Calling their hometown a "Second City in human rights," the mayor of Minneapolis told Chicago gays and lesbians during a visit Thursday that they should consider holding their marriages in his city rather than continue waiting for Illinois to legalize them.
Appearing in a predominantly gay Chicago neighborhood, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he plans to capitalize on what he sees as a competitive advantage over most other Midwestern states when it comes to gay marriages. Minnesota recently legalized gay weddings, but the Illinois legislature adjourned its last session without a final vote.
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It's Rybak's own twist on a common practice among politicians trying to lure away companies with tax breaks and other promises, and he says he makes no apology for the pitch.
"Have you met Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel?" he joked when asked about the famously competitive Chicago mayor. "He would do it to me every day of the week."
Rybak stressed he wants Illinois to pass such a law. But in a news conference in which he mixed jokes with a serious message, he said that the longer that state takes to legalize gay marriage, the more money that will flow out of Illinois and into Minnesota and all of its hotels, caterers, florists, bakers and others that make money off weddings.
"If I was the mayor of not only Chicago but any city in Illinois I would be really frightened," he said. "Chicago and all of Illinois stand to lose all of those tourism dollars from people who have a choice."
Both Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn, both of whom support legalizing gay marriage, also pointed out the potential for lost tourism dollars when reacting to news that Rybak was coming.
Rybak said he hoped that same-sex couples would be swayed by his reminder that Minnesota is so close -- six hours by car and a fraction of that by jet. His campaign aims to cut into the number of gay and lesbian couples that are traveling to Iowa to get married by convincing at least some of them to "turn left at Wisconsin" and come to Minneapolis.
"You can hop on a plane this afternoon, go to Minneapolis and get married and come home tonight and be eligible for veterans benefits and all those other (federal) benefits," he said, explaining that married couples are eligible for hundreds of federal benefits that are not available to couples in civil unions.
He said Iowa illustrates that there is a big business waiting to be tapped. Even with politicians doing little to advertise that same-sex marriages are legal in Iowa, there have been nearly 6,000 same-sex marriages there between 2009 and 2012, according to state statistics. And the state that the third-most couples come from, following only Iowa itself and Missouri? Illinois, with 544 of its same-sex couples crossing the border to marry there. Well over 300 couples made the trip from Minnesota, too.
That has translated into big business in Iowa.
"We have now built an industry that now has an annual income of $11 million last year," said Beau Fodor, a Des Moines wedding planner who focuses on same-sex weddings, adding that a gay wedding website he started now has more than 80 vendors on it.
He said he thinks the business will not dry up now that Minnesota is making its push, explaining that a $30,000 Iowa wedding would cost $50,000 in Minneapolis.
Rybak is taking his pitch to Colorado and Wisconsin -- two states where same-sex marriage is not legal -- in the next couple of weeks. But starting in Chicago was no accident. Rybak explained by pulling a quote that has long been attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton, who is said to have explained he robbed banks because "that's where the money is."
And it is serious money. Rybak said that the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA's law school, concluded that half the state's approximate 23,000 same-sex couples would marry within three years of the state's legalizing gay marriage and pump more than $100 million into the state and local economy.
"Why don't you (Illinois) give Minnesota the first $11 million off that and then you take the next $100 million when you figure this thing out," he said.
Chicago gay residents at the center where Rybak appeared expressed optimism that with that kind of money on the line, eventually Illinois will be forced to legalize gay marriage.
"I think the only thing that's going to make it happen is money and when the state sees how much revenue this is bringing to (Minnesota) it is going to get something done,' said Neal Greenwood, 63.
At the same time, a number of gays and lesbians said that while they still hoped to marry in Illinois the clock is ticking.
"If nothing happens here, I would absolutely do it, go out of state to get married," said Dan O'Donnell, 68, a retired teacher.