A day after California's Legislature became the first in the nation to pass a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced through an aide Wednesday that he would veto the measure "out of respect for the will of the people."
In a careful statement, Schwarzenegger press secretary Margita Thompson invoked the voter approval in March 2000 of Proposition 22, which said: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
"The governor believes the matter should be determined not by legislative action -- which would be unconstitutional -- but by court decision or another vote of the people of our state," the statement said. "We cannot have a system where the people vote and the Legislature derails that vote."
The statement also said Schwarzenegger "believes that gay couples are entitled to full protection under the law and should not be discriminated against." It did not offer his opinion on same-sex marriage, but when asked about it last year, the governor said, "I don't care one way or the other."
The California Supreme Court is likely to decide next year whether Proposition 22 and other state laws that define marriage are constitutional.
The issue burst into prominence in California last year when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directed officials there to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples. The move drew thousands of couples to the city for highly publicized weddings before the state Supreme Court ruled that Newsom had exceeded his authority. Massachusetts allows same-sex marriages, but they derived from court order, not the legislative approval seen in Sacramento on Tuesday.
In addition to the likely court ruling on same-sex marriage, the issue may be headed back to the ballot: Opponents of gay marriage have been collecting signatures to qualify measures for the June 2006 vote that would ban same-sex marriage.
Schwarzenegger's announcement sparked fierce reactions from advocates on both sides of the issue.
"The only reason that he could be doing this is that he is pandering to the far right," said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the measure's author.
Karen England of the Capitol Resource Institute, a Sacramento group that opposed the bill, said the governor had "kept his word against the runaway Legislature.... As a social conservative, I never thought I'd see the day when I said I was glad Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor."
Although 61% of California voters backed Proposition 22, recent polls have found views changing, with the state's voters now evenly split on same-sex marriage. That voter ambivalence has made the issue increasingly perilous for California politicians -- and above all for Schwarzenegger as he gears up for a contentious fall campaign on his latest ballot measures and a probable 2006 reelection bid.
Already hamstrung by dismal popularity ratings, the Republican governor had little choice but to veto the legislation, analysts said. Approval of the measure would have set off a sharp backlash among Republican voters, his strongest remaining bulwark of support.
But while averting a conservative revolt, Schwarzenegger may have worsened a key political problem: erosion of his image as an independent reformer who stays above partisan politics.
"It will help to define him as just another Republican, and that's not good for him in this state," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego, alluding to California's strong Democratic tilt.
For some Democrats, too, the Assembly's final passage of the measure Tuesday brought risks, as the tight vote underscored. The measure passed with the minimum of 41 votes -- all from Democrats -- out of 80 members.
Particularly among Democrats seeking statewide office, support for same-sex marriage risks galvanizing conservative opponents and jeopardizing appeals to some of the centrist voters who dominate California elections. Opposition could alienate gay and lesbian activists and key Democratic liberals.
The issue has been potent. In 11 states last year, Republicans used initiatives to ban same-sex marriage to boost conservative turnout for President Bush in his race against Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry.
"In states that Kerry had to be competitive in, he was less competitive because gay marriage was on the ballot -- starting with Ohio," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book election guide.
He likened the Legislature's passage of the same-sex marriage bill to its approval in 2003 of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. For voters, that move captured the Legislature's leanings -- more liberal than the statewide electorate, which booted Gov. Gray Davis from office, at least in part because of his approval of the measure.