SPRINGFIELD (AP) — A Republican leader in the Illinois House said Monday that his support for legalizing gay marriage in the state could persuade colleagues to join him on an issue he says has "tremendous momentum."
Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. of Mundelein said his position is influenced by his mother-in-law, who has been in a lesbian relationship for about 20 years.
"Because my mother-in-law is gay, I have a more familiar and fair understanding of people who are in same-sex relationships," Sullivan said. "Everybody has a friend or a co-worker or a relative that's gay. And as Americans, we believe in social justice, we believe in fairness."
A state representative since 2003, Sullivan is the second House Republican to back gay marriage, but the first member of the GOP leadership team, serving as one of Minority Leader Tom Cross's floor leaders.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois' top Republican, announced his support last week. Although Kirk doesn't have a vote in Springfield, he's only the second U.S. Senate Republican to favor the idea and his advocacy, like Sullivan's backing, could also influence state lawmakers.
"There is tremendous momentum for marriage equality in Illinois," Sullivan said. " ... I wanted to show people that there are Republicans who are going to support marriage equality and that do believe in equal rights and equal protection under the law."
The Illinois Senate voted in February to give same-sex couples all the legal rights of traditional marriage. House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, predicted a few weeks ago the measure was about a dozen votes shy of the 60 needed to send it to a supportive Gov. Pat Quinn. Advocates say the gap is narrower.
"We are very close," Quinn told reporters in Chicago on Monday. "We're going to get it done."
Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of gay rights organization Equality Illinois, said the bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, is ready for a vote "at any moment," predicting that it will win approval with bipartisan support.
"The most interesting thing about Rep. Sullivan's statement is that it really honors those truly Republican freedoms, individual freedom and limited government intrusion into private life," Cherkasov said.
He would not comment specifically on how many votes supporters have, and advocates have been coy about lobbying efforts.
Influential black ministers — for and against — held news conferences on successive days last week to push their positions. On the one side, supportive clerics said it's a civil rights issue; on the other, critics cited biblical interpretations about for whom marriage is intended. Catholics have argued marriage can only be between a man and a woman because its purpose is procreation.
One member of the House Black Caucus, Rep. Al Riley, an Olympia Fields Democrat, said Sunday he has not been lobbied by either side. He said the state's pension and budget messes are foremost on his mind.
Riley said he's not ready to announce his position, but hinted strongly at how he's leaning.
"I will say this: Government should not be in the business of discriminating," Riley said.
Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove is the other House Republican to defend the proposal, calling it an issue of "freedom, equality and fundamental fairness."
"Those are conservative concepts to me," Sandack said. "People ought to be treated similarly, families are changing and I think this bill promotes families."
Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady also said supporting gay marriage was a solid, conservative stance when he promoted it in January. It was an announcement that nearly cost him his job, before the conservatives trying to oust him backed off.