Ed Mullen, Democratic candidate for Illinois State Assembly District 11, got a bit of good news this weekend. He found out that the Victory Fund will officially endorse him in his primary. This is good news for his home town of Chicago, good news for Illinois, and good news for marriage equality nationwide.
The openly gay civil rights lawyer who attended law-school in Washington D.C., Ed Mullen is competing for the open seat against Dan Farley and Ann Williams in the February 2 primaries in this fairly gay and overwhelmingly progressive Democratic district that includes Chicago's 'other' gayborhood, Andersonville, and 'hugs' the famous "Boystown" neighborhood on its north and west sides. Mullen is hoping to join the Northwest side's Deb Mel (40th District incumbent being challenged by openly gay man Joe Laiacona) and tried and true Greg Harris (14th District) as the third openly gay lawmaker in the Assembly.
When I spoke with Mullen about two weeks ago, he was still waiting for that Victory Fund endorsement. The endorsement by the Victory Fund is a powerful statement, because the fund does not just endorse openly gay candidates, but openly gay candidates with the chops for leadership, and the experience to support their success in their office.
Ed Mullen, a 20+ year veteran LGBT activist, was, no doubt, over-qualified for his endorsement, as a civil rights lawyer who says in his practice he "fights bad policies from Springfield that don't serve the people they're intended to serve." He is a fervent proponent of education and health-care reform. Ed told me over the phone that besides supporting the existing reproductive health and comprehensive sex-education bills already introduced in Springfield, he is looking to pass legislation in Springfield that will green the state, generate jobs, and help innovation; but first he wants to tackle corruption reform in a State House known from sea to shining sea for its dubious elected officials.
Race against the Machine
"The system," says Mullen, "is inefficient and wastes a lot of taxpayers money. It enriches a few well connected politicos. The system makes no sense for people except the people making money from waste in Springfield. People needing help can't get it because of laws and services that are designed so poorly."
"My first priority in Springfield," Ed began when I asked, "will be to introduce a political reform bill dealing with procurement and enforcement [for elections] and amend October's campaign finance bill." As his site says, he believes "Illinois must enact strong political reform measures to end the culture of corruption." Mullen is pushing for campaign contribution limits, transparency in government procurement, public financing of judicial elections, and stronger enforcement mechanisms.
All of this is very important to note in this election. The 11th district was once represented by its most infamous current resident, disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich. If elected, Mullen is looking to be the opposite of what Blagojevich was; and as a civil rights lawyer, he's likely to be a much different kind of representative. His social justice and progressive chops don't run shallow like most campaign rhetoric.
He left private practice where he was a partner in the firm to work for a non-profit representing the rights of the disabled. Before this openly gay lawyer went, though, he had already put in thousands of hours of pro bono work for his firm representing "a high school student facing sexual orientation discrimination, a woman who sought to adopt her niece because the child's mother had abandoned her, and a non-profit website operator who was sued for unauthorized postings made on his site, among others."
"With an 80 billion dollar unfunded pension liability and huge deficit, people realize we can't support the way things have been running before," Ed says when talking about changing the economy for the better by promoting a tech economy over the old economy dominated by players like coal mines.
Social justice and environmental activism often go hand-in-hand, as Mullen's platform typifies. Thanks to a strong background with technology companies and 'new-economy' sort of businesses during his life in San Francisco, Mullen is planning to introduce "legislation that would heighten energy efficiency requirements--this is going to be good for environment, and forces innovation, generating jobs." Mullen sees this as lifting up small businesses and entrepreneurs, rather than old economy players like coal-mining.
Mullen is a big advocate for Illinois HIV/AIDS prevention programs and youth homelessness programs and is worried the current economic state will put those programs in jeopardy, something he plans to work to fix if elected. Green jobs seems to be a theme with this year's openly gay candidates, as does another prize--the now nearly decade struggle to pass our relationship recognition bills in Springfield.
Pulling out a victory for the LGBT
"In a legislature of 167 people, we have 2 out gays, both new. There is no history of electing openly gay people in Illinois. This is a big state, large and active gay community. Now, we have a lot of openly-gay people running this year. My hope is that they wind up being elected. We're behind in terms of demographics of our state in openly gay elected officials--the [Capitol ought to reflect our] numbers."
This past session, Representative Greg Harris pushed hard on his civil unions bill, getting it to a third reading before the lawmakers went on holiday. In the Senate, however, both the civil unions and marriage bills collected dust as the Senators ignored the Assembly's momentum on the bill. If fact, the marriage bill was only introduced for the first time in the Senate this year after Heather Steans' opponent, openly-gay former Executive Director of Equality Illinois, Jim Madigan, announced he was entering the race for her Senate district that covers much of the same ground Ed Mullen's assembly district does - with many gay or at least very progressive constituents.
What all of the openly gay candidates in this election made clear is that for these bills to gain any traction for passing, they need passionate backers, and--what a decade of waiting has shown the Illinois LGBTQ community--they frankly need some out gay lawmakers to ensure they don't get shelved again by the well-intentioned straight allies who support them but forget them. Mullen--who himself has been with his partner for over seven years--takes this seriously.
Why a marriage victory in Illinois would matter
Because Illinois is such a traditionally progressive state with a large LGBT population and relatively pro-LGBT laws as compared to the rest of the country, it stands the most chance of any other midwestern state after Iowa to become the next bastion of marriage equality. However, because of the ballot qualification process in Illinois, and the need to win with 61% of the vote on a referendum, rather than just 51%, if marriage equality is passed by the legislature the law will be more difficult to strike down at the polls than in most states, possibly securing a stronger repeal-proof victory.
But before Ed Mullen can defend all couples rights to relationship recognition in Springfield, he must get there. His current opponents have many friends in high places in this old Chicago machine. One is a career pharmaceuticals lobbyist (someone really ought to ask her about health care in the debate) and the other comes from an old-style Chicago political family - his father served as state Senator and, as is becoming more and more common in Illinois, served time after 'serving' the public. Now, old family friends in the political establishment are coming out to support Ed's opponent. However, if Ed pulls out a win, the battle to win relationship recognition in Illinois will be much closer to fruition.