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Miller: Many at fault for same-sex marriage bill failing

Updated: July 11, 2013 6:31AM



There’s more than enough blame to go around regarding the failure of the gay marriage bill during the final days of the General Assembly’s spring session.

Gov. Pat Quinn knew that black House members were reluctant to support the bill, mainly because of pressure from their churches. So why did he pick a nasty fight with the Black Caucus over Medicaid?

Quinn was offering projects to Republican legislators to entice them to flip, but he couldn’t find a few million Medicaid dollars to help poor people get wheelchairs and preventive dental care?

That late-session fight over Medicaid spending was counterproductive. Instead of using the disagreement to his advantage, Quinn dug in his heels and so did the Black Caucus, which also initially refused to support a gay rights measure several years ago after being cut out of a gambling expansion bill.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said he didn’t regret passing the gay marriage bill in mid-February, before the House votes were lined up. Back then, the House roll call was reportedly in the 40s (60 votes were needed to pass). Usually, proponents try to wire these things so they pass both chambers quickly.

Cullerton said he feared opponents would begin gearing up and believed the bill needed to be passed as quickly as possible. But passing that bill without first making sure the House was ready to deal with it energized opponents and gave them time to organize.

Proponents say the House roll call moved into the 50s by March. But instead of working it hard at that point, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) appeared to put off a vote. Madigan did the same with several other bills this spring, including the fracking regulation bill.

The idea was to wait on stuff that looked like it could pass easily and get the truly hard stuff done first, like the budget, pension reform and concealed carry. Those bills absolutely had to be passed, so giving out goodies early to Madigan’s various factions would, the theory went, reduce the willingness of opposing legislators to work on the tough stuff.

But the opposition geared up, and by the time Madigan revisited the same-sex marriage issue in late May, the roll call was sliding backward. By May 29, when a majority of the Black Caucus decided it wanted to wait until November to vote on the bill, the roll call reportedly fell to just 52 “yes” votes. It couldn’t be salvaged. Madigan’s strategy failed.

The gay marriage proponents need to re-examine their strategy. They pushed for an early Senate vote, then didn’t adequately respond to the growing opposition from black churches.

The response playbook was written almost a quarter century ago. During the 1990 gubernatorial race, Republican Jim Edgar targeted black church leaders, believing he could hold down the black Democratic vote that way. It worked.

Big companies like ComEd and Illinois Bell saw how effective Edgar’s approach was and began using black churches to help make their legislative cases. Their Statehouse influence took off like a rocket.

ComEd and Illinois Bell also began hiring black lobbyists at about the same time. There weren’t many back then, so hiring them gave the companies a huge advantage with black legislators.

The gay marriage proponents had just one black lobbyist on their payroll, and he’s affiliated with the Senate. They didn’t bother to hire any House-affiliated black lobbyists until the afternoon of May 30, when it was way too late. An inexcusable blunder.

Some proponents have slammed the bill’s House sponsor for not calling a floor vote, but that’s ludicrous. Big bills like this tend to fail badly if they don’t zoom up to 60 on the tally board. The final total of “yes” votes almost surely would’ve been in the low 40s.

Taking a vote also could’ve exposed a few “hidden” votes. Or those secret proponents would’ve had to vote against the bill, making it that much harder to turn them around next time.

As mentioned above, the House Black Caucus wants to wait until November for a vote on same-sex marriage, but that’s near the end of the filing season for House candidates. A November vote means many already nervous legislators might guarantee themselves primary election opposition.

So, if it doesn’t pass this summer in a special session, a same-sex marriage bill will probably have to wait until after the March 2014 primary election.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com



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