My Brief Foray into Capitalism

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It was February 20, 2002, my first time in the state Capitol building. I was accompanying the 85% Coalition members, who were planning to sit in the gallery during Governor George Ryan’s State of the Budget address. Since recent legislation had made it illegal to carry signs or wear buttons in the Capitol, they were all wearing T-shirts bearing slogans promoting House Bill 101. HB101 would amend the Illinois Human Rights Act, which currently protects Illinois citizens against discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, marital status, and military status, to include sexual orientation.
I got my first taste of how things operate in the Capitol as I waited in line to sign in and go through the metal detectors with the rest of the Capitol visitors. As we waited patiently to get past the security checkpoint, well-groomed lobbyists flew past the preoccupied guards while flashing their laminated “Registered Lobbyist” passes, barely slowing their rapid stride to be bothered with the inconvenience.
Once past the guards, I strolled through the main corridor of the historic building. Bronze busts of famous Illinois politicians, oil paintings of prairie scenes, and booth after booth of lobbyist groups lined the majestic, high-ceilinged hall. It is now illegal for ordinary citizens or unlicensed groups to hand out any literature within the Capitol building, but the lobbyistsĂ­ booths were stacked high with pamphlets, brochures, and fact sheets touting the great advantages associated with things like tow truck unions and chemicals. I even got a beer holder from the Beer Distributors’ Association.
We weren’t there as casual tourists, though. The 85% Coalition was there to raise awareness for its cause, and I was there to cover the story. The last time they were in Springfield, Coalition members had been thrown into a paddy wagon for singing in the Capitol and charged with disturbing the peace and trespassing, so I didn’t know what to expect. The place was packed, but Meg, the trip’s group leader, had called the House Clerk’s office the day before to make sure that we would be able to sit in the gallery during the Governor’s speech. The clerk’s office assured her that if we got there early there would be public seating.
But the officers at the gallery entrance had a different story for us. There was absolutely no public seating, they said. The only way to get in was to have special passes that could be obtained only from certain legislators, and all those had been gone for quite some time. Thus began a frustrating and quixotic attempt to gain entrance into the General Assembly.
Since I was there as a member of the press, I figured that I might be able to use the First Amendment to my advantage. I first went to the House Clerk’s office, where I was told that I needed to go to the House Majority Leader’s office, because that was the office in charge of distributing press passes. That office in turn sent me to the press room, because they didn’t have any available passes. After some serious haggling about my credentials, the press room gave me a 2002 Capitol press pass, good for entrance to the balcony, where the rest of the press was gathered to cover the event.
Unfortunately, the balcony guards informed me that my pass was not valid, because everyone was required to have a special press pass good only for covering the State of the Budget address. When I angrily took my worthless press pass back to the press room and demanded to know how I could obtain the “special” pass, the person in charge of giving out the press passes told me that he had never heard of such a pass. “What office do you work for?” I inquired. His reply? “The House Clerk’s office.”
Despite all the official stonewalling, the 85% Coalition was determined to spread its message. Members stood in the rotunda outside the large doors leading to the General Assembly as news crews gathered, awaiting the grand entrance of the Governor. I noticed that Capitol police stood around unconcerned while a group of young churchgoers, definitely not Registered Lobbyists, actively distributed leaflets promoting their cause one of the activities that the homosexual rights group had been informed was strictly forbidden!
I was wondering who decides which laws get enforced and which laws get ignored in this building (wearing pins or buttons is illegal, but that rule didn’t seem to apply to American flags; I speculated what would happen to a person wearing an Afghan flag), when the crowd began rumbling. The shiny, gold elevator doors parted, and out stepped the Governor. Cameras flashed, and the crowd parted to make way for him on his way through the rotunda to his podium on the other side of the huge wooden doors. Then a funny thing happened.
Governor Ryan walked past the demonstrators, all lined up against the railing sporting their matching “Discrimination NO House Bill 101 YES” T-shirts, and stopped. He turned around, walked directly up to one beaming protester, and shook his hand. The news cameras rolled as the Governor of Illinois offered a few words of encouragement to a young, gay man, and then continued on his way.
Goal: exposure. Mission accomplished.

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