Gay state Rep. Greg Harris drafted the same-sex marriage bill. (Photo by Leah Jones via Wikimedia)
LGBT rights advocates expressed anger on Friday after the Illinois House adjourned its legislative session without voting on a same-sex marriage bill.
Some of the criticism fell on gay Rep. Greg Harris, the author of the bill, for failing to bring it to a vote. The Illinois House speaker, Michael Madigan, has extended a deadline for the bill, which will allow it to come to a vote in a November veto session.
In a conversation with the Washington Blade on Monday, Harris said that a last-minute media blitz by marriage equality opponents had rankled some of the bill’s likely supporters. Harris said the decision to table the bill would lead to a better result in the long term, as colleagues could avoid having to go on the record before they were prepared to.
“I think that at the very end they realized that back in their home districts for some folks that there were horrendous distortions of the truth,” Harris told the Blade. “They wanted to be sure that their constituents understand that — one — this bill treats all people equally and — two — that we also respect the rights and freedoms of religions.”
Though following the vote, some same-sex marriage advocates criticized the bill’s author for not getting his colleagues on record, Harris said he believes the bill will have a better chance of passing before the end of the year if he’s able to give his colleagues more time to lay the groundwork in their districts.
“I think it is very clear that at the end when some of my colleagues came to me and said should the bill be called that day, they would not be able to vote for it, until they had time to get back to their districts and undo some of the misconceptions and misinformation out there and truly explain what the bill meant,” Harris said. “If a bunch of people had voted no, then it becomes incredibly difficult then to change those votes to yes should it come back later.”
But some longtime Illinois activists remain angry over the decision to table the measure, and claim the process was bungled due to secrecy and a myriad of political miscalculations.
“I am extremely angry at him,” said longtime Illinois gay activist Rick Garcia, senior policy adviser at Illinois advocacy group The Civil Rights Agenda. “I think it’s justified anger. But there are few with [Rep. Harris’] history of advocating for the gay community, and people with HIV, and his successes are innumerable.”
Garcia, who called Friday’s aborted vote “a disaster,” mixed praise with scorn when discussing Harris’ handling of the bill with the Blade on Monday.
“But I don’t want to point fingers or cast blame, because I’m just as much to blame,” Garcia said.
“I’m really angry and pissed off,” Garcia told the Blade. “I’m very angry at myself for allowing this fiasco to happen. I’ve passed all sorts of gay rights legislation in Illinois, and for months and months and months have been urging a true coalition approach — there was none — I have been urging we do something as simple as a roll call, and the sponsor would not share his roll call with any of us. Without a roll call we might as well just have blinders on, because we don’t know where we’re going or who to talk to or what to do. I also urged that we have a campaign manager for this, and then a guy who was Mr. Madigan’s staffer was the one that was hired. Shaw Decremer.”
Garcia told the Blade that he’s working with other Illinois LGBT community leaders to assemble a new coalition to work toward passage in the veto session, and is actively seeking leaders of a multitude of community organizations and people of color, “not just straight white boys.”
“They can hire as many straight professional lobbyists as they desire but they’re not going to drive the bus anymore,” he said. “Our community is, our supporters are, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Rep. Harris disputes the idea that community leaders were kept in the dark regarding the legislative process.
“I think there are layers and layers of involvement,” Harris said. “Each one is important and each one overlaps and interacts. There’s the public relations messaging. There’s the organizing of business leadership, there’s organizing of leadership in the Latino community, the African-American community, there’s on-the-ground, in-district organizing, there’s organizing of PFLAG families. There are many, many layers of organizing and I think people did wonderful, wonderful jobs.”
“Look at how fast we’ve moved on this issue,” Harris continued. “We didn’t get the result we wanted when we wanted, but we’re perfectly positioned to win.”
Harris said that opponents of same-sex marriage attempted to scuttle the legislation by turning historically marginalized communities against one another, and did so by using “robocalls” to pressure lawmakers and mobilizing religious leaders to lobby against the bill in a public, and — as Harris sees it — deceptive way.
“We’ve seen in state after state the same tactics from some of our opponents that have been used to try to drive a wedge between communities, and that is just not what this bill does,” Harris said. “If you read the press releases from some of the different religious groups that are affiliated with our opposition, they are crowing and taking credit,” he says.
Harris says that groups like the Urban League and the NAACP, as well as prominent African-American supporters of the bill worked very hard to try to combat what Harris called the “misinformation” that opponents of the bill were pushing in districts where support was tenuous, but that not enough work had been done to promote the religious liberties espoused in the bill, and that he believes his colleagues need more time to secure their positions with their constituents back home, or risk being threatened in the primaries.
Harris sounded resolute when asked about not backing down and calling a vote on the marriage bill in the November veto session.
“[My colleagues] made a commitment that when we come back they will be willing to call a vote, so I’m going to take them at their word.”
Harris did not comment on whether speaker Madigan had been as supportive and enthusiastic about this legislation as he had been during the successful 2010 push for civil unions, saying the speaker had publicly stated his support for the marriage bill.
Harris praised the members of the African-American legislative caucus and the Republican caucus — namely GOP co-sponsors Ron Sandak and Ed Sullivan — who backed the bill despite strong pressure from opponents. However, Harris said that an impending battle over the minority leader position in the House forced some GOP lawmakers to hold back from supporting the bill at this time, saying they could not vote in favor of the bill because of “intra-party politics.”
The longtime lawmaker — who authored the state’s comprehensive non-discrimination bill, and the state’s successful civil unions bill — confirmed that the leader of the African-American caucus, Rep. Ken Duncan — also a sponsor of the bill — had encouraged him to call the vote “earlier in the session.” However, Harris said the caucuses themselves took no position on the bill, so pressure to not call the bill to a vote did not come from the Black Caucus or the Republican caucus, but rather from individual lawmakers who Harris said expressed nervousness about coming primaries, and other issues specific to their home districts.
Harris encouraged same-sex marriage supporters not to get bogged down in looking for someone to blame, but to keep the pressure on lawmakers in anticipation of another chance at a vote in this fall’s session.
“We need to also remember our history and focus on the fact that our opponents will do whatever they need to stop full equality from coming, but the direction of this country is clear, and equality and fairness will win out,” Harris said.
“Also remember other history in the state of Illinois — back in 1975, the very first time that the Human Rights Act was put into place that protected people who are LGBT from being fired or denied housing or public accommodation because of their sexual orientation. And that took 30 years to pass, and there were ups and downs during that process. When I first introduced the marriage bill in 2007, I’m not sure that anyone thought that we would be as a nation in the position we are today where there’s been so much progress on this issue. But we have to remember that there is still hard work, that our opposition is fierce, that they have a strategy. We have to be sure that we are uniters and not dividers of communities, and we have to stand up for equality — not just for ourselves — but for all other people who suffer at the hands of repression.”