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A rare gay-rights champ in Illinois GOP

Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford speaks news conference July 2011.  |  AP file photo

Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford speaks at a news conference in July 2011. | AP file photo

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Updated: November 30, 2012 6:12AM

In Illinois, same-sex marriage and Republicans are strange bedfellows. When a top Republican official recently got together with the state’s leading LGBT rights group, at least they made it into the living room.

That is, a stylish living room in Rogers Park, where the Equality Illinois Political Action Committee hosted a “pre-election discussion on LGBT Equality in Illinois,” featuring Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, State Rep. Greg Harris and talk of sea cows.

The Oct. 21 fund-raiser to support gay-friendly candidates drew LGBT professionals and activists who mingled over wine and cheese and admired the mid-century furniture and artifacts in the elegant two-flat.

I had to be there. The mere fact that Rutherford showed up there will fry the right.

Rutherford, who dubs himself a “business fiscal conservative,” is from Pontiac. It’s an “extremely conservative” town in Central Illinois, he said.

Rutherford also is a longtime supporter of gay-rights legislation.

The Sunday afternoon soiree offered a peek into the tricky terrain he must navigate from atop the state’s Republican establishment. Rutherford is an ambitious, 18-year veteran of the Illinois General Assembly, the state’s lone Republican constitutional officer, and the Illinois chairman of Mitt Romney’s campaign. He is widely expected to make a bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2014.

“So why did I come here?” Rutherford asked at the outset, beating me to the punch.

“I respect that we can have engaging discussion, and we won’t agree on everything,” he told the group. “But that said, the preponderance of what I believe that your association stands for, I do, too.”

While in the Statehouse, Rutherford voted at least four times for an amendment to the Human Rights Act that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, starting way back in 1993, said Art Johnston, an Equality Illinois founder who helped drive the legislation.

In 2005, his vote helped push it through.

“The vote caused a furor,” Fran Eaton, editor of the conservative Illinois Review website, recently wrote.

Not only that, Rutherford was the only Republican in the state Senate to say “yes” to the successful civil unions bill in 2010.

“I’m going to do what I think is right,” he told the group.

While he says he would not support a gay-marriage law, Rutherford still enjoyed a warm welcome.

Johnston lauded Rutherford for his support of gay rights.

“We could not have done it without the support of the treasurer,” he declared.

“Any blowback?” I asked Rutherford.

“Do you all know what manatees are?” he asked.

Sure. I’ve seen the whiskered and whimsical sea mammals lounging in the bays of South Florida. Cute and blubbery, these “sea cows” have become endangered species.

“This creature out there, that’s doin’ nice stuff, floating around . . .” Rutherford explained. “And then all of a sudden, this motorboat goes over it, just slices your back.”

But “you keep going, and it sort of calluses over, and you have this tough hide. That’s kind of the way I’ve taken this stuff.”

If Rutherford mounts a run for governor, he had better brace for more slicing and dicing to come.

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