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Governor Leaves Them Guessing

Backers and opponents of gay marriage weigh his 'fine with me' remark on Leno show.

March 08, 2004|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The answer sounded simple enough. Appearing on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked if he would "have any problem" if the law were changed to allow same-sex couples to marry.

If the people wanted it, the governor said, "that's fine with me."

Calls soon flowed into the governor's office in Sacramento -- about 200 total. Precisely what did Schwarzenegger mean? His answer to Leno is now the subject of sharp disagreement, as liberals, conservatives and even Schwarzenegger's own advisors parse the exchange between the governor and his comedian friend for clues as to where he really stands.

Was he merely saying that he would enforce the law, whatever it is, even though his own feeling is that gay marriages should be banned? Or was he signaling that his views on marriage are more elastic than his previous statements suggest?

"I don't think he goes to sleep at night worrying that Thelma and Louise got married," said state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), the Senate's Democratic leader.

The state GOP has been fielding its own share of anxious calls and e-mails from Republicans looking for reassurance that the governor can be counted on to preserve laws that bar gays from marrying. People wanted to know if the governor would uphold state marriage laws, or had he changed his mind, said Duf Sundheim, chairman of the California Republican Party.

Gary L. Bauer, a conservative Republican who ran for president in 2000, sent a fax to friends and supporters on Thursday that included a commentary on Schwarzenegger's "Tonight Show" appearance titled: "Forget Arnold."

Bauer wrote that "the Terminator betrayed hundreds of thousands of moral conservatives by saying it would be 'fine with me' if the courts forced homosexual marriage on California and he undercut President Bush's call for a constitutional marriage protection amendment."

Said Sundheim: "There was a reaction from the [party's] base. When you talk it through, then people are a little bit calmer. You go through what the language was and what he was trying to say, and I've gotten a calmer response."

At some level, Schwarzenegger's comments amounted to an inkblot test: What people believe he said depended on what they wanted to hear. There was grist for both sides. At one point in his national television appearance, the governor said he would not "have a problem" if voters were to change the law and permit gays to marry. Yet he never explicitly endorsed gay marriage and made clear that he opposed the marriage licenses being issued in San Francisco, in defiance of state law.

Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), author of a bill that would permit gays to marry, said he was "heartened" by Schwarzenegger's comments and was working to set up a meeting between the governor and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus that Leno chairs.

"I think he expressed he was very open," said Leno, who is no relation to the talk show host. "As popular support for marriage equality grows and as the governor recognizes that popular support, I don't think there's any reason to imagine the governor wouldn't sign it [Leno's bill]."

Feeding the ambiguity is Schwarzenegger's refusal to state whether he would sign or veto legislation legalizing gay marriage. He won't take a position, telling Tim Russert in an interview last month on "Meet the Press," "I don't even think about hypothetical things."

"He should publicly say this bill is dead meat when it hits my desk. He should say that," said Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families.

Asked at a public appearance in Washington, D.C., if he had voted for Proposition 22, a ballot measure passed in 2000 affirming marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the governor said he didn't remember.

Within Schwarzenegger's circle, advisors seem split about his views. Some say that what the governor told Jay Leno is consistent with what he's been saying all along: He opposes same-sex marriage; he supports domestic partnerships; he believes the weddings in San Francisco are an unacceptable affront to the rule of law.

"Basically, he didn't say he supported any kind of changes," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a confidant of the governor. "He said if the people make a change -- if there were an initiative on the ballot -- basically he said he would live with it."

But Bob Hertzberg, a former Democratic Assembly speaker and a close advisor to Schwarzenegger, said of the governor's comments: "What's good is it's not politics as usual.... It's positive."

If conventional Republicans endorse gay marriage, they risk reprisal from the party's conservative base. President Bush, for one, is leaving no doubt about his stance, proposing a constitutional amendment enshrining marriage as a union between a man and a woman only.

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