The Marrying Man

By Sue Rochman

Originally published on Advocate.com 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?”

Winter of Love

The marriages began on the morning of February 12, 2004, with lesbian icons Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon taking their vows. Within hours the news had spread citywide: Get to City Hall. The media flocked. So did the couples. In the rain, into the night, there they were: couples waiting in line for their turn to marry. The opposition filed lawsuits. In quick succession two superior court judges ruled that the marriages could continue. The couples kept coming. It went on for 29 days. Then at 2:33 p.m. on March 11 it all came to a crushing end when the California supreme court ordered the city to immediately stop marrying same-sex couples while it decided whether the city had the authority to disregard state marriage laws. Couples who had expected to leave City Hall happily married instead left in tears.

In retrospect, says Newsom, “No one could have predicted how big it would become.” It was never envisioned, he continues, “that we’d marry 4,000 couples. What we thought is that we’d marry Phyllis and Del and force people to deal with marriage equality in the face of their 50-year relationship. We wanted to stick it to them, so to speak, to force them to look these two human beings with an incredible history in the face and say, ‘No, you’re not good enough, you’re not the same.’ And then we kept going.”

As the gay marriage bells rang in San Francisco, the right wing had a field day, and Newsom fell from rising star to political pariah. “It wasn’t just the other side that reacted negatively,” he says. “It was people who privately had no problem with it who were furious.… Some of the people I admire the most in this country just ran the other way and didn’t want anything to do with me. I was toxic.” Newsom is quick to add, “It was politics. That’s all. I get it.” But it’s clear it stung then, and still does.

How could it not? When Bush won reelection in 2004, the pundits were quick to say that the marriage licenses issued to gay men and lesbians in San Francisco; Multnomah Country, Ore.; Massachusetts; and elsewhere had swayed the election. That turned out to be a myth, argues Evan Wolfson, the founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry: “Research has shown that it actually didn’t have an effect.” But what it did stir up, he adds, was “a White House and a Republican Party mechanism with an antigay industry to consciously stoke this and to try to divide and polarize gay people and marriage.”

In August 2004 the supreme court nullified the marriages, ruling that Newsom did not have the authority to defy state law. A case involving the constitutionality of the law then wove its way though the courts, resulting in the oral arguments heard in the supreme court March 4. A couple of scenarios could result, legal experts say. The court could rule that the current law, which states that marriage can only be a union between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional. If that happens, says Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, the court could either declare that gays can now marry, or tell the legislature to find a way to implement its ruling, as the Massachusetts supreme judicial court did in 2003. Alternatively, the court could tell the legislature that California’s same-sex domestic partnerships must offer the exact same benefits as marriage, creating a scenario like the one that led the New Jersey legislature to pass its civil union law in 2006. Or, of course, the court could rule that the law is constitutional and that California will only allow marriages between a man and a woman.

As California’s gay advocacy groups await the court ruling, right-wing groups are attempting to place an initiative on the November ballot asking voters to approve a state constitutional amendment prohibiting marriages between gay and lesbian couples. By their very nature, constitutional amendments trump a court ruling. So there could be quite a battle ahead if the initiative makes the ballot and the court rules that the current state law is unconstitutional.

How that might affect presidential election campaigns is unclear, explains Ellen Andersen, associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of Out of the Closets and Into the Courts. A California marriage battle could allow the presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain, “who opposes a federal ban but is for [the Defense of Marriage Act], to burnish conservative cred and pick up the position on activist judges.” It could also put Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton “in an interesting place” since “they’ve both said they’re against [same-sex] marriage.”

What is clear is that same-sex marriage ceremonies have moved the once-radical concept of civil unions into the mainstream. Both Clinton and Obama support civil unions, while John McCain has walked a fine line, not overtly stating his support of unions yet acknowledging he would not prevent states from allowing them. Although Newsom says he admires and respects both Clinton and Obama, he takes issue with their position that there is no difference between civil unions and marriage. To him, denying same-sex marriage is discrimination, period. “There is nothing in the Constitution,” he says, “that denies people the right to live out their lives, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”

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.”