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Davis Would Sign Domestic Partners Bill

The legislation would extend most of the legal rights of marriage to gays and lesbians. Critics say the governor is seeking votes.

August 17, 2003|Gregg Jones and Jean Merl | Times Staff Writers

Gov. Gray Davis said Saturday that he would sign a bill giving domestic partners most of the legal rights that married couples have and move California a step closer to granting legal recognition to gay and lesbian unions.

Davis' announcement, while hailed by gay and lesbian community leaders, also resounded in the drive to recall the governor from office, with some Davis opponents charging that he was mainly looking for votes.

Assembly Bill 205 by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) would give domestic partners the same rights as married couples in the acquisition, transferring and sharing of property; health insurance and pension coverage; and collection of government benefits. It also would allow domestic partners to file joint tax returns and claim the same exemptions as married couples.

The measure, which is expected to clear the state Senate and reach the governor's desk in the next few weeks, would significantly expand 2001 legislation that allows gay and lesbian couples to register as domestic partners and share such benefits as health insurance and hospital visitation rights. Goldberg's bill would put California at the forefront of states; only Vermont has such broad recognition of same-sex partnerships, and its policies came through a court order, not legislation.

This is the latest instance this summer in which Davis has broken with past practice of typically not taking positions on major legislation before it reaches his desk. The change has raised questions of whether he was motivated by the hope of saving his job in the Oct. 7 special recall election.

Davis aides said the governor's position on this and other bills -- including his decision to sign a controversial bill that would give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants after vetoing a similar bill last year -- was not aimed at currying favor with voters.

AB 205 "is the top priority of the lesbian and gay caucus of the Legislature," said Steven Maviglio, the governor's press secretary. "With all the frenzy of the recall, the governor thinks it's important to talk about issues that matter to Californians."

Gay and lesbian activists said the governor is no newcomer to their causes, with a strong record that stretches back to his days as Gov. Jerry Brown's chief of staff in the 1970s.

"It's a big step for us.... We're overjoyed," Goldberg said Saturday. She said Davis' staff had worked closely with her office on the bill for the last seven months.

"I give him a lot of credit," she said. "He is very astute, and he knows this is going to energize some of his opponents, but he did it on principle."

Some of those seeking to succeed Davis if he is recalled said the announcement was more about politics.

Sean Walsh, a spokesman for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said this and other recent Davis public actions "just smell of a man who sees the end of the road." Walsh said that Schwarzenegger had not yet taken a position on the legislation.

Commentator Arianna Huffington, also running to replace Davis, credited the recall drive for leading Davis to announce his decision on the bill, which she said she also supports. "Whatever the motive, something good got done," said Huffington, who in 1997 divorced her husband, Michael, shortly before he publicly announced that he was gay. "A lot of people's lives will be positively affected.... Let's just applaud a good decision."

In a statement, Davis said: "The day I took the oath of office as governor, I said the era of wedge-issue politics in California was over. In that spirit, I intend to sign AB 205 to continue the progress we've made toward insuring fairness for all Californians. As governor, I will continue to do everything within my power to honor the dignity, the humanity and privacy of every Californian, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation."

The bill has strong opponents, including Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks). "It's bad policy and bad politics," Cox spokesman Peter DeMarco said Saturday. The Democrat-controlled Legislature and interest groups have "got the governor over a barrel and are going to extort every bill they can out of him. With his political life on the line, he is going to put his own interests ahead of the people of California."

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Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.

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