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Government State

Ill. politicians mostly quiet on gay marriage

SPRINGFIELD – As much of the political world debated President Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage this week, Illinois officials and candidates greeted it with virtual silence.

Democratic and Republican candidates stuck to talking about jobs and the economy. Illinois leaders had little to say, in part because many of them had already endorsed gay marriage.

The chief exception was Gov. Pat Quinn, who after years of vague answers said through a spokeswoman Thursday that he now "stands with the president."

Campaign officials said the lack of political bomb-throwing in Illinois over gay marriage reflects that voters are most concerned about their paychecks.

Bill Foster, running for a congressional seat in Chicago's southwestern suburbs, believes gay couples should be allowed to marry but hasn't seen any sign that voters are anxious to talk about the issue, said the Democrat's campaign manager, Patrick Brown.

"Families are going to be looking at who has a record of standing up for jobs and middle-class families," said Brown said.

On the day Obama announced his support for gay marriage, Jason Plummer, a conservative Republican running for Congress in southern Illinois, took to Twitter and Facebook. The topics: a fun morning at a fishing event and how honored he was to attend the ribbon-cutting at a new Pepsi distribution center. He didn't say a word about Obama's comments.

Asked for his thoughts, Plummer released a statement saying he opposes gay marriage but "believes this campaign will be about who offers the solutions needed to turn around the economy."

U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, a suburban Chicago Republican who's never shy about going on the offensive, didn't say anything about gay marriage and his campaign didn't return calls asking about it.

The Illinois Republican Party didn't devote a single news release or Facebook post to the topic.

It was a different situation in some nearby states, where Republicans clearly saw an opportunity.

The Missouri GOP challenged Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill to spell out where she stands on gay marriage. The National Republican Senatorial Commission made a similar challenge to Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly in Indiana.

McCaskill ducked the question, while Donnelly said he opposes gay marriage.

In Illinois, however, gay marriage has support from the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the Illinois Senate president, the Chicago mayor – all Democrats. Many Democrats from more conservative parts of the state oppose it, but support is common enough that the president's announcement doesn't create a touchy political situation for Democratic leaders.

Alexi Giannoulias endorsed gay marriage when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and it didn't become a major issue in his campaign. Dan Hynes took the same position when he lost the nomination for governor to Quinn, but it didn't seem to bother most Democratic voters.

Same-sex marriage is a trickier issue for Illinois Republicans, said Anthony Martinez, executive director of the gay rights group The Civil Rights Agenda.

He said that while many Republican voters may oppose gay marriage, GOP candidates in tough congressional and legislative races are running in new districts drawn by Democrats. So being seen as extreme on issues like gay marriage could drive away the swing voters they'll need to win, Martinez said.

"Coming out against it in Illinois, I don't know if that's a winning strategy this go-round," Martinez said.

Republican Rep. Judy Biggert's campaign responded to questions about gay marriage by issuing a statement saying the most important issue in her race against Bill Foster is the economy. The statement didn't address where she stands on the issue. Biggert has a record of supporting gay-rights measures but opposes same-sex marriage, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Martinez praised Quinn for clearly stating his support. "He's kind of hedged the language in the past. This time he did not mince words," he said.

Over the years, when Quinn was asked about his views on gay marriage, he would say he supported civil unions because that proposal could win approval in the General Assembly. He helped get civil unions approved last year in the Legislature. While he didn't explicitly reject gay marriage, he never said anything positive about it either, even when it was endorsed by his opponent in the 2010 primary.

In February, Quinn told WBEZ radio that he would be willing to help build support for gay marriage. And on Thursday, his office released a statement saying: "Governor Quinn joins with President Obama in supporting marriage equality and looks forward to working on this issue in the future with the General Assembly."

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