SACRAMENTO — As the California Assembly prepares to take up gay marriage legislation as early as Tuesday, the measure's fate may rest not with lofty arguments about the centuries-old institution but with the political futures of a handful of wavering lawmakers.
All four Democrats whom advocates have identified as swing votes represent districts with many Latinos or African Americans -- two groups that, because of their religious backgrounds, are among the most wary of broadening the definition of marriage to say it is a union of two people rather than of a man and a woman.
Making the consequences of their votes even more sensitive, all four lawmakers -- Jerome Horton of Inglewood, Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino, Simon Salinas of Salinas and Tom Umberg of Anaheim -- are in their final terms in the Assembly and eyeing higher offices.
This political reality has become a factor in determining votes since the advent of term limits, and other lawmakers and political consultants say it weighs heavily on this issue, one of the year's most controversial in Sacramento.
"Everyone who has indicated that they are still thinking about this has uniformly told me that if it were only a matter of conscience, of course they would be there, but that their own 2006 races are the issue," said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), one of the measure's sponsors.
The California Senate on Thursday approved the bill, the first time a legislative body in the United States had endorsed gay marriage without being compelled by a court order.
Intense pressure from both sides now is focusing on the 80-member Assembly, where a handful of abstaining members led to the bill's narrow failure in June. Advocates say they need just three more votes to send the measure to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, although such a victory may be symbolic, given that the governor has signaled he would veto it.
Opposition groups are urging supporters to blanket pivotal lawmakers with calls and faxes. They say that lawmakers who vote for the measure, AB 849, are insulting the 61% of Californians who approved Proposition 22, which declared that California would recognize only marriages between heterosexual couples, in 2000.
"They thought they voted to preserve marriage and this wouldn't be allowed to take place," said Karen England, executive director of the Capitol Resource Institute, a Sacramento group that backed the proposition five years ago. "They're pretty frustrated and letting the representatives know."
Gay rights advocates have hired Christine Chavez-Delgado, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez and an organizer for the United Farm Workers of America, to help develop grass-roots support throughout the state. The farmworkers group endorsed the measure in late June, after the defeat in the Assembly.
Advocates are also trumpeting a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, released last week, showing registered voters split 46% to 46% on the topic.
They also note that two of the swing votes belong to Assembly members who are hoping to be elected in the fall to the seats of Senate Democrats who voted in favor of the measure. Kuehl distributed CDs with the taped Senate floor debate to the crucial Assembly members.
"Our base is incredibly engaged, and we will support the people who stand with us," said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, the statewide gay rights group that sponsored the bill. "Ultimately, and I think these candidates know it, the people who care passionately on this issue on the other side aren't voting for them."
But the undecided legislators -- all of whom abstained last time -- are hard sells because of their political ambitions.
"It would be one thing if they're running in San Francisco," but you've got [places] where the voters all overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant.
Negrete McLeod is facing a primary race against fellow Assembly member Joe Baca Jr. (D-Rialto) for the state Senate seat being vacated by Nell Soto (D-Pomona). Though Democratic, the San Bernardino district has many farmworkers and a strong Latino presence, and Baca voted against the gay marriage measure in June.
Advocates are trying to persuade Baca to vote for the measure if Negrete McLeod also does, so neither can use it against the other in the primary.
"I believe in the Constitution; it's justice for all. I believe everybody has rights," Negrete McLeod said Friday.
Asked how she will vote, she said, "I don't know. We'll see what happens on Tuesday."
Salinas is blunter about the political factors. He is weighing a challenge to Republican Sen. Jeff Denham, also of Salinas, a rural area east of Monterey on the edge of the conservative Central Valley. Salinas, who told The Times to "stay tuned" because he is "still considering" the measure, acknowledged the political benefits of opposition to the San Jose Mercury News.