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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 01:48 am

Some signs of courage in civil unions vote

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Six Illinois House Republicans voted with 55 Democrats last week to approve a civil unions bill. But a few of the Democratic “Yes” votes were a bit more surprising.

All but one of the six Republicans were suburbanites. Bill Black, who is retiring later this month, was the only Downstater. Reps. Suzi Bassi and Beth Coulson were suburban “Yes” votes who are not returning next year. Reps. Mark Beaubien, Rosemary Mulligan and Skip Saviano were the other Republican “Yes” votes, and all three are suburban legislators. None of those were particularly huge surprises. Black has been a more traditionally liberal Republican for years, endorsed by labor unions and backed by many Democrats in his district. Black quoted the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen during the debate, citing Dirksen’s crucial vote for civil rights legislation in 1964 as the basis for his own position.

But just about every politically targeted suburban Democratic incumbent who survived the November election also voted for the plan, even though they just came off grueling campaigns against tough opponents. That support was even more newsworthy.

Rep. Keith Farnham (D-Elgin) won by just a handful of votes two years ago and beat the same opponent in a rematch by just 627 votes this year, but he voted for the civil unions legislation. Rep. Carol Sente (D-Vernon Hills) and Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates) were both Tier One campaign targets, yet they also voted for the bill. Rep. Emily McAsey (D-Lockport) easily won reelection this year despite heavy spending by Republicans and she also voted “Yes.” Rep. Jehan Gordon (D-Peoria) was one of just three Downstate Democratic Representatives who voted for the bill who aren’t also lame ducks. Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) has not been a target in years mainly because he has cultivated a strongly conservative voting record, yet he also voted for the civil unions bill.

Not all targets were on board. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park) voted “Present” last week. McCarthy, who survived a brutal campaign with a relatively narrow victory against a tea party Republican, said he was opposed to the legislation, but wanted to soften the impact by voting the yellow button.

Eleven of the chamber’s 18 lame ducks, all but three of them Democrats, provided needed votes for passage last week.  At least some of those members might have voted “No” had they won reelection.

Despite the bipartisan and target-rich vote in favor of the legislation, last week’s action probably can’t be used as a model for non social issue votes, like a tax hike. Black will leave before the January lame duck session. Bassi and Beaubien are strong fiscal conservatives. Saviano is a member of GOP leadership, which is united against the Democrats. Polls showed that suburban voters supported civil unions, but not tax hikes, so those Democratic targets who voted “Yes” probably won’t be on board, either. Many of the Downstate Democrats who voted against civil unions (Beiser, Bradley, Holbrook, Jefferson, Mautino, Phelps and Reitz) will probably also be against a tax increase, mainly because their regions have become so conservative lately.

The debate last week was almost universally respectful and stayed on the high road, except for some weird comments by Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Greenville), who, among other things, called himself an “old-fashioned traditionalist” during his remarks. Stephens has twice had problems with his pharmacy license for alleged substance abuse issues, was recently popped for a DUI and is divorced. There’s nothing spectacularly wrong with any of that whatsoever, but it certainly doesn’t make him an “old-fashioned traditionalist.”

The momentous civil unions bill passed the Senate the following day with 32 votes – two more than the minimum required. One Republican, Sen. Dan Rutherford, joined with 31 Democrats to approve the legislation. Democrats later claimed that Rutherford had made a politically smart vote, if it doesn’t ruin him in a Republican primary. He’ll almost certainly be able to establish a new – and strong – base of Chicago-area fundraising support for being the only Senate Republican to stick his neck out on the bill, and the only statewide officeholder to actually vote for the legislation.

Unlike in the House, where only two Republicans rose in opposition, several Senate Republicans spoke against the bill, and they mostly stayed on message. The Republicans almost universally complained that the Democrats were spending no time on solving the budget crisis and the precarious economic situation while debating social issues.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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