As a state senator, Ron Sandack voted against civil unions. As a state representative, he was the first member of his caucus to come out in favor of the Religious Freedom and Marital Fairness Act. The Downers Grove Republican talks to Ward Room about his change of heart.
Q: Time magazine is saying it's never seen an issue on which public opinion has changed so quickly as gay marriage. What led to your decision to vote for this bill and why do you think public opinion is changing so swiftly?
A: I think the public is ahead of the politicians. I think this issue is being driven by the public, and I think we're seeing a huge sea-change in attitude. The public momentum has made me re-visit, re-examine and look anew at my views on this. I represent a district, so it's not just what I think, it's what my district thinks, so I spent a lot of time polling, talking to constituents, getting their input. People see this as an issue of freedom and fundamental fairness and equality. That's why I'm voting for the bill.
Q: Did you spend a lot of time talking to constituents before you wrote the letter?
A: You bet.
Q: What were they saying?
A: Exactly what you're seeing on the national level. I represent a suburban DuPage district. These are families of different economic status. They run the spectrum on vocations, but these are people who see government in a different vein than folks in Chicago or in Central or Southern Illinois. The folks I talked to frankly didn't care. They saw this as something that didn't move them one way or the other, but didn't think government had a significant role.
Q: How does this fit into your conservative principles?
A: I see this bill as strengthening families. We're not in the Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best era anymore. We're in the Modern Family era. Families look different, but families are important, and conservative core values are, families matter. Republicans, we talk about equality under the law, we talk about fairness. These run right along those core principles. Freedom, liberty, these are core conservative concepts, these are American values. Marriage is about responsibilty and commitment. Those are conservative values. If two loving people want to commit to a lifetime together, that's a good thing.
Q: Being the first Republican to come out in favor of this, did you inform members of your caucus beforehand?
A: I did, quietly. Here's the dynamic that many people didn't know: Rep. Sullivan annouced yesterday and got great fanfare. He's in leadership. I'm not. I'm a rank and file guy. I knew there were some members of my caucus that were still thinking about this very seriously, so I've been trying to be respectful of their process. Some are very upset me, some don't care. There's going to be people who vote no on this bill, on both sides of the aisle, that really hope it passes.
Q: Why do they hope it passes?
A: In the court of public opinion, this debate is settled. It's just cementing further. So some folks think that they can't vote for it because of their district, but they know it's going to happen, one way or another, sooner or later.
Q: It still seems to be a divisive issue in the Republican caucus, just looking at Jim Oberweis trying to dump Pat Brady as party chair.
A: I felt that if they removed Pat Brady because of his personal stance on marriage equality, it was putting an exclamation point that we didn't want hung around out necks as Republicans with this vote. To me, there's an easy answer. I tell people, "If you're against gay marriage, don't enter into a gay marriage." Not one same-sex marriage is going to threaten my marriage or anyone else's marriage. I keep telling people, until I'm blue in the face, "There has always been a difference between civil, secular marriage and holy matrimony. There's some strong religious freedom language in the bill. A Jewish couple can't walk into a Roman Catholic church and tell the priest, "Marry me," anymore than two Catholics want into a synagogue and tell the rabbi, "Marry me." These religious organizations have the God-given and constitutional right to discriminate on articles of faith. The state cannot. That's the difference between civil marriage and religious marriage ceremonies.
Q: To ask a political question, do you want to get this issue off table before the next election? Will it hurt the Republican Party to have an anti-gay marriage candidate for governor?
A: You're going to have to ask the candidates. I'm not going to speak for anyone other than me.
Q: You talk about the Republican brand. Would it hurt the party for that to still be part of its brand in Illinois?
A: The Republican brand needs a lot of work. Leaders like Mark Kirk and Tom Cross are trying to re-establish the brand as being about freedom, equality and trying to have prosperity and liberty and opportunity for people and families to get ahead and have less government intrusion in their lives, and I think that Big Tent-esque, I hope to play a small part in trying to get back to those really important principles on which we can lead.
Q: The Illinois Review called you a flip-flopper on this issue. Were you in the Senate for the civil unions vote?
A: I was.
Q: And how did you vote on that?
A: I voted no, for a very specific reason. At that time, that was gay marriage without the word marriage being used, and my district wasn't ready. It's a very different district than I have now. So yeah, I've changed positions, but so have a lot of people on this issue. I plead guilty to having once thought that this was not about equality, it wasn't about personal choice and freedom, but like a lot of people, I changed my mind.