity Community Services and March co-chair. "This is also just a demonstration of the power of the LGBT community."

The Catholic Conference of Illinois has organized a response lobby day against the bill the following day. The "Defend Marriage Lobby Day" is sponsored by anti-gay organization the Illinois Family Institute.

The push for equal marriage in Illinois has gained momentum in recent weeks. A Cook County judge's refusal to dismiss lawsuits seeking marriage equality in Illinois has heartened LGBT activists in the state, and a positive ruling on equal marriage in New Jersey suggests a quickening national trend towards equal marriage.

In Illinois, the push is also bolstered by support from Illinois Chapter of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations ( AFL-CIO ), which announced that it passed a resolution backing the bill.

"Gay and lesbian couples in Illinois shouldn't have to wait another moment to be afforded the tools they need to protect their families," said Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, in a statement. "It is time we pass the freedom to marry for all."

Still, sponsors face high hurdles in passing the bill as the state continues to grapple with its pension crisis and reps. stare down primary elections. Those challenges have sponsors doubling down on a familiar old line. If you've called or written your legislator, Harris said, "It's time to call or write again."

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