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Same-sex marriage sponsor faces blowback for not seeking House vote

Updated: June 2, 2013 10:26AM

SPRINGFIELD-The lead House sponsor pushing same-sex marriage faced fallout Sunday from a divided gay and lesbian community after his decision not to put the issue to a vote during the closing hours of the spring legislative session Friday.

After awaking Saturday to calls for him to hand sponsorship of the bill to someone else, state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) told the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday he was intent on pressing ahead in his goal to make Illinois the 13th state to recognize same-sex marriages.

"My focus is on doing the work necessary to pass marriage equality," he said.

After promising a vote for weeks, Harris tearfully reneged in a decision he described as "mine alone" and driven by colleagues, who told him they wanted until November to consider voting for his legislation legalizing same-sex marriage.

But in a signed column, the influential head of Chicago's gay and lesbian newspaper tore into Harris, urging that he give up sponsorship of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act and saying that going back on his word was enough to warrant resignation.

"Harris made promises he could not keep," wrote Tracy Baim, publisher of Windy City Times. "In politics, that is a reason to step down. While Harris, who has dedicated his career to LGBT and AIDS issues, deserves the chance to prove his strategy right, if he does not succeed in passing this in the veto session this fall, he should not run for re-election in 2014.

"In addition, Harris should step down now as chief sponsor of this legislation. He has proven he is tone deaf to the wishes of both the grassroots and leadership of this community. They almost all called for a vote "no matter what." Instead, Harris chose to give cover to his political colleagues, rather than follow through on his own on-the-record promise to call for a vote by May 31," she said.

Those comments were made after another leading gay activist told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday that the movement needed a new legislative backer who was not allied with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), a supporter of the bill who nothing to secure votes for it.

"We may need to start over with a new sponsor, a sponsor who is not beholden to Mr. Madigan but a sponsor who will fight for the families here in Illinois," said Rick Garcia, policy director from the Civil Rights Agenda.

Madigan did agree after Friday's vote to extend an approval deadline for the legislation until August 31, though the Illinois House is not scheduled to return to Springfield before Oct. 22.

Before making his brief statement to the Sun-Times on Sunday, Harris voiced a similar sentiment on his Facebook account, which Saturday was filled with conciliatory notes from supporters.

"Ever Onward," he wrote. "The struggle for justice and equality will always triumph."

Harris also drew backing late Saturday from a leading gay-rights advocacy group that sprung to his defense, though not without questioning his decision not to seek a vote.

"Probably no one in that body ached more than he did in announcing his decision. And now there are calls for his resignation. That is wrong," Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said in a prepared statement.

"We all learned our lessons from yesterday's loss," Cherkasov continued. "Greg Harris started the marriage bill fight back in 2007, and he should finish it."

While characterizing Harris as "our stalwart leader" in the Legislature, Cherkasov disagreed with Harris' move to avoid a vote on a day the Statehouse was crowded with gay and lesbian couples who came to Springfield Friday believing the legislation would be acted upon.

Harris "relieved other lawmakers - including those who went back on their word, betraying him and the LGBT community - of their culpability. Without knowing who betrayed us, we and the rest of the equal marriage supporters cannot know whom else to hold accountable," Cherkasov said.

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