CHICAGO – When Illinois lawmakers considered a landmark vote on same-sex marriage, religious and conservative groups vowed to retaliate against those who voted in favor by grooming potential primary challengers in next year’s elections.
But now that gay marriage is Illinois law and legislative candidates have submitted candidate petitions to election officials, the threat seems to have evaporated.
A coalition of high-profile pastors that launched a campaign against same-sex marriage has dropped the pursuit against black House Democrats, for now. Primary challengers to three Republicans who voted in favor of gay marriage – including state Rep. Tom Cross, who is running for state treasurer – haven’t made it much of an issue either.
A big reason, experts said, is the public’s rapid shift in support of gay marriage. That meant less political risk, even as the bill passed through the House with a slim margin in November, about nine months after the Senate. Other states, including Minnesota – the only other Midwestern state to pass gay marriage out of its Legislature – haven’t seen much backlash either.
“I’m a very conservative Democrat. But if the populated numbers would have wanted that, I don’t represent myself; I represent the people,” said Tonya Hunter, a former social worker from Chicago challenging Rep. Art Turner. “It’s just my own religious belief.”
Turner was one of 20 black House Democrats in the spotlight after the African American Clergy Coalition ran ads on black radio and released robocalls pushing its belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. The coalition includes the Rev. James Meeks, a former state lawmaker whose Chicago megachurch is politically influential.
Yet of the 14 black House Democrats who voted yes, only half have primary challengers. Of the nine total challengers – most of whom are seeking public office for the first time – seven spoke to The Associated Press, saying same-sex marriage wasn’t among their top campaign issues. One supported the vote outright. Another wasn’t aware of how the incumbent voted. Two didn’t return multiple messages.
Illinois’ same-sex marriage law takes effect June 1, though court orders – including one issued Monday – have allowed some couples facing terminal illness to wed earlier.
Polls show support for gay marriage has surged since 1996, when Gallup found only 27 percent of Americans felt same-sex marriages should be valid. Last year, it jumped to 53 percent. Also last year President Barack Obama said he supported same-sex marriage, something which experts say could give the House Democrats cover.
“This is an issue that public opinion has changed faster than anything I’ve seen in my life,” said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Cross and state Reps. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove and Ed Sullivan of Mundelein were the three Republicans with primary challenges who voted yes. Although none of their primary foes said they considered gay marriage to be a major campaign issue, it could become one at churches and other smaller, more conservative venues, said Jon Zahm, a field director for Illinois Families First.
That’s where a vote in favor could cost Cross some primary support. However, if he wins his position could help him in running for statewide office in Democrat-led Illinois, said Chicago political analyst Don Rose.
Cross, who has been reticent to explain his vote, said Monday that he consulted his minister and family before deciding. He called it an issue of fairness.
“It’s a volatile issue. People are passionate about it,” Cross said. “You’re going to get people that support you and people that disagree with you. I know that. At the end of the day, this race is about a treasurer who’s going to be a fiscal watchdog.”
His challenger, accountant Bob Grogan, has shied away from focusing on same-sex marriage, aside from saying it shows that Cross has flip-flopped on some issues.
“Politicians go and start to try and craft their persona to fit the expectations that people are looking for,” said Grogan, who is opposed to gay marriage.
Sullivan’s challenger, Bob Bednar, said he doesn’t support same-sex marriage, but the former treasurer of the Lake County Republican Party said it’s not why he jumped in. Sandack’s opponent, suburban school board member Keith Matune, declined to state his position or say how he would’ve voted on same-sex marriage.
Still, the issue could resurface.
Sean Howard, the pastor’s coalition spokesman, said the group could start backing candidates ahead of the March primary. The pastors disagree with polls showing support and have said smaller pockets around Chicago don’t reflect the trend.
Among the House Democratic challengers surveyed, only Linda Jernigan, a Richton Park pastor at “Rescuing Ministries” church, said there should be consequences for lawmakers who voted in favor. She’s one of two Democrats challenging state Rep. Al Riley and often talks about her experiences as a former lesbian who says she was saved by the church.
“There should be a price to pay if a lawmaker made a decision on same-sex marriage based on personal gain ... versus what constituents want,” she said.
But Riley, of Olympia Fields, said he’s not worried.
“We are in a position where we have to go before the voters every two years,” he said. “If you’re worried about anything you shouldn’t be an elected official.”