Quinn: Marriage equality the 'paramount' civil rights issue of recent times

Along with a host of other issues plaguing the state, Gov. Pat Quinn is on an urgent mission to achieve legal same-sex marriage in Illinois.

But then again, the 64-year-old Chicago Democrat would rather not call it same-sex marriage or gay marriage. Instead, he prefers marriage equality because that’s what it’s about: equality and fairness under the law, he said.

As activists, advocate organizations and other proponents across the state continue to ramp up efforts to pass a bill that would legalize the recognition of gay and lesbian nuptials after it stalled in the lame duck session early this month, Quinn said he too is “pushing hard” to get the bill passed in the first few weeks of the new legislative session beginning Feb. 5.

“The sooner we get it accomplished, the better,” Quinn said in a Chicago Phoenix interview. “This is a mission we cannot bail on. We must succeed.”

Last week, the chief sponsors of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act reintroduced the legislation shortly after the swearing in of the 98th General Assembly, which comprises super-majorities of Democrats in both the House and the Senate due to gains in the November 2012 general elections. Democrats snapped up five seats in the Senate, totaling 40, and seven seats in the House, totaling 71.

A marriage equality bill will need at least 30 votes in the Senate and 60 votes in the House before advancing to Quinn’s desk for signing — something the Governor is confident he and other supporters of the bill can achieve in the coming weeks.

“I think we have the makings of a majority in the Senate and the House,” Quinn said. “This is achievable and attainable and I’m going to work as hard as I can with everyone to make it happen.”

This comes from a governor, who less than a year ago, publicly favored civil unions over full marriage equality for same-sex couples, the same stance he campaigned on in the 2010 election. Not until after President Barack Obama announced his support of marriage equality in early May did Quinn come out and say it was the right law for Illinois.

“Gov. Quinn joins with President Obama in supporting marriage equality and looks forward to working on this issue in the future with the General Assembly,” a spokesperson for Quinn said in May of last year. Quinn joined other top elected officials such as Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the latest efforts to pass the bill.

Quinn’s promise to get the marriage equality job done early this year coincides with the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Quinn is aware of the significance.

“As Dr. King once said, ‘It’s always the right time to do the right thing.’ So, I think it’s the right time to do the right thing and I also think it’s a matter of fairness in the law.”

In addition, Quinn talked about his day to day work on advancing the bill, looked forward at his potential plans should the bill pass through the General Assembly and more in the full the interview here:

Chicago Phoenix: Why is it so important to achieve marriage equality in Illinois now?

Quinn: I think it’s the right thing to do. I think our state and our country have come a long way. I think the people’s support is fundamental to changing our laws to what the people want.

CP: You said that you’ll be working hard with everyone to get this done, and so what are some of the things that you do on a daily basis to push for the bill?

Quinn: I talk to legislators all the time — both Democrats and Republicans and both Senate and House members, and to give you a sense of how the civil unions law worked, the sponsor, a good friend, Greg Harris had 57 votes in the House at the time. Four members were going to vote “no” and he thought that if they talked to me they might change their minds. So, they came in, one by one, and I talked to them about my position on the issue and why I thought it was best for our state. Each and every one of those four voted “yes” and that is how the bill got out of the House and to the Senate.

My goal is to build a majority in both houses for marriage equality to accomplish this and send a message out for all to hear and see from the Land of Lincoln.

CP: On Sunday, a group of 50 statewide business leaders and companies released a letter saying that until marriage equality is passed, Illinois is at a competitive disadvantage. What are your thoughts on that?

Quinn: Well, we worked on some of those business leaders, encouraging them to speak out. I think they made a lot of sense. When you are competing in the 21st Century global economy, you want to make sure you bring your first team on to that economic competition. Not having everybody with the same opportunities and benefits is not getting the first team. From a business and economic standpoint, marriage equality is the best way to go and the only way to go.

CP: Hundreds of clergy and the faith community leaders have done the same, and so how does that affect the bill’s progress and what you do to help advocate for it?

Quinn: It’s all about conscience. Everyone should just follow their conscience. I don’t want my conscious kicking me in the shins today, tomorrow or 20 years from now, God willing. I think people of conscience – and I salute all of the religious and faith leaders who spoke out for marriage equality a few weeks ago. As we know, there are some on the other side of the issue. I respect those on the other side of the issue, but I don’t agree with them. I think that ultimately, a governor has to tell the people of Illinois and the members of the General Assembly that we have to be a people in Illinois that understands the importance of fairness, equal rights, tolerance and following your conscience.

I do believe a majority of both houses, right now, will vote “yes” for marriage equality. That’s what it’s all about.

Have you see the movie Lincoln?

CP: No, I haven’t. I work too much.

Quinn: Well, I recommend it to you. Because when you see it, you see the process of democracy and getting votes for important causes. We’re involved here, in 2013, in one of the most important civil rights causes in recent years. That’s how I perceive this mission.

CP: Speaking of Lincoln, Rep. Kelly Cassidy’s girlfriend of nearly three years proposed right in front of the Lincoln statue outside the Capitol Building last week.

Quinn: That’s great! I think Abraham Lincoln would be well pleased. That is such a great statue of Abraham Lincoln right there. Lincoln believed in a government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the Earth, that’s what he said at Gettysburg. He understood that the people of his time and the people of our time will use the process of democracy to make and improve our union. Lincoln believed that in his time and in our time, 150 years later from the Emancipation Proclamation, the process of democracy, giving the government to the people to do what’s best for the people.

CP: With the new General Assembly, it seems like the legislators already have a lot on their plates with pension reform, gun control, etc., and so from your direct observations, where will the marriage equality bill fit in the new session when it starts next month?

Quinn: I think it’s very important to deal with the fiscal issues of the state, the job issues, the safety issues … The violence that was perpetrated in Newtown is certainly still fresh on our minds. Those are all paramount issues, but so is marriage equality. It is a paramount issue. I believe we need to move with deliberate speed to get this job done. I’m going to push as hard as I can to get the members of the Senate and the House to take this issue up promptly.

CP: What would it mean to you, personally, to sign a marriage bill into law?

Quinn: Well, I think it is something that we need to bring the people in on. In other words, make sure that everyone gets to participate. When we signed the civil unions bill, we did it with hundreds and hundreds of people in the room and I envision the same scenario.

I want to be clear that we need a majority in both houses to get it to my desk. But rest assured, when it lands on my desk, we’re going to engage people from all across Illinois who have worked so hard for this cause for so many years. So then, it becomes a victory of those who labored and used democracy to further equal rights in our state.

CP: How do you accomplish majorities like that?

It’s a matter, as I keep saying, of using democracy. It’s one person at a time. In the legislature, I respect everybody — even when they don’t agree with me on a lot of issues — I always respect people because you never know that one person could one day say “You know, I think I’m going to change my mind and vote ‘yes.’” That’s how we got civil unions — those folks coming down to my office and talking eyeball to eyeball, person to person from both the Senate and the House. I gave them my opinion and they came out and they all voted “yes.” That’s how we win.

We have to go one person at a time with grace and respect and if we do so, I think we can make a law that will live long after we’re gone, and they’ll say about our time in 2013, “They did great things.”