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When Politics
Becomes Personal

When Politics
Becomes Personal


The Republican mayor of San Diego upset the party line when he came out in support of same-sex marriage last year. Now Jerry Sanders is ruffling feathers again by fighting to beat Proposition 8.

A quiet man who mows his own lawn on Sundays while chatting with neighbors on the sidewalk, 58-year-old Jerry Sanders seems more like a small-town conservative than a gay rights pioneer at the helm of the nation's eighth-largest city. But his dramatic change of position on gay marriage last year was enough to throw the down-to-earth mayor of San Diego into the national spotlight. Suddenly religious leaders and his fellow Republicans were denouncing him while gay rights activists hailed him as a hero. And with a fight to preserve marriage equality looming in California on November 4, Sanders has stepped up again to prove that Republicans can make the most powerful allies.

The turnabout began in September 2007 at Sanders's home, where he was hosting a meeting for a large group of the city's gay leaders. A former police chief who has long advocated for gays in the city, Sanders wanted to explain the politics that necessitated his veto of a city council resolution in support p of same-sex marriage. Their reaction, he says, was cathartic.

"They were in a lot of pain," Sanders says, recalling stories he heard about his guests' relationships and their families. "I just decided I couldn't veto the resolution. It wasn't what I felt. I decided that being mayor wasn't the most important thing in my life."

The next day-one day before kicking off his bid for reelection-Sanders choked back tears in front of a cluster of news cameras. His concern for the gay and lesbian people in his life-including his lesbian daughter, Lisa-had caused him to change his mind on marriage equality, he told the media.

"A lot of friends have told me that they showed their families the video of that day and it just [floored them]," Lisa says, adding that she is "unbelievably proud" of her father. "I think everyone can relate to loving your child and wanting them to be happy. It really speaks to people. In the end I think it actually helped him win reelection in June."

"When you look at a constitution you can read anything into it," Sanders says from his 11th-floor office in the heart of downtown San Diego. "But when you look in the face of a family member, it's very different."

Indeed, when Sanders looked his daughter in the eyes he decided he would rather risk his political career than deny her the happiness he's enjoyed with his wife of 15 years, Rana Sampson. (Lisa, 25, has been with her girlfriend, Meaghan, for more than two years; they have no immediate plans to get married.) Now he's bringing that same personal conviction to the fight against Proposition 8, which if passed on November 4 would amend California's constitution to eliminate marriage equality in the state just a few months after the state supreme court put it in place.

While the California Republican Party has taken an official "Yes on 8" position, that decision has only fired up Sanders and his daughter to attend fund-raisers and speak out against the marriage ban whenever they can. "I don't think the party has come around that much [on same-sex marriage]," Sanders says. "But I do think many Republicans are pro-same-sex marriage because they have gay family members or friends that they love and respect."

Dale Kelly Bankhead, the statewide campaign manager for No on 8, agrees. She says people like Sanders are key to defeating the proposition. "It reflects an important element of this campaign," she says. "This is not a nameless policy discussion. This is about neighbors, family, friends, and coworkers."

Sanders's stance marks amazing progress in San Diego politics from just eight years ago, says George Biagi, deputy director of the city clerk's office, who once worked for Sanders. In 2000 mayoral candidate Dick Murphy won the election after zealously supporting the antigay Knight Initiative, which defined marriage in California law-although not in the constitution-as a union between a man and a woman. It passed by a large margin.

"Once again the issue made its way into the mayor's race," Biagi says, "but this time the mayor was [and still is] on the other side of the issue."

And this time so are the voters, says Sanders, whose modest home in San Diego's Kensington neighborhood now sports a "No on 8" placard in the front yard. Polls show majority opposition to the marriage ban, while volunteers with the No on 8 campaign report an even split among Republicans. "A tremendous number of Republicans are going to vote no on 8 because they've got family members [who are gay]," he says. "I just think we're at that point where people are valuing family more than they're valuing party politics."

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John Caldwell