CHICAGO — — After weeks of focusing on Illinois' mammoth financial problems, the governor's race turned to the issue of same-sex marriage Monday as gay couples took vows under the state's new law.
Gov. Pat Quinn attended one wedding ceremony at a Chicago museum while advocates accused his Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner, of being against efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. The law officially took effect Sunday, but only a few county clerks' offices opened to issue paperwork, leaving Monday as the law's widespread rollout.
"The whole process of our Democracy is to make sure that rights are available to all. This is a great civil rights measure," Quinn said. "I didn't need a referendum to tell me what was the right thing to do."
It was a dig at Rauner, who hasn't detailed his views on gay marriage aside from saying it should have been put to the public. The Winnetka businessman who is seeking public office for the first time has said he doesn't have a social issues agenda and never worked to erode gay marriage.
"It's the law. I don't have any agenda to change it," he said after a Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce event. "The only way I'd change it is if it were done in a referendum and the voters said they wanted to change it."
Same-sex marriage hasn't been a big issue on the campaign trail so far. Quinn calls signing the marriage bill one of his top accomplishments; during the GOP primary, candidates were asked about it publicly only a few times. Rauner has said he has gay friends and he'd be happy for them if they chose to marry.
Illinois made several attempts to approve same-sex marriage before lawmakers passed the legislation last year. Some same-sex couples were able to wed early under expedited licenses due to terminal illness, and a federal judge in Cook County said the ban was unconstitutional. But most county clerks waited for the official date.
Advocacy groups, who praised Quinn as a champion of gay rights, blasted Rauner for not laying out his stance.
"The reality is we never quite know where Bruce Rauner stands on this issue or many issues because he's says what's most convenient at the time," Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov said.
The focus on gay marriage was a break from the state budget, which has dominated Illinois politics for weeks. Monday marked Quinn's first public appearance since lawmakers approved a $35.7 billion budget early Saturday, though he declined to discuss it.
The budget doesn't include an extension of Illinois' 2011 income tax. Quinn called for it to prevent a $1.8 billion hole when the tax rolls back in January. Lawmakers anticipate coming back to address revenue after the November election.
Rauner, who plans to unveil his proposed budget soon, reiterated that he believes the Legislature's spending plan is a "phony budget."
Quinn wouldn't address the claim, saying it was a day to focus on love.
He stood at the altar during the wedding of Jim Darby, 82, and Patrick Bova, 76, who've been together for 50 years. The two longtime activists were among the first to receive their civil union in 2011 and lead plaintiffs in a 2012 lawsuit challenging Illinois' marriage ban.
Dressed in suits, the two walked hand-in-hand to a canopied altar adorned with candles in glass sculptures. Among the guests at the ceremony, held at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, were some of Illinois' most prominent gay-rights activists. The museum hosted 14 same-sex weddings Monday.
Darby, a veteran, said he was relieved his partner could qualify for survivor benefits.
"I am a retired school teacher. I have a nice pension. If I kick the bucket, it evaporates because I don't have a spouse. Now I have a spouse. If I kick the bucket, he gets it," Darby joked.
Bova said it was a defining moment.
"It makes you look at things in a slightly different way," he said. "We are really committed to each other, isn't that wonderful?"