Black Illinois House members split on gay marriage bill, Sun-Times survey finds
BY ZACH BUCHHEIT Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org May 21, 2013 9:52AM
State Rep. Christian L. Mitchell
Updated: June 23, 2013 6:11AM
SPRINGFIELD — Less than half of Illinois House Black Caucus members say they back the push to legalize same-sex marriage or are likely to support it, a Chicago Sun-Times survey of the pivotal voting bloc has found.
Four members of the 20-member caucus have told the Sun-Times they will vote for same-sex marriage while five others indicated they are leaning toward a ‘yes’ vote. Seven remain undecided, and four are opposed.
State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the openly gay lead House sponsor of the same-sex marriage legislation, has guarded his coveted roll call and been cagey about when he intends to seek a vote.
Told of the Sun-Times survey, he said he “wouldn’t necessarily disagree with those numbers.”
Black Caucus members in the House have faced a shelling of phone calls and letters from influential black leaders because, unlike any other bloc, these lawmakers collectively are positioned as the key swing vote in this spring’s divisive same-sex marriage clash.
Harris is believed to be just shy of the 60 votes he needs to pass his legislation despite Gov. Pat Quinn’s assurance last week that the votes existed in the House to get the measure to his desk. The bill has been stalled there since Valentine’s Day when it passed the Senate.
Back in March, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said the bill was a dozen votes shy of passage. And while Madigan’s word is usually taken as fact in the Capitol, Harris had said the gap was much smaller at the time.
All 20 black House members were surveyed during the last three weeks with those likely to favor the legislation asked a second time to confirm their positions.
The four legislators who said they are committed to voting for the issue are representatives Ken Dunkin, Camille Lilly, Christian Mitchell and Arthur Turner, all Democrats representing districts in Chicago.
Mitchell became a sponsor of the bill a week after it passed the Senate. Dunkin, joint chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, added his name to the sponsorship list last month and this week prodded Harris to call the measure for a vote or risk losing support he’s already lined up.
Both Dunkin and Mitchell previously identified themselves as supporters of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, but Lilly and Turner had not publicly endorsed Harris’ legislation until being contacted by the Sun-Times.
“I don’t feel like we should treat anyone different based on their sexual orientation or the color of their skin or any reason for that matter,” Turner said. “Some have equated it to a civil-rights issue. But for me it just boils down to simply an equality issue. I think this is an issue whose time has come.”
In 2010, the Black Caucus helped Harris pass legislation legalizing civil unions with only two of the then 19 members of the group not supporting the plan. But this time, Harris faces a much heavier lift as members have been targeted by black ministers and celebrities on both sides of the issue.
“I think after President Obama came out as a supporter of equal marriage there was a belief that it would be a no-brainer,” Mitchell said. “But I don’t think folks properly understood the influence and role of the church as it relates to African-American politics.”
That pressure from African-American ministers — many of whom have been known to use the pulpit as a public-policy platform — paired with traditional, socially conservative views on issues such as this one and abortion have propelled the House Black Caucus into the heart of the same-sex marriage discussion in Illinois.
“What I’ve said consistently is that we are talking about civil marriage in a civil society — not a religious right but a civil right,” Mitchell said. “I think people are realizing this is inevitable. It’s the right thing to do. They want to be on the right side of history.”
The delay in calling for a vote has coincided with black House members’ districts being blasted by hundreds of thousands of automated phone calls from church leaders such as former state Senator James Meeks (D-Chicago), pastor of the 20,000-member Salem Baptist Church on the South Side. Starting in March, Meeks’ multiple rounds of robocalls against same-sex marriage have argued the redefinition of marriage would put the family structure in jeopardy.
Twelve black House members have yet to stake out firm positions on the legislation. Of those, five told the Sun-Times they were leaning toward voting for the bill — representatives Marcus Evans (D-Chicago) La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan), Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields) and Chris Welch (D-Hillside).
When Mayfield asks people in her district why she shouldn’t vote for the bill, she said, “They can’t really give me valid reasons.”
“I’m still learning, too, from them — what are their concerns, their issues, how could you make it better,” she said. “Just having that information really is the key to changing peoples’ minds and having good information. Not the propaganda, just the truth.”
Asked if she thought the bill needed more time before a vote, Mayfield answered, “Definitely needs more time.”
Mayfield voted “present” on the civil unions legislation.
Others who are in the undecided column aren’t yet leaners one way or another — even despite having gay members in their families.
One of them is Rep. Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City), who had two openly gay nephews die from HIV-related complications and who would like to see the issue pushed to the fall legislative session.
“Just because it’s the appetite of the month and the year right now, do we actually want to pick up that menu and eat off it because it’s the right thing to do?” he asked.
Jones, who said it’s appropriate for churches to be involved in the debate, admitted religious involvement has made same-sex marriage a Black Caucus issue.
“You can’t deny it, and anybody that says it’s not is not telling the truth,” he said. “I mean, we all go to church. We all have pastors that have bent our ears about this issue.
“But I want to make this clear. This is not a civil-rights issue. This is about choice, and the civil rights movement was about people who didn’t have rights.”
Jones said his vote will come down to a mixture of personal choice and his district’s input “simply because I’m still weighing the options.”
“I’m still weighing it. This is a tough vote. This is tougher than pensions for me. It’s tougher than the budget.”
Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria), whose vote is also up for grabs, recognized religious influences but insisted the focus should not be on the Black Caucus.
“This is an individual vote,” she said. “For people to expect any one caucus to completely carry the water on this issue, I think that they’re not looking at the complexity and the importance of this issue.”
Gordon-Booth said the issue has “really taken a toll” on her and she will keep her religious background in mind when she takes a position.
“I’m a Christian before I’m a black woman before I’m a Democrat,” she said. “Before all of that, I’m a Christian.
“I have to live with what I do or don’t do. And so it’s a vote I have to take that I can be comfortable with the rest of my life. This is history.”
The four House Black Caucus members who have said they’ll be voting against Harris’ bill include representatives Monique Davis (D-Chicago), Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), Eddie Jackson (D-East St. Louis) and Charles Jefferson (D-Rockford).
Davis, a South Side Baptist who voted for civil unions in 2010, believes the definition of marriage simply cannot include people of the same sex.
“I want to be an engineer, and we can’t pass legislation for me to be an engineer because I just don’t have what it takes to be equipped to be an engineer,” she said. “And two people of the same sex are not equipped to be in what a marriage is.”
Asked if the same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, Davis didn’t bat an eye.
“Have they ever hung from trees?” she asked. “Were they ever slaves for 500 years, then I don’t think so. I don’t think [the issues are] equal … Simple as that.”
Davis also denied same-sex marriage has become a Black Caucus issue.
“African-American people have the same right to be conservative on issues that everybody else has,” she said. “The Black Caucus has no major responsibility to vote for this bill, and I feel the pressure on them is so unfair and so unjustified.”
But Mitchell, who feels the generational divide as the youngest member of the General Assembly, thinks older members might not be as firm in their beliefs as they may think.
“We as African-Americans struggle to deal with emotional issues given how much economic pressure there is,” he said. “And I think in many cases we’re still dealing with what it means to be black and to be gay and how it affects the family unit.
“But we are legislators who make civil laws in a civil society, and anything that diminishes another human being diminishes me. I absolutely believe that, and anything that infringes upon the civil rights of someone else infringes upon my rights.”