Mayor Richard M. Daley publicly endorsed same-sex unions this week, saying he had "no problem" with Cook County issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, because they "love one another just as much as anyone else."
Daley -- a Roman Catholic who has taken a liberal stand on other social issues -- declined to say if the country's third-largest city would follow the cue of San Francisco, where thousands of marriage certificates have been issued to same-sex couples in the last week.
The national debate over gay and lesbian unions intensified after the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts clarified its stand on same-sex unions. On Feb. 4, the court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to marry, beginning May 17.
Daley pointed out that he disagreed with those who contended that legalizing such partnerships would undermine the institution of marriage.
"Marriage has been undermined by divorce, so don't tell me about marriage," said Daley, who discussed the matter during a routine question-and-answer session with local media late Wednesday.
"Don't blame the gay and lesbian, transgender and transsexual community."
On Thursday, Daley said in a statement that his support of same-sex marriages was his personal opinion and "does not represent any official city position."
In Chicago and most other cities across the country, the authority to issue marriage certificates rests with the county. In San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, Mayor Gavin Newsom had staff alter marriage-license forms to remove the references to gender and begin issuing them to same-sex couples. Although critics say the city is violating state law, Newsom says that banning such marriages is a violation of California's constitutional protections against discrimination.
In Illinois, Cook County officials said Thursday that although there had been some discussion on the matter, state law prohibited the clerk's office from giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Since Oct. 1, however, gays and lesbians have been able to get a certificate of domestic partnership from the clerk's office. They cost $30, the same fee as a marriage certificate.
"I am deeply troubled that discrimination based on sexual orientation persists today," said Cook County Clerk David Orr. "Presently, my office is working with local, state and federal lawmakers, as well as advocacy groups, in discussing how best to address this issue."
President Bush, who has talked about being "troubled" by the San Francisco weddings, said the rites could influence whether he supported a proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.
The federal government and 40 states -- including Illinois -- have laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In addition, 20 states are working on constitutional amendments to ban gay and lesbian marriages and civil unions, or legislation that would prevent them from recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions performed elsewhere.
Two years ago, Vermont legalized civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage, the only state to do so.
Although mayors from Salt Lake City to Seattle praise the idea of gay rights, few are keen to support same-sex weddings.
One of the exceptions is Daniel Stewart, the openly gay Republican mayor of Plattsburgh, N.Y., who has dismissed the brouhaha over same-sex marriages.
"I've never heard of anyone's life being ruined by someone getting married," Stewart said. "What does it matter?"
Jimmy Weekley, mayor of Key West, Fla., has officiated at several same-sex commitment ceremonies and he notes that the city has an ordinance legalizing domestic partnerships.
Although these partnerships have some legal benefits and similarities to marriage, they bring fewer benefits than marriage affords, said Jay Gewin, a spokesman for Weekley.
For some, city services are easier to deal with than the debate over same-sex marriage.
"We are really more focused on things like water and garbage collection," said Scott Phelps, spokesman for Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
Daley's same-sex marriage comments follow his long-standing support of Chicago's homosexual community -- a growing and increasingly influential voter bloc in the city's north-side neighborhoods.
Political strategists say the connection became strong while Daley served as Cook County state's attorney in the 1980s and took a tough stand against hate crimes.
In 1989, Daley led the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade, the first Chicago mayor to participate in the annual event.
He appointed Thomas Tunney to fill a vacant alderman seat in 2002, making Tunney Chicago's first openly gay City Council member. And Daley was influential when Cook County commissioners approved a same-sex domestic partnership registry last year.
Exit polls at recent elections showed that 7% of the voters in Cook County were gay, said Rick Garcia, political director of Equality Illinois, a statewide gay-rights lobbying group.
Garcia points to the closely fought gubernatorial race in 1998 to illustrate the group's growing impact on politics. George Ryan, a Republican, made a point of courting the gay and lesbian vote. He held fundraisers with gay community leaders and backed a gay-rights ad campaign in a local newspaper.
His Democratic opponent, then-U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard, did not.
Ryan won the election with 51% of the vote.
"Politically, having Mayor Daley come out and say what he did is very important," said Patricia Logue, senior counsel for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in Chicago, a gay-rights organization.
"Daley is a very powerful person in this town," Logue said. "When he says something, it makes an impact -- and for us, this was a very good show of genuine support."
Illinois political strategists say that, among all the issues that will arise this election year, same-sex marriage will be high on the list. So too will be a push to amend the Illinois Human Rights Act to outlaw discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender individuals.
"In a way, this is old Chicago politics with a new voting bloc," said Paul Green, director of Roosevelt University's School of Public Policy Studies in Chicago.
"This is good politics makes good social policy, and good social policy makes good politics."
Times researchers Lynn Marshall and Anna Virtue contributed to this report.