The Marrying Man

Four years after he pushed same-sex marriage forward in the national debate, Gavin Newsom is waiting for his answer in the California supreme court. So are we.

BY Sue Rochman

May 13 2008 11:00 PM ET

What now?

Newsom seems genuinely surprised when asked whether he believes the California supreme court’s ruling might affect the presidential race. “I’ve been waiting for years for this case,” he says, “but I didn’t think of it in this context. Of course, the issue could come right back to the fore.” But, he says, that only serves to underscore the conundrum he mulled over four years ago: “When is the right time? There never is a right time. Mid-term congressional election? Not the right time -- we have a chance to take back the House. The next presidential election? Not the right time -- we have a chance to possibly win. It’s never the right time. We need to get over these stale arguments. If you believe in something, do it. And do it with conviction. And if you screw up, learn from it, admit your mistakes and failures, and move forward in a more thoughtful way.”

That last sentence hits close to home. In February 2007, New-som’s personal life collided head on with his political agenda. The public learned that his reelection campaign manager, Alex Tourk -- his former deputy chief of staff and the person largely responsible for the plaudits Newsom won for his immensely popular Project Homeless Connect -- resigned after learning that Newsom had had an affair with his wife a year and a half earlier.

Newsom quickly responded, offering a public confession and making all four points of the public-apology cross: I’m sorry, I admit what I did, I have a drinking problem, and I’m going into rehab. But it left many wondering what his personal values really were.

Of course, Newsom has also done much that many constituents admire. At the moment, his approval rating is down to 67%, a 13-point drop from 2006, but still high for any elected official. In the presidential primary he endorsed Hillary Clinton, who won California but not San Francisco. And no one would ever say San Francisco politics is for the weak of heart. As is often noted, only in a city as left as San Francisco could a mayor who championed the rights of gays to marry and holds anti–death penalty, pro–sanctuary city, medical marijuana–supportive, and pro–universal health care positions continue to be viewed as conservative.

Among gay leaders, there appears to be a genuine consensus that the question of marriage equality would not be in the California courts right now, and that polling in the state would not show a dead heat between those for and against the rights of gays to marry, were it not for the political risks Newsom took, the public conversation that ensued, and the educational opportunities that unfolded. There are also few who doubt that gays will continue to hail Newsom as a hero; he has an indelible place in our history. And as someone who truly seems to believe that politicians are supposed to do what they believe in, not just what polls well, it’s a position he’s proud to hold.

The marriages, Newsom says, are “the most glorious reflection I have in my life, outside of personal experiences with family…it has given me courage for everything else that I’ve done, and a sense of purpose beyond the issue. I know what it is to be privileged to be in a position to do something, even if people don’t like it.”

Tags: Politics

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