Backing same-sex marriage


Decision: The San Francisco mayor's unexpected stand could curtail a promising career.

March 08, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO - Inside City Hall, in the Rotunda where thousands of gay couples have been married in joyous celebrations over the past three weeks, the mayor is referred to with reverence as "St. Gavin." Cards are slipped under his door, and thousands of flowers arrive at his office.

But outside City Hall, Mayor Gavin Newsom is condemned as a criminal, and the couples getting married are denounced as sinners by protesters carrying signs that read, "Homosexuality is Sin! Christ can set you free!"

Newsom - a straight, Irish Catholic moderate who married a former lingerie model - is an unlikely champion of same-sex marriage. But after hearing President Bush denounce same-sex marriage in his State of the Union address, Newsom ordered city officials to wed gay and lesbian couples.

In doing so, the 36-year-old mayor has alienated fellow Democrats running for office this year, threatened his chances of being elected to any job outside San Francisco and received boxes of hate mail. He doesn't seem to mind.

"Life is bigger than politics," Newsom says in an interview. "Principles matter and policies matter and ideas matter, and they're much bigger than me, and that's what I'm advocating."

San Francisco's experiment in civil disobedience - more than 3,500 same-sex couples have married since Feb. 12 - could end this week, when the California Supreme Court is expected to respond to a state petition to stop the marriages. Two lower court judges refused to issue immediate injunctions, forcing the state attorney general to ask the high court to step in.

But even if gay and lesbian weddings end soon in San Francisco, Newsom has made a name for himself. His office gets more than 100 interview requests a day. His approval rating in the city has surged to 69 percent. And he has spurred officials from New York to Oregon to follow his lead.

"This is a hugely popular decision in San Francisco, but once you cross over the Bay Bridge, the whole world changes," says Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant who was the communications director for Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. Schnur says Newsom has taken himself off the fast track.

"Even if the rest of the state eventually adopts the same attitude toward same-sex marriage that San Franciscans now hold, he's still going to have to explain a conscious decision to break the law," Schnur said.

Newsom, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who made his fortune in the wine business, says his decision is based on his sworn duty as an elected official to uphold the California Constitution. He says that the equality guaranteed in that document takes precedence over a state law, approved by voters in 2000, that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

"You've got to take charge and stand on principle, or get out of the way," Newsom says. "I got into this office to make a difference, not make excuses, and that's something I think we're doing on this subject."

It is not what anyone expected of him. Newsom was labeled the conservative in last fall's San Francisco mayoral race. With a campaign based on improving the local economy and combating the city's scourge of homelessness, Newsom eked out a victory over his Green Party opponent.

That opponent, Matt Gonzalez, was the favorite of the city's progressives and liberals, who liked his proposals to raise the minimum wage, lower mass transit fares and battle big development. Newsom could not have won, analysts say, without the backing of Republicans.

But once he took office, on Jan. 8, Newsom tacked to the left. He appointed women to the posts of police chief and fire chief, and an African-American lesbian to the school board. He warned businesses a tax increase may be in the offing, and he showed up at murder scenes to highlight the Police Department's poor record in solving crimes.

Newsom was seen as a rising star in California politics - a socially moderate Democrat whose youth and energy had broad appeal. He has movie-star good looks, teeth that belong in a Colgate commercial and a glamorous wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, who is now a legal analyst for CNN.

Now the mayor stands in the center of a political firestorm. President Bush singled out San Francisco - and Newsom's actions - when announcing his support last month for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Newsom quickly went before the TV cameras and said the president ought to be ashamed of himself.

"Everybody should be foursquare against using the Constitution of the United States, which lays out our rights, in an effort to advance a political career," Newsom says in an interview at the downtown Marriott hotel here. "We should all be against that and what President Bush is doing. It is demeaning to literally tens of millions of people and demeaning to the core principles and values of this country."

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