Advocates work all angles to woo GOP on gay marriage

September 24, 2013

WBEZ/Alex Keefe
Pamphlets laying out pro-gay marriage arguments geared toward Republicans rest on the bar at a recent GOP fundraiser, thrown by Equality Illinois, a gay rights group. Fundraising for lawmakers who support same-sex marriage is just one part of a push to win wavering and retiring Republicans.

As Illinois’ gay marriage advocates race to shore up support before next month’s legislative session, they’ve began courting votes from an unlikely quarter: Illinois House Republicans.

It’s unclear exactly how many in the GOP may buck their party’s platform and vote for same sex marriage if the bill is called for a vote when lawmakers return to Springfield at the end of October.

Leading advocates say privately it could be just a handful of representatives, and they’re focusing on those they think could be persuaded, or who are retiring.

But that uncertainty hasn’t stopped a coalition of pro-gay marriage groups from launching a concerted effort aimed at winning over Republicans. The groups are carpet bombing some GOP districts with constituent phone banks, and they’re hoping big-name donors, business leaders and prominent Republicans will also lean on lawmakers behind the scenes.

Illinois Unites for Marriage, which comprises more than 60 groups, is targeting House lawmakers in 40 districts, 16 of them held by Republicans.

Advocates are also offering help with fundraising, to demonstrate that Republicans who vote “yes” on gay marriage could get some campaign cash to protect them if their position leads to a challenge in next year’s primary.

‘You gotta have money’

The political odd-couple relationship was on full display at an after-work fundraiser on a rainy night last week at P.J. Clarke’s, a bar in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

Equality Illinois, a Chicago-based gay rights group, invited their would-be donors to sip beer and hobnob with the three Republicans in the General Assembly who are publicly bucking their party’s platform and supporting same-sex marriage.

“If I do have a primary, which I think is going to happen, you gotta have money to get your message out,” said State Rep. Ron Sandack, from Downers Grove. “This does that. This helps in that endeavor. There’s just no doubt about it.”

Also there was Illinois State Sen. Jason Barickman, from downstate Bloomington, who cast the lone Republican “yes” vote for gay marriage when it passed the Senate this year on Valentine’s Day. The Illinois House adjourned in May without calling the measure for a vote, but Sandack and fellow GOP State Rep Ed Sullivan, Jr., of Mundelein, have pledged their support if it does.

Equality Illinois is hoping to raise enough money to give at least $5,000 to each candidate, said Jeremy Gottschalk, who heads up Equality Illinois’ political fundraising arm. The political action committee has already donated that much to Sandack and Sullivan, and they’ve also received money from big-name pro-gay marriage donors such as Laura Ricketts, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, and billionaire Paul Singer, who was integral in bankrolling a gay marriage bill in New York.

At last week’s fundraiser, all three lawmakers made arguments to the crowd that seemed more geared toward their Republican colleagues.

“If you believe in the conservative philosophy of pro-family, of freedoms, this is the vote. This is the day,” Sullivan told the group of potential donors. “And it’s unfortunate we don’t have more with us. We will. We’re working on it.”

Building pressure from constituents, big names

But advocates are also hoping to build pressure from the grassroots level.

One night last week, about 10 volunteers with Illinois Unites for Marriage gathered over pizza and soda to make phone calls from the community room of a church in west suburban Clarendon Hills.

The target on this night was GOP State Rep. Sandi Pihos, and the goal was to get constituents to flood her voicemail box with messages supporting gay marriage.

Martin McAlpin, one of 20 organizers stationed around the state, acknowledges it can be an uphill climb to build support for gay marriage in this traditionally Republican enclave of the western suburbs.

“Wheaton and Glen Ellyn are conservative strongholds, but this is not gonna pass without Republican votes,” McAlpin said.

Pihos later told WBEZ she’s still a solid “no” vote on gay marriage, citing “overwhelming” opposition to the bill in her district, despite the phone banking. McAlpin has also been targeting Republican State Rep. Patricia Bellock, of Westmont, who did not return phone calls from WBEZ.

Organizers declined to say exactly which other Republicans they hope to win over.

But advocates have also recruited prominent business leaders and donors in hopes of pressuring lawmakers behind the scenes. They’ve released pamphlets arguing gay marriage could boost the wedding industry and attract new talent to the state, and they cast their cause in the frame of limited government.

The American Civil Liberties Union even recently hired the former head of the state GOP, Pat Brady, to win Republican votes.

Timing is everything

But Brady and other lobbyists for same-sex marriage acknowledge there’s one big potential obstacle to winning over Republicans by next month’s veto session: Illinois’ political calendar.

GOP lawmakers won’t officially know whether they’ll face a primary challenge until ballot petitions are filed Nov. 25, more than two weeks after the legislative session is over.

“And that’s a real concern, the fact that these folks who are leaning toward voting for it because they believe it’s the right thing to do might catch a primary,” Brady said. “So the timing of the veto session ... could be problematic.”

Meanwhile, supporters of same-sex marriage aren’t the only ones gearing up for a fight.

Chris Plante is with the National Organization for Marriage, which has been doing its own lobbying against the gay marriage bill in preparation for next month’s veto session.

Plante’s group is vowing to help defeat lawmakers who vote in favor of same-sex marriage - especially Republicans.

“[Voters] will not stand for candidates, or for representatives who betray their constituency, who do not vote their values,” Plante said. “And so the consequence will be that they will lose their seat.”

Plante wouldn’t say how much money his group planned to drop in Illinois, acknowledging they’ll likely be outspent by proponents of same sex marriage. But he said he is coordinating with the conservative Illinois Family Institute, and the African American Clergy Coalition, both of which have been trying to appeal to religious lawmakers and some black Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republicans who have already come out supporting gay marriage, like Rep. Sandack, say the opposition doesn’t worry them.

“I have no fear about that,” Sandack said. “It doesn’t cause me any pause. That’s part of the process. I signed up for it. If that’s what they wanna do, Godspeed.”

Alex Keefe covers politics for WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.