What Illinois Marriage Equality Supporters Can Learn From Previous State Fights

Last Friday’s decision to postpone a vote on marriage equality in the Illinois House came as a huge disappointment to supporters of LGBT equality. But Prairie State voters can take heart from legislative battles in other states where marriage equality was similarly delayed or defeated — but where the same chambers went on to pass bills soon after.

Like Illinois, legislative efforts to pass marriage equality stumbled in Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York — either failing to obtain a majority or by through postponed consideration. Future attempts to enact legislation later succeeded in three of those states, while the New Jersey legislature’s passage of a bill was met with a Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) veto. As Illinois supporters work to win passage of the bill later this year, ThinkProgress reached out to key players in each of those states and asked them about their experiences.

Three common themes emerged in their responses. Several said Illinois supporters need to make sure they have an accurate target list and focus on the lawmakers who need persuading. Constituents, they suggested, must respectfully tell their personal stories to their legislators and make their representatives understand why this issue matters to their families. Finally, the openly LGBT caucus within the legislature must appeal personally and emotionally to their colleagues, especially those who may not be as attuned to the topic.


Perhaps the most analogous case was Maryland’s unsuccessful 2011 attempt to pass a civil marriage bill through the state House of Delegates. Though advocates believed they had the needed votes to pass the bill, they were forced to postpone the vote after some pledged supporters wavered. Unlike Illinois, supporters went through with the debate — hoping their compelling personal stories might sway the handful of votes needed for a majority — before sending the bill back to committee after it became apparent the votes would not be there. Advocates, including Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), the state’s seven openly LGBT Delegates, and LGBT groups, organized a new campaign and successfully pushed the bill through less than a year later. When opponents forced the question onto the November ballot, a majority voted for marriage equality.


Openly lesbian Maryland Del. Heather Mizeur (D) noted that about 10 supporters were willing to be a part of a 71-vote majority but would have voted against the bill if it appeared likely to lose. “It would not have been okay to lose by 12 votes and try to come back the next year to win those back. We wanted to hold onto their willingness to be yes on a winning vote, instead of locking them into a no vote because they saw it was going down,” she recalled. To turn around the vote in Illinois, she suggested, “it could be helpful for them to try to wage an effort to get their supporters to sign some sort of pledge, start getting a vote count, and get a campaign around securing public commitments.” Maryland’s success came, she explained, from working with allies at national organizations, state groups, and really putting together a campaign. “Leave no stone unturned until we’re able to claim victory.”

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said that it made little sense to demand a vote in 2011 because there was not going to be an election before the next (2012) session. She noted that while grassroots activists were vital to the successful effort to win the second attempt, so was having a robust LGBT caucus inside the legislature who could remind colleagues, “you know my husband, you know my kids.” Issues like marriage equality, she observed, must be personal. “They’re so close — you really just have to build on that and get those last few votes.”

New Hampshire

In 2009, openly gay then-Rep. Jim Splaine (D) brought a marriage equality bill to the floor without even a favorable committee recommendation. Despite having only about 130 firm commitments in the 400-member House, the bill narrowly lost by a 182–183 vote — a positive surprise even to the sponsor. “I had been in the legislature for 30 years off and on at that point, my first term being in 1969, and I knew that one or two votes can be found SOMEWHERE,” he recalled. After obtaining the printout of the initial roll call, “those of us for the bill lobbied those few members who we thought might switch their votes. Within 20 minutes, a re-vote was held and the bill passed 186 to 179.

For Splaine, having an accurate breakdown of where people stood proved hugely important: “The fact that we knew who our 182 supporters were and who were left on the other side certainly allowed us to switch those votes to our side on the second vote. On follow-up votes in the next few weeks, our supporters were able to hold strong, but at times they weren’t all there for votes and that’s when we almost lost the bill. But knowing who we could still appeal to gave us a chance to do ‘at-home’ lobbying, and get a few more supporters. We eventually got to over 200 supporters as the weeks went by, and since then efforts to repeal the bill fell flat.”  He echoed the importance of LGBT legislators and constituents winning votes with their personal tales: “Our mantra was ‘Let’s show our faces and tell our stories.’” To win, Illinois and everywhere, LGBT folks must look at legislators “in their eyes, face-to-face, and talk with — not “to” or “at” them, but with them — about our story.”

New Jersey

A 2009 vote on marriage equality in the New Jersey Senate fell seven votes short (losing 14 to 20). Last year, the same body endorsed a similar bill by a 24–16 margin. While Governor Christie swiftly vetoed the bill — suggesting that LGBT civil rights should be put up for a popular referendum — activists are mulling a possible override attempt.


Steven Goldstein, founder of Garden State Equality, told ThinkProgress that he is optimistic that both Illinois and New Jersey will soon see marriage equality: “I would be surprised if marriage equality did not come to Illinois later this year, because of the skill of the extraordinary legislators who have spearheaded the effort, as well as then U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act coming down later this month, which many people believe will make marriages in states that already have them forced to recognized federal benefits.” Noting that both states have civil unions, he observed that same-sex couples in those states would be denied federal recognition, rendering their civil unions “even more unequal than they already are.” Such a ruling could be the final push for many legislators: “I hear from legislators all the time, who are on the fence or are pro-equality but haven’t voted that way in the past, who are looking for a new external reason. They’re proactively mentioning DOMA.”

Goldstein advised against disappointed activists being “armchair quarterbacks” on the Illinois process. “Every state is different and the path to marriage equality varies,” he explained.

New York

The 2009 attempt to pass marriage equality vote in the New York State Senate was in many ways the “worst case scenario.” Though supporters thought they had the votes, several Senators bolted when it became clear that the bill would fall short of a majority — and the bill was defeated 38–24. Activists defeated some opponents in the 2010 elections, organized a major campaign to win over others, and prevailed 33–29 in 2011.

Brian Ellner, a senior strategist for the New York campaign, said legislators were not harder to convince just because they had voted against it once: “A lot of people have been evolving on this issue over time. Some of that takes place quickly and dramatically… from the President to the Vice President to Republican Senator Rob Portman (OH), and others. Legislators had the same story line, they become convinced by changing times and fundamental fairness.” While some activists were demoralized by the 2009 disappointment, he added, “many people were committed to working that much harder, energized and angered.”

Ellner’s key to winning over the needed votes is knowing where legislators stand. “The more intelligence you have,” he explained, “the more you’re able to target specifically which legislatures you need to move, the more helpful it is for anyone running this kind of campaign. If you don’t know which of 25–30 legislators to go after, to persuade, you’re really diluting your resources.”


In light of these observations, ThinkProgress also spoke with two key players in Illinois about the next steps.

Openly gay Rep. Greg Harris (D), the chief House sponsor of the stalled marriage bill, noted that the successes in other state are instructive. “Often people don’t see things in the lens of even recent history, must less the history of equality struggles of all kinds,” he said, “You have steps forwards, you have setbacks, you move ahead, and you finally win.”


Harris said that he and the advocacy groups “have a fairly good sense of who is a hard no, a hard yes, who’s leaning which way.” As the opponents in Illinois are rabid, “we need to be sure that the moms, dads, grandpas, and grandmas from PFLAG are also getting out there,” and that they and LGBT constituents convey to their legislators that marriage equality is important to them and their families. “Our state has plenty of other issues… huge issues — our bond ratings were downgraded the other day, we have a monumental unfunded pension crisis, just went through a state budget where people were fighting to maintain education and human services, and gun control. Some people looking at this are saying “didn’t we just do civil unions?” But since Friday, Harris senses a turning tide. “The fact that it has become such a huge issue in the news here, the dialogue around it… I’ve talked to some, it’s caused them to search long and hard about this. [The Friday floor speech by openly lesbian Rep.] Deborah Mell — what she said really cast this issue in a way that forced colleagues to think about family and what they stand for.”

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said that his group did not have a clear sense of which representatives put up a last-minute obstacle to derail the bill, but expressed optimism that the legislative sponsors would share that information going forward. He said activists are mobilizing to win the needed votes later this year. “Almost instantly after the non-vote happened, we’ve been in touch with the chief sponsors to understand what we have to do. The next morning, Equality Illinois was already in Rockford and Quad Cities, fair-minded parts of IL without lawmakers in support of [civil marriage].” While he is hopeful that a favorable DOMA ruling could add to the momentum for the bill, Cherkasov said, “There’s clear momentum already and that’s hopefully them doing the right thing and passing the marriage bill.”