The Marrying Man
BY Sue Rochman
May 13 2008 11:00 PM ET
San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom rushes into the room across from his office, apologizing for being late. He explains that he’d been walking down Market Street, talking to panhandlers about what it would take to get them off the streets.
Fiery idealism like that has come to define Gavin Newsom. Although he is a bona fide policy wonk, his political passion is what captured the attention of the nation four years ago, when -- less than a month into his first term -- Newsom decided to permit same-sex couples to marry in San Francisco. As we sit down today, the political fallout from that decision continues.
Pundits are still arguing over whether San Francisco’s gay marriages helped tilt the 2004 presidential race to George W. Bush. And Newsom certainly rankled Democratic elected officials by moving forward on an issue that most preferred to avoid. But without the challenge Newsom threw down then, the California supreme court would almost certainly not be preparing a decision on marriage equality now. (The city of San Francisco remains one of the plaintiffs in the case.) Whatever happens, Newsom knows he has become a brand name. “I’m the gay marriage mayor,” he says. “I’m an icon of myself.”
Gavin Newsom was a city supervisor when he decided in 2003 to run for mayor. He ended up in a tight runoff race against Green Party candidate and board of supervisors president Matt Gonzalez. (In February independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader tapped Gonzalez to be his running mate.) Newsom was widely perceived as the “establishment” candidate, backed by San Francisco old money, high society, and family friends like the überwealthy Gordon Getty. Gonzalez was the “agent of change,” the radical, union-endorsed, hipster lawyer who still slept on a futon.
When Newsom won, many progressives considered it a sign that San Francisco had moved far from its radical past. Nobody would have predicted that, virtually overnight, the privileged boy wonder would throw both caution and his political career to the wind in order to take a stand for marriage equality.
Newsom’s election had given him rising-star status in the Democratic Party. Rumors swirled that he was being groomed for higher office. As he was feted in Washington, D.C., he seemed poised to follow in the steps of the Kennedys he has long revered. All these aspirations fell by the wayside when the newly elected mayor attended President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address and heard Bush speak of the need to “defend the sanctity of marriage… as a union of a man and a woman” and to protect the country from “activist judges” intent on redefining this sacred institution.
Newsom returned to San Francisco with a directive for his staff: Start exploring what the city needed to do to let same-sex couples marry -- now.
Some detractors saw Newsom’s decision to allow gays and lesbians to marry as a political ploy, a calculated risk taken both to woo San Francisco leftists and to propel the mayor into the national spotlight. In eight years, the theory went, gay marriage would be established, and he’d be the hero who helped to pave the way. Newsom scoffs at this notion, pointing out that even his advisers were split on whether it was the right time to make such a move.
Joyce Newstat, a lesbian who served as Newsom’s policy director at the time, recalls those conversations well. She says it’s true that his staff didn’t initially agree, but, she adds, “the debate we had was a healthy one. We knew that there were people in the gay community who didn’t think it was the right time, while there were others who said we shouldn’t do it because it might hurt John Kerry or the larger gay community, or have an impact on Massachusetts, where they had just begun addressing the issue.”
Newsom’s inner circle was also worried about how his actions would impact his career. “They told me, ‘This is the end of your political life. This is crazy,’ ” he recalls. “Everyone was feeling good, a tough election was behind us, and now I was going to screw it up.” Newsom admits that he worried. But, he says, “the ultimate assessment was: So what? We talk about principles. And if you can’t stand for what you believe in, what’s the point?”