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Labor Day Picnic Is Ear-Bending Time for Pivotal Assemblyman

Tom Umberg, a swing vote on the gay marriage bill, is lobbied by interests on both sides.

September 06, 2005|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Call it the soft sell from some heavy hitters.

Assemblyman Tom Umberg stood in mottled shade Monday during a Labor Day picnic at Santa Ana High School, where the rallying cry was protecting the interests of labor. But a handful of private conversations focused on a different topic.

Umberg (D-Anaheim) is one of four Assembly members being lobbied to vote as early as today in favor of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry. The measure passed last week in the state Senate, marking the first time that a house of any state legislature has voted to allow same-sex marriage without being ordered to do so by a court.

The Labor Day picnic was Umberg's only public appearance before the vote, and advocates of the bill urged supporters to buttonhole the lawmaker, who said he remained undecided. He abstained on the same bill in June, when it suffered a narrow defeat in the Assembly.

"On only rare occasions have I walked into [the Assembly] chambers not knowing how I was going to vote on a bill, and this could be one of them," Umberg said at midday.

He was pulled into polite but pointed conversations, one after another, with bill proponents Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), state treasurer and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, and Jeff LeTourneau, political director of the Elections Committee of Orange County, a gay and lesbian advocacy group.

"There are times we have to set aside politics and just do the right thing," said Dunn, whose Senate seat Umberg has said he would seek next year, as both men are now term-limited.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said he told Umberg it was only a matter of time before California honored same-sex marriage, which he called the right thing to do.

Angelides, an early backer of the bill, introduced by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), said thoughtful conversations about the bill were more likely to linger with Umberg and other fence-sitters than stridency. The other Assembly swing voters are Democrats Jerome Horton of Inglewood, Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino and Simon Salinas of Salinas.

"This is more about people respecting each other and having meaningful people Tom has known, like me, express our views," said Angelides.

Sharon O'Hara, a Democratic activist, urged Umberg to support the bill, saying, "You need straight people telling you to vote yes."

"It's about time Democrats stand for something," O'Hara said, predicting that support for Umberg among longtime activists would drop if he voted no.

Jaime Soto, auxiliary bishop for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, said he appealed to Umberg, who is Catholic, to honor the wishes of the constituents in the 69th Assembly District. In 2000, 70% of district voters supported Proposition 22, which defined marriage by statute as between a man and a woman.

"The Legislature, in a certain sense, is pandering to special interest groups and overriding the decision that California made several years ago," Soto said after speaking with Umberg. "It shows how Sacramento can be out of touch with the more pressing concerns of the state. Hopefully, he'll try to represent his district and not cave in to the more strident voices in the Democratic Party."

Umberg said he'd received five times more phone calls, faxes and e-mails on the issue than for any other since being re-elected to the seat he held in the 1990s. Most of the calls, he said, were coming from outside the district.

A former federal prosecutor, he said he doesn't view the issue as absolutely as others.

"At this point, I don't know that any external influence will be the factor," he said. "I'll continue to talk to anyone who wants to give me their point of view, but, at the end of the day, it'll be a vote of conscience."

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