Organizers set to release letter from corporate backers of gay marriage

Prominent business leaders express support for gay marriage bill expected to be pushed during coming Illinois legislative session

A coalition of gay marriage advocates plans to release a letter this week signed by top Illinois executives and companies endorsing same-sex marriage as an economic imperative, giving a powerful push to a bill that state lawmakers could take up as early as Thursday.

Among the signatories are Google, which announced this year it was moving its Motorola Mobility unit downtown; Morningstar founder Joe Mansueto; The PrivateBank and Trust Co. Chairman Norman Bobins; and online daily deal pioneer Groupon. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his top corporate adviser, Michael Sacks, are among those soliciting signatures.

"I've called anywhere from nine to a dozen (CEOs)," Emanuel said in a phone interview. "And everybody is a personal 'yes.' Some are a 'yes,' and don't worry about it. Others are a 'yes,' but they have to go check (the letter), and run it up and down their boards because they work for publicly traded companies. … They have some internal work to do to get to a 'yes.'"

The most important corporate backer may be Fred Eychaner, the Chicago media mogul and arts champion who, according to a source, is the primary funder for the public relations campaign run by ASGK Public Strategies. According to another source, another funder is Laura Ricketts, a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs.

ASGK declined to release a copy of the letter, but a draft obtained by the Tribune argues that gay marriage is the "pro-jobs, pro-growth thing to do."

"Since human capital drives innovation and growth, a state must foster an environment where people want to live," the letter reads. "To be competitive, a state must create an equitable, fair and respectful environment for all its citizens." It also notes that it would increase sales and hotel tax receipts and revenue for the wedding industry.

State Sen. Heather Steans and State Rep. Greg Harris are preparing to introduce legislation during the coming lame-duck session, a short window before newly elected lawmakers are sworn in Jan. 9. Steans said they would not call for a vote unless they had lined up enough support for it to pass.

The letter's release would mark at least the third press event in ASGK's carefully orchestrated media campaign, which included the Dec. 23 release of another endorsement letter signed by more than 250 Illinois clergy.

Equality Illinois, the ACLU and Lambda Legal officially release the letters under the banner Illinois Unites for Marriage. The three groups also led the successful 2010-2011 campaign to recognize civil unions in the state.

But ASGK's behind-the-scenes role is new, and the trio of nonprofits is not paying what must be a significant sum for ASGK's services. (David Axelrod co-founded ASGK and then sold his stake in 2009 after becoming a top White House adviser to President Barack Obama. Eric Sedler is managing partner.)

Eric Herman, a managing director of ASGK, declined to reveal the identity of the client funding the public relations effort.

"There are many active funders of LGBT causes," Herman wrote. "Beyond that, we have to respect client confidentiality."

Eychaner appears to be the largest Democratic donor in the 2012 election cycle, giving $14 million, The New York Times reported this month. He is openly gay. David Horwich, a spokesman for Eychaner, declined to comment.

"It's certainly not our organizations that are covering that," said James Bennett, Midwest managing director of Lambda Legal, referring to ASGK's services. "They've been a great help. It's been nice to have that coordinating role, but I don't know exactly how it came to be, to be quite honest."

Mitchell Locin, a media liaison for Equality Illinois, said discussions among coalition members began after the November elections when voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington legalized gay marriage. Minnesota voters also struck down a constitutional amendment that would have banned it.

Locin said corporate support was key in New York, which legalized gay marriage in 2011, and subsequently in Washington state, where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife donated $2.5 million to the referendum.

"Corporate support provides both financial support and also moral support — because you can make a business case" for gay marriage, Locin said.

Mansueto, who also owns Fast Company and Inc. magazines, said Steans emailed him asking for his signature. Their daughters attend the same school.

"It struck me as the right thing to do," Mansueto said in an interview. "My view is that if two people want to commit to each other, gender is not relevant. … Having more families and households in society is a good thing."

As a self-made billionaire, Mansueto, however, has far greater freedom than other corporate leaders who have been approached.

"Sometimes they definitely do have to go to their boards," Steans said. "So time works against us. And if they have obvious competitors in the same industry group — and if they're not also (supporting same-sex marriage) at the same time — it can be more of a challenge. Businesses are always looking around at what their competitors are doing."

Melissa Harris can be reached at or 312-222-4582.

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