Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was headed Thursday for a predominantly gay neighborhood in Chicago hoping to persuade same-sex couples to come north to his state to get married -- and spend lots of money on weddings while there.
Rybak is launching "Marry Me in Minneapolis," a campaign that aims to take advantage of frustrations among gays that Illinois has not approved a same-sex marriage law. After Chicago, Rybak plans visits to Colorado and Wisconsin, two more states that haven't OK'd same-sex marriage.
Rybak's message is that Chicagoans no longer have to make a long and expensive trip to the coasts to get married, just the six-hour drive to his city. Many Midwestern gay couples have exchanged vows in Iowa -- the only state bordering Illinois that allows same-sex weddings -- but Rybak hopes to bring some of that business home with him.
"I love Chicago and love to come spend money there, but if people there don't get the rights they deserve, I am more than happy to have them come and spend their money in Minneapolis," he said in a telephone interview before the trip.
Rybak figures the campaign, if successful, could help Minneapolis profit on everything from hotel rooms to flowers to caterers. He said he expects the effort to bring in at least tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some Illinois same-sex couples say they are open to the idea, particularly if lawmakers again fail to approve a marriage law soon. Advocates say they fell just a few votes short of getting a proposal passed in the Legislature last spring and hope to push for it again this fall, but its odds are unknown.
"If we can reinforce for our son that we are a family and have something that recognizes that we are a family, we might take the mayor up on his offer," said Aana Vigen, a college professor in Chicago.
The thought of couples and their families hopping in the car and spending their money elsewhere upsets Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who spends considerable time trying to generate revenue for the city.
"Failing to extend marriage to gay and lesbian couples is bad for Chicago, bad for Illinois and bad for our local economy and the jobs it creates," he said in a statement. "Our robust tourism and hospitality industries will thrive most fully when our state hangs out the `welcome' sign for everybody."
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who's overseeing a state grappling with a $100 billion public pension shortfall and billions of dollars in unpaid bills to state service providers, said failure to pass a same-sex marriage law not only "costs people their rights, but also has an economic cost."
If Minneapolis' offer attracts even a fraction of the state's gay couples, it could mean millions of tourism dollars. One study by the Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA's law school, concluded that if Illinois does extend marriage to same-sex couples, half of the state's approximate 23,000 same-sex couples will get married within three years. And that, the study found, would pump more than $100 million into the state and local economy.
The Williams Institute also found that 60 percent of same-sex couples are traveling out of their home states to get married, at least in the three states that track those statistics.
In some instances, the percentages are even higher. Doug Johnstone, the town clerk of Provincetown, Ma., a Cape Cod town popular with gay tourists, said that more than 80 percent of the 362 marriage licenses issued to gays so far this year have been to out-of-state couples.
A push to pass gay marriage through the Illinois Legislature came up short last spring. Supporters have reinforced their campaign to get it approved and vow to bring the issue back as early as this fall.
Rybak said that while this particular welcome mat is being put out for gay couples, the longer Illinois goes without legalizing same-sex weddings, the more Chicago's loss will be Minneapolis' gain.
"You can look to the future and say, Minneapolis and Chicago are competing to attract talent," he said. "Over time if people have rights here that they don't have there, it does have a bottom line impact (because) it impacts where you locate your business."