As Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn commemorated the same-sex marriage law he signed by visiting a gay wedding ceremony Monday, Republican challenger Bruce Rauner said he’d be open to repealing it if that’s what Illinois voters wanted.
Rauner has struggled with the issue, telling voters last year that he would follow the results of an advisory referendum to settle the gay marriage question if one were held. Later, after lawmakers approved same-sex marriage bill, Rauner said he would veto the bill if he were governor.
On Monday, Rauner tried to steer away from the hot-button social issue, telling reporters once again that he had no “social issues agenda” but declining to express his personal beliefs on same-sex marriage. “I have many gay friends and if they choose to marry I hope they have great lives together,” said Rauner after a speech to the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce.
But Rauner also opened the door to the idea of a new advisory referendum asking voters whether the gay marriage law should be repealed.
“Now it's passed, it's the law, I don't have any agenda to change it and the only way I'd change it is if it were done in a referendum — the voters said that they'd want to change it,” Rauner said.
During the primary campaign, Rauner came under fire from some social conservatives who form a core of the state Republican Party for his support of abortion rights. Rauner, however, repeatedly has hedged on the same-sex marriage issue — something he called being “consistent.”
The timing of the new law, taking full effect on the first business day of the week Monday, was a relief for Quinn. It allowed the governor to try to shift his campaign onto progressive social issues after a tumultuous legislative session ended Saturday in which several of his initiatives were cast aside, leaving at best a haphazard state budget.
Four years ago, in his first election for governor, Quinn was able to narrowly defeat state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington following late criticism of the Republican’s social conservatism that shifted the focus away from the Democrat’s handling of the state’s poor economy and finances.
This time around, Rauner, a first-time candidate and equity investor from Winnetka, has strenuously sought to quickly put aside any discussion of social issues in favor of attacks on Quinn over the economy, state spending and tax policy. Rauner, however, has yet to produce detailed plans on those subjects.
On Monday, Quinn looked on as Jim Darby and Patrick Bova exchanged vows under a white canopy at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Darby and Bova have spent years pushing for the right to marry in their home state, including serving as lead plaintiffs on a lawsuit challenging the state's previous ban on gay marriage.
Quinn took aim at Rauner, contending he “didn't need a referendum” to realize supporting gay marriage was “the right thing to do.” Quinn previously backed civil unions for same-sex couples, a right he signed into law in 2011, but said he soon evolved in favor of full marriage rights.
“I think those who opposed this, I think they were on the wrong side of history,” said Quinn, who signed the marriage law in November.
“I think it's regrettable that anyone would even think of vetoing the bill once it passed. It was a very important step forward for Illinois as part of our march of civil rights to make sure everyone is in and no one is left out,” the governor added.
Quinn dismissed the idea that he was focusing on gay marriage to distract from his inability to get his budget plan passed in Springfield last week which called for extending a 2011 income tax increase that's set to starting expiring in January.
Lawmakers instead passed a spending plan that relies heavily on borrowing and not paying down bills, and will likely re-visit the tax issue following the Nov. 4 election, when they know if Quinn or Rauner will be the next governor. Quinn said he'd address questions about the budget on Tuesday.
“Today is not a distraction,” Quinn said. “Today is a moment in history we should all be proud of.”
Marriage equality supporters used the day to criticize Rauner.
“To some audiences, when he thinks no one is paying attention, he's saying he would veto the marriage rights bill. And when he's speaking to mainstream media, he says he has no social agenda,” said Bernard Cherkasov, executive director of Equality Illinois, at a news conference in Daley Plaza. “He can't have it both ways.”
Cherkasov said a statewide referendum is not appropriate in the case of deciding people’s rights.
“He's hiding behind the idea of a referendum,” said Cherkasov, who later attended the same wedding as Quinn. “We don't put the rights of one group up to popular vote. Bruce Rauner needs to say where he stands on the issue itself.”
Meanwhile, Rauner won a round in his battle to get a constitutional amendment on legislative term limits onto the fall ballot.
State elections officials said Monday that a random 5 percent sample of signatures submitted by the Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits projects that at least 333,164 were valid ones. The group needs about 300,000 valid signatures to pass muster.
Staff members will submit those findings to the state elections board, which could order another review or determine that the referendum question is eligible for the ballot, said Rupert Borgsmiller, the agency’s executive director.
The Rauner-backed group seeks to limit lawmakers to a total of eight years in office, increase the size of the 118-member House to 123 members and reduce the size of the 59-member Senate to 41 and impose a two-thirds vote of lawmakers to overturn a governor’s veto compared to the current three-fifths requirement.
Those changes are an effort to comply with the limited window for using petition initiative attempts to change the 1970 Illinois Constitution. Such initiatives must affect both the structure and procedure of the General Assembly to be eligible for the ballot.
Even with the board’s initial determination, a lawsuit filed by a lawyer with close ties to House Speaker Michael Madigan and the Democratic Party seeks to block the proposal from the ballot. Lawyer Mike Kasper has argued the proposal is a collection of unrelated issues that goes beyond affecting the legislative section of the state constitution.
Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.Copyright © 2015, RedEye