After making good progress toward enacting equal marriage rights at the start of this year, Illinois has watched as state after state — Delaware, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and now New Jersey — march past it to the marriage rights altar. Illinois is increasingly looking like a bumpkin state.
This isn't for lack of popular support for marriage equality here. Illinoisans support the equal marriage rights bill by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, according to a February Crain's Chicago Business poll.
The Democrats, who claim to support equal rights for LGBTs, have a virtual lock on the statehouse, with big majorities in each house, the governorship, and most other statewide offices. To the consternation of old-line Republican business leaders, the Tea Partiers have made the statewide Republican Party a joke, at least so far as regaining real power is concerned. Their fulminations against women, gays, immigrants, labor, and virtually everyone else have made winning control of the powerful House and Senate a virtual impossibility in the short term. With such near-total power for statehouse Democrats, their failure to pass the marriage equality bill stands out in sharp relief.
So what's the hold-up for marriage equality in Illinois?
The Senate passed the bill in February, and our weak governor, Pat Quinn, has repeatedly pledged to sign it. But the most powerful Democrat in state government, House Speaker Mike Madigan, has so far refused to buck prominent religious bigots like Chicago's Catholic cardinal Francis George and assorted evangelicals by putting real muscle into getting the bill passed.
The bill's lead sponsor in the House, gay representative Greg Harris, promised to introduce it in the spring session, line up support, and get it passed. At the same time, Harris privately discouraged community demonstrations in favor of the bill, arguing that this would scare away wavering House supporters. Meanwhile, the Illinois Family Institute, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, sponsored weekly rallies against the bill over two months in key Chicago suburban districts, while most LGBT organizations put little, if any, effort into mobilizing people to attend counterdemonstrations against the group.
The result was predictable. Promises by community leaders of the "inevitable" victory of marriage equality bred complacency, while their "leave it to us" attitude undercut the apparent need for demonstrations in support of the bill. Meanwhile, a well-funded media campaign by bill opponents gave the false impression that the majority of Illinoisans opposed the bill. As a result, the bill hemorrhaged support in Harris's own Democratic House caucus, and failed.
After so many promises of victory, the failure of the bill on May 31, the last day of the legislative session, led to shock and anger among LGBTs throughout the state, sort of a mini-version of what Californians went through following the passage of Proposition 8 in that state. Recriminations came from all sides, mainly directed at Harris and his closest allies.
In a tearful end-of-session speech late May 31 Harris attempted to save face by saying that his fellow House members pledged to vote for the bill this fall veto session, and that he believed them.
"They've asked for time to go back to their districts, talk to their constituents, and reach out to their minds and hearts," Harris said. "And they told me that they will return in November with their word that they are prepared to support this legislation. And I take my colleagues at their word that they shall. We will be back and we will be voting on this bill in this legislature, in this room."
It now appears, though, that Harris will break this second promise too.
But let's be very clear. While Harris is the chief sponsor of SB10 and said "decisions surrounding this legislation are mine and mine alone," he is not the main impediment to its passage. In fact, his job is to take the blame for its failure, if it comes to that. He is the front man for the Democratic caucus on the bill and shields them, especially Speaker Madigan, from criticism for their failure to enact the bill.
With his huge campaign war chest, ably abetted by Illinois's infamously loose campaign finance laws, Speaker Madigan is immensely powerful. He controls access to jobs, contracts, committee and leadership assignments. His Democratic caucus members and most community organizations are afraid to take him on and place blame where it's due; it's too politically risky.
Madigan controls the House with an iron hand, as surely as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel controls the City Council. When Madigan has truly wanted far less popular measures than marriage equality legislation — like gifts to the well-connected, subsidies to wealthy businesses that pay few (if any) taxes, and the gutting of constitutionally protected pensions to current and retired state workers — he's had no problem ramming them through the House. His huge Democratic caucus has made mincemeat of any opposition. Like it or not, and mostly not, that's the way that politics works in this state.
If Madigan is unwilling once again to buck the Catholic hierarchy and other religious bigots in Illinois and fails to push through a vote for marriage equality in the legislative session ending in early November, an embarrassed and politically impotent Harris should resign his seat in protest against his own Democratic colleagues, the same ones who in May promised to "return in November with their word that they are prepared to support this legislation."
By refusing to give political cover for their cowardice, he would be doing the honorable thing. He would be a hero.
Greg Harris must decide where his loyalty lies. If he puts his LGBTQ community ahead of the Democratic Party and its leadership, he will publicly call out Mike Madigan and demand that Madigan muscle the marriage bill through the House, and thereby bring same-sex marriage to Illinois.
Greg Harris has a stark choice: Choose his party, or choose his community.
ANDY THAYER is a cofounder of the Gay Liberation Network, a multi-issue, direct-action LGBT organization that was an early organizer for the broad coalition that brought several thousand to protest in Springfield for equal marriage rights October 22. On that day, GLN also organized a banner-drop outside of Speaker Madigan's office in the Capitol Building rotunda, protesting his failure to pass the bill. To get in touch with GLN and be involved in future direct actions on equal marriage rights, email the group at LGBTliberation@aol.com