PI Original Adam Doster Monday October 18th, 2010, 12:57pm

The Window For Civil Unions (AUDIO)

If GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady wins in two weeks, the General Assembly will need to act fast to make civil unions the law of the land in Illinois.

If gay rights groups want to make civil unions the law of the land in Illinois, they might have a tight window in which to get it done.

The epic saga to guarantee the LGBT community with many of the same legal protections straight couples take for granted is coming to a head. Gov. Pat Quinn is supportive of State Rep. Greg Harris' (D-Chicago) legislation (SB 1716), which would provide same-sex couples with all the "benefits afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses." If approved, gay partners could sit bedside with their loved one in the hospital, receive survivor benefits, and be given authority to help make end-of-life decisions.

On the Democratic incumbent's campaign website, there's a lengthy LGBT section where he states that committed same-sex couples deserve "basic recognition rights." A few weeks ago, Quinn told the Daily Herald editorial board that "the votes are there" to legalize civil unions this year. It's a bill he would like to sign "earlier" rather than later.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady is of a different mind. When asked to clarify his position on gay rights last week, the Republican promised to veto SB 1716 if he's elected governor on November 2 and the bill lands on his desk next year. That's not surprising; just days after winning the GOP nomination, he introduced a constitutional amendment (SJRCA 95) that would have forbidden same-sex marriage or civil unions. (He took his name off the bill shortly thereafter.) Just this month, he defended his dissenting vote in 2004 on legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in matters of housing and employment. "I don't think we should have special legislation," he opined.

During the gubernatorial debate in Elmhurst last night, Brady attacked Quinn for his support of civil unions, characterizing it as a diversion from the work of job creation. Listen (the full debate is available here, thanks to WBEZ):

If Brady is victorious, in other words, the General Assembly would have to act before January 10, 2011 -- the day Brady would be inaugurated -- if members want to get the bill signed into law. And that leaves the fall veto session.

The House is scheduled to convene (PDF) in Springfield for three days in mid-November and then again on November 29 and 30. The State Senate has a similar itinerary (PDF). Conveniently, the "Final Action Deadline" for Harris' bill has been extended through November 30. So it's a viable option, regardless of the gubernatorial outcome.

This political dynamic isn't lost on Equality Illinois' Rick Garcia. His organization is running a robust GOTV effort to elect Quinn, who they've endorsed. This week, Garcia is traveling to several large Illinois cities to meet with pro-LGBT groups about their Election Day strategies. They also partnered with Rock the Vote and Roosevelt University to produce the Vote Naked campaign, which raises awareness about early voting options. So far this year, Equality Illinois' political action committee has already dumped $27,500 into the warchests of Springfield lawmakers, including the Quinn re-election campaign, several Democrats in tight races (State Rep. Careen Gordon and State Sens. Mike Noland and Toi Hutchinson), and both party leaders in the State Senate. "We want to turn out voters," Garcia says, "who believe in fairness for all."

If Quinn doesn't emerge victorious, Equality Illinois will have to move to Plan B. Garcia is confident that SB 1716 could clear the Senate. Public opinion is certainly in the favor of civil unions proponents. Back in 2005, a Northern Illinois University survey showed that 65 percent of Illinoisans want to extend either full marriage or civil union rights to same-sex couples. A Tribune/WGN poll conducted in September found that only 32 percent of respondents disapproved of civil unions. A more recent Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll puts that figure at 26.5 percent. Among young people, support explodes.

Now, 60 lawmakers in the House need to listen to the public and step up this fall. "We are awaiting the House and Senate going back into session," Harris told us this summer. So are gay couples across Illinois.

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