How geography plays a role in Illinois' same-sex marriage debate

February 15, 2013

Lawmakers are looking at what comes next in their attempts to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois. It comes after the State Senate approved the measure Thursday by a vote of 34-21.

It was one Valentine’s Day Jim Bennett is likely to remember.

"Man, I always forget Valentine’s Day," Bennett said.

Bennett is with Lambda Legal, a group that focuses on the legal issues facing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

It’s also one of several groups actively involved in lobbying Illinois lawmakers on behalf of the same-sex marriage bill. Bennett said he wants to see the House follow the Senate’s lead – but it’s not yet certain they have the votes.

"We’re working everyone," he said. "There’s very few people that we don’t believe are in reach."

And those people in reach aren’t necessarily Republicans, because although the vote in the Senate went almost strictly along party lines, there was another factor: geography.

Ten of 11 Republican senators outside Chicago and the collar counties voted against same-sex marriage, but so did three out of nine downstate Democrats, with one more not casting a vote at all. Three years ago, when civil unions came up for a vote in the Illinois House, about three quarters of downstate lawmakers opposed it.

"In Illinois, it is certainly a geography issue," said John Jackson teaches political science at Southern Illinois University.

His department just released a poll showing 45 percent of Illinois supports same-sex marriage.

When you break his poll down, 56 percent of Chicagoans support same-sex marriage and 52 percent in the suburbs.  But outside the collar counties, that number drops sharply to 28 percent.

Jackson expects more evidence of this geographic divide when the House eventually takes its vote on the bill.

"Chicago Democrats will certainly try to get a few suburban Republican votes and that’s all they really will expect to get, it seems to me," he said.

"I do not subscribe to the theory that you poll your district and find out which way the wind’s blowing," said State Sen. Jason Barickman, the lone Republican to vote for same-sex marriage yesterday. He’s also from downstate Bloomington and his support of the bill may offer a clue as to how geography isn’t everything.

While some senators cited the Bible yesterday in their opposition, Barickman’s vote in favor had more to do with limited government.

"I have long been an advocate of the limited role of our government and I believe that people want their government to give individuals more control over their life decisions," he said.

Barickman is not the only member of the Illinois GOP to speak out in favor of the bill.

Pat Brady, the chairman of the state party, got some pushback from his own party earlier this year when he voiced his support of gay marriage. Some even tried to oust him from his position. But that effort failed.

That leaves room for hope among the bill’s sponsors in the House of Representatives, like Chicago Democrat Ann Williams.
"At this point, the roll call looks very positive," she said.

Williams said she doesn’t know just how many yes votes she has yet, but she insists the gap between downstate and Chicago area lawmakers when it comes to social issues is not as wide as it may seem.

"While we’ll certainly see, I’m sure, ‘no’ votes on both sides of the aisle, I do think that there’s going to be support in a lot of places around the state, not just concentrated up north," she said.

The question remains of when will the House call the bill for a vote. It already has the support of the powerful speaker, Michael Madigan.

That said, Springfield has a knack for the dramatic. It might not come up until the end of the session; more than three months from now.

But Jim Bennett, with Lambda Legal, said momentum is on his side and hopes the House will bring the bill up for a vote a lot sooner.

"My hope would be that we can pass this by the end of March at the latest," he said. "I have a wedding to plan."

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