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S.F.'s Hero of the Moment

Gavin Newsom is hailed by many for allowing same-sex couples to marry. But some say he now has no chance at national office.

February 16, 2004|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In a bar here in the largely gay Castro District, Tara O'Neill sat shaking her head.

"I didn't vote for him," the 24-year-old law student said of Mayor Gavin Newsom. "And I regret that now. I feel like calling him up and saying, 'I'm sorry.' " Beside her at Harvey's, a lively corner bar in the heart of the Castro, partner Sarah Richmond, also 24, nodded in agreement.

Only two months after a divisive mayoral election, Newsom's bold, meticulously choreographed move to grant marriage licenses for same-sex couples has won him many converts in the gay community and gone a long way toward healing post-election wounds.

Response from across the county was so heavy that by noon on Sunday -- the fourth day of issuing licenses -- officials said they were overrun with paperwork, had to stop accepting applications and closed City Hall. It will reopen today, and by then, officials believe, the number of couples married will have reached about 1,600.

The wave of gay marriages has brought national attention to Newsom. But some believe his gain locally could cost him nationally, where the 36-year-old restaurateur and former college baseball player had been viewed by some as a promising future candidate.

Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento, applauded Newsom's "bold" stand for civil rights. However, she said, some Democrats had been asking whether his stand could harm the party in the upcoming presidential election, when Republicans are expected to use the issue to portray Democrats as out of touch with the mainstream.

"I'm sure he considered on some level what the impact of his move would be to the Democratic Party and came to the conclusion that we're much more tolerant as a party than a lot of the people make us out to be these days," Kaufman said.

Newsom has said his decision was borne from his anger over President Bush's State of the Union speech, in which he reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriages.

Before making the decision, Newsom Press Secretary Peter Ragone said, the mayor called several prominent Democrats in California and other states, most of whom told him it was a bad idea during a presidential election year. Even Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who is openly gay, told him the timing was off.

Ragone said that before Newsom announced his plan, he was approached by several members of his staff who were concerned about its effect on his political career. He said Newsom responded that he felt it was the right thing to do.

Even the strongest Newsom supporters in San Francisco worry that the issue could rebound against him on the national stage.

"Whenever he runs for any other office, this will be the first thing they will bring up," said Marin County film editor Kathleen Korth, 51, who was one of the hundreds of people in line at San Francisco City Hall to be married Saturday.

Her partner, Laura Fenamore, 40, termed the move by Newsom "political suicide" but said she and others in the gay and lesbian community were extremely grateful that he had taken the risk, which she said was especially important coming from a heterosexual male leader.

"To have a straight, white, rich male do this for us is helping out our cause tremendously," Fenamore said.

Whatever the national implications, Newsom is a hero to many here in San Francisco.

Building on his already strong support in the downtown business establishment and Asian communities, Newsom's action gives him a much broader base from which to govern this idiosyncratic American city.

Even Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, Newsom's fierce challenger in the mayoral race, has rallied to his former opponent's side on this issue. "I took a phone call from a Midwestern radio station," Gonzalez recounted. "It was ironic that I spent the entire time defending the mayor on this issue. He was being attacked. I was making it clear that while there may not be unanimity on the issue, we clearly have wide support for his actions and we've got to get behind him."

Two-term San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, whom Newsom replaced in the ornate City Hall office, marveled at Newsom's ability to rally bitter opponents to his side.

"Deep wounds were inflicted in the mayor's election," Brown said. "I think Gavin Newsom has done a marvelous job -- almost like he was part of the medical team on 'Star Trek' -- healing these scars."

Brown, a longtime supporter of same-sex marriages, performed a mass wedding ceremony in 1996 for gay and lesbian couples in the Hearst Theater here but did not go as far as Newsom in granting and recording marriage licenses. "You'd have to go back to the civil rights movement to find a step as bold as this," Brown said.

The fact that Newsom took the plunge on gay marriage and did it with flair, performing several marriages himself and hosting a celebratory cocktail reception for hundreds of newlyweds, also built bridges in the San Francisco left, which generally is delighted when it is out of step with the rest of the country.

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