November 2, 2010, was a rough night for Kamala Harris. While Democrats swept every statewide executive office in California, the candidate for state attorney general seemed headed for defeat. Harris, then the San Francisco County district attorney, was trailing her opponent, Republican Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, by so many votes that some news outlets (and Cooley himself) called the race for the male politician. After weeks of vote counting — and the surprising news that Harris won more votes in enormous L.A. County than the hometown D.A. — Harris was pronounced the winner and the then-46-year-old's political ascent shifted into hyperdrive.
Harris is now a freshman U.S. senator and one of the front-runners for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Her 2010 squeaker victory not only changed the trajectory of her life, but that of millions of LGB Californians. One of the signature issues Harris campaigned on in 2010 was her opposition to Proposition 8, the infamous voter-approved state constitutional amendment that snatched marriage rights away from California's same-sex couples. Cooley was a proponent of Prop. 8 and promised to defend it against the numerous individuals and equality organizations suing to kill it.
Harris, along with then-incoming governor Jerry Brown, refused to defend the initiative, which was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in August of that year.
“It would be inappropriate for a state on the verge of bankruptcy to use all of those resources to defend a law found to be unconstitutional,” Harris told The Advocate in September 2010.
Even with Harris and Brown (and Arnold Schwarzenegger before him) refusing to stand by Prop. 8, marriage equality opponents were undeterred. The individuals behind ProtectMarriage.com — the group that placed Prop. 8 on the 2008 ballot — appealed Walker's decision to the Ninth Circuit, which upheld his ruling. Then the antigay group tried to get that appeal looked at by a larger group of Ninth Circuit judges, but that was denied. Next up was the Supreme Court.
"What I would love to see is the highest court in the land ultimately make a decision, and the right decision," Harris told The Advocate in June 2012. "That would be to find that Prop. 8 is a violation of equal protection under the Constitution, and to stop denying LGBT people the right to marry."
The Supreme Court decided in late 2012 to take the case, now called Hollingsworth v. Perry. Instead of an attorney general arguing for the voter-approved initiative, a motley crew of homophobes tried to convince the high court that Judge Walker's decision harmed them. The court, in a 5-4 ruling issued in June 2013, disagreed, saying the Prop. 8 proponents lacked standing in the case and should not have been allowed to appeal Walker's decision.
The justices ruled that to have standing, the marriage equality opponents "must have suffered an injury in fact, thus giving [them] a sufficiently concrete interest in the outcome of the issue in dispute."
Would Steve Cooley have convinced the Ninth Circuit that Prop. 8 was constitutional? At the Supreme Court, could Cooley have argued more effectively than antigay zealots that the will of California's voters should be "respected"? Possibly, but that option was not there, thanks to Harris's 2010 nail-biter victory.
Equality California executive director Rick Zbur sees Harris's win as monumental for California's LGBTQ citizens.
"Senator Harris is a tried-and-true ally to the LGBTQ community, and she has been an effective advocate for civil rights and social justice throughout her career," Zbur tells The Advocate. "It's hard to overstate the impact that her 2010 victory had on the fight for marriage equality. If she hadn't won and Steve Cooley had been given a chance to defend Proposition 8 — mooting the issue of standing — there's a very real possibility that the Supreme Court would have overturned Judge Walker's ruling and delayed the freedom to marry for millions of Californians by at least another two years. I think if you were to ask the couples who married in the weeks and months following the Supreme Court's decision, they'd agree that Kamala's principled stand made all the difference."
After the Supreme Court gave the green light for marriages in California, Hollingsworth v. Perry plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier became the state's first same-sex couple to marry after Prop. 8 was tossed. Attorney General Harris officiated the ceremony.