Sunday May 29th, 2016 7:52AM

Gay marriage push looking to unions, immigrants

By The Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) -- After their efforts to legalize gay marriage fizzled in Illinois this year, advocates gave their campaign a serious makeover: They called on unions, focused longer-term and recalibrated their message by using personal stories instead of civil rights comparisons.

It's a formula picked up from their fellow activists who made Chicago an influential player in the push for immigrant rights.

Proponents will try again this fall to push gay marriage legislation through the Illinois Legislature, where they fell a few votes short in a Democrat-dominated state that's been surprisingly resistant. But this time, they're focusing less on lobbying lawmakers and more on priming the environment to make it easier for skittish legislators to cast favorable votes - taking cues from a movement that brought nearly 500,000 protesters to Chicago streets a few years ago and helped advance "Dream Act" goals this year.

"The immigration advocates, they really know how to get it done," said Jim Bennett, a director for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group that's part of the Illinois Unites for Marriage campaign. "We have a lot to learn from them."

While social justice movements often borrow tactics from one another, experts agree the overlap in Illinois stands out among the 13 states that have embraced gay marriage - particularly in the union connections and emphasizing the development of young, long-term leaders.

At the heart of the renewed push is John Kohlhepp, a lobbyist for Illinois' biggest state employee union. He was hired to lead a coalition that since June has grown from three organizations to roughly 50, including other unions, and raised roughly one-quarter of the campaign's $2 million.

On the campaign trail, Kohlhepp's energy ripples out to the nearly 20 field organizers who have been distributing leaflets at events this summer, including the State Fair and Chicago's Bud Billiken Parade, the largest African-American parade nationwide. Kohlhepp's cellphone rings constantly with contacts through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, from which he has taken a leave. A seasoned lobbyist, he marks time by counting the days to Oct. 22, when legislators return to Springfield.

His involvement shows the strongest link yet between unions and the gay marriage campaign, according to Mary Bernstein, a University of Connecticut sociology professor who tracks social movements. That relationship resonates in labor-friendly Illinois, where immigrant-rights activists and unions made early links that are now hard to separate.

Unions, for example, helped Illinois become the first state to challenge the federal e-Verify immigrant worker identification system, and workers' groups have pushed for fair immigrant wages.

Bernstein said the Illinois collaborations appear to be an "innovation."

Nationally, the two movements have picked up ideas from one another before. Students without legal immigration status have "come out" in public ceremonies - Chicago was among the first to hold such events - and some immigrant activists say they look up to the late Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected politician and a renowned organizer.

The push for gay marriage in Illinois started in earnest after lawmakers approved civil unions in 2011. But after it passed the Senate, House sponsors ultimately declined to call a vote on the same-sex marriage bill before legislators adjourned in May.

Proponents believed they were just a few votes shy, and intense lobbying efforts to find support for the bill were focused on moderate Republicans and black Democrats.

But since then, the American Civil Liberties Union has hired former state Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady, a gay-marriage supporter, to help lobby Republicans. And organizers hope to capitalize on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and polls showing more public support.

"There's really a different story to tell to my colleagues," said Rep. Greg Harris, the main House sponsor.

However, the campaign still faces significant obstacles: Illinois conservatives and some religious leaders are equally strong in their opposition.

Bishop Lance Davis, of New Zion Covenant Church in the Chicago suburb of Dolton, said his coalition of black churches intends to continue fighting same-sex marriage legislation out of a belief that marriage is between man and a woman. Several of the mega churches the coalition represents are key in voter registration drives and host politicians before Election Day.

Davis said he believes the Supreme Court's decision, along with activists trying to bring same-sex marriage, is "a redefinition of the institution of marriage."

But other churches have supported the cause, and activists hired an openly gay minister to reach out to more congregations

When the push for gay marriage began in Illinois, advocates likened it to the historic struggle for civil rights. That resonated with young people but irked others, particularly blacks. Davis was one of the most vocal critics.

This time around, the advocates are putting their focus on family and commitment issues. They are encouraging same-sex couples to relay personal experiences, which was also part of the successful gay-marriage campaigns in Connecticut and Minnesota this year.

"The movement has learned what kind of messaging has resonance for people," Bernstein said. "The civil rights discourse has been divisive for a long time ... Everyone understands love and commitment."

That includes taking another cue from the immigrant rights movement. In 2006, when Congress considered a bill that would have made being an illegal immigrant a felony, massive crowds took to the Chicago's streets to protest. Activists told their personal stories of hardship and argued that deportations pull apart families.

"What this will take (to win the gay marriage battle) is folks telling their stories," said Keron Blair, who directs campaign field organizers.

Ultimately, organizers say, the overarching mission is to inspire leaders who will push for future gay rights issues - just as a new crop of young activists with roots in Chicago are doing both at home and in Washington D.C.

"If we left behind leaders like that, I'd be ecstatic," said Kohlhepp, the union lobbyist now heading the same-sex marriage coalition. He said accomplishing that goal would be "an imprint of the campaign."
© Copyright 2016
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
S&P 500 index has its best year since 1997
The stock market closed out a record year with more all-time highs on Tuesday, giving U.S. indexes their biggest annual gains in almost two decades.
6:56PM ( 2 years ago )
Colorado readies for 'Green Wednesday' pot sales
Police were adding extra patrols around pot shops in eight Colorado towns that plan to allow recreational sales to anyone over 21 on Jan. 1.
1:52PM ( 2 years ago )
Kerry seeks framework for Mideast peace talks
A senior State Department official says Secretary of State John Kerry will try this week to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a framework for negotiating a final peace agreement, yet cautions against raising expectations for Kerry's latest round of shuttle diplomacy.
1:35PM ( 2 years ago )
U.S. News
Ethics laws set to take effect Jan. 1 in Georgia
After dominating much of the legislative session, a set of major ethics reforms is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.
7:04PM ( 2 years ago )
Sex offender held in Hall County for failing to register
A 47-year-old man was booked into the Hall County Jail Tuesday, being held without bond for allegedly failing to register as a sex offender, his second such arrest.
6:09PM ( 2 years ago )
Pharmacy robberies may involve same suspect
Oakwood Police Tuesday afternoon released details in a pharmacy robbery they're investigating, similar to one that happened in the Hall County Tuesday morning.
5:46PM ( 2 years ago )
Local/State News
Feds announce test sites for drone aircraft
The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies.
2:23PM ( 2 years ago )
Congress letting 55 tax breaks expire at year end
In an almost annual ritual, Congress is letting a package of 55 popular tax breaks expire at the end of the year, creating uncertainty - once again - for millions of individuals and businesses.
2:21PM ( 2 years ago )
Feeling US snub, Saudis strengthen ties elsewhere
Increasingly vocal in its frustration over U.S. policies in the Mideast, Saudi Arabia is strengthening ties elsewhere, seeking out an alignment that will bolster its position after it was pushed to the sidelines this year.
4:34PM ( 2 years ago )
Amid shouts of 'shame,' House GOP defeats gay rights measure
Democrats shouted "shame," but House Republicans switched their votes and defeated a measure to protect gay rights
8:03PM ( 1 week ago )
CDC director Freiden warns GOP Zika bill is inadequate
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Wednesday that a House GOP measure to combat the Zika virus is inadequate to deal with the swelling threat to public health
7:36PM ( 1 week ago )
Trump unveils list of his top picks for Supreme Court
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, released Wednesday a list of 11 potential Supreme Court justices he plans to vet to fill the seat of late Justice Antonin Scalia if he's elected to the White House.
3:31PM ( 1 week ago )
1st US penis transplant could bring hope to maimed soldiers
A 64-year-old cancer patient has received the nation's first penis transplant, a groundbreaking operation that may also help U.S. veterans maimed by roadside bombs
8:04PM ( 1 week ago )
States dig in against directive on transgender bathroom use
Politicians in Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere are vowing defiance over the Obama administration's new directive on transgender bathroom use
9:19PM ( 2 weeks ago )