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A change of heart

San Diego's mayor showed compassion and courage in backing same-sex marriage.

September 25, 2007

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders showed impressive courage last week when he embraced the right of same-sex couples to marry. The Republican ex-cop had long said he believed civil unions were sufficient for gays, and he planned to veto his City Council's resolution backing a constitutional challenge to California's 2000 voter initiative making marriage possible only between a man and a woman. But he had a crisis of the heart when the resolution came to his desk.

"As I reflected on the choices I had before me last night," a choked-up Sanders explained at his remarkable news conference, "I just could not bring myself to tell an entire group of people in our community they were less important, less worthy or less deserving of the rights and responsibilities of marriage than anyone else simply because of their sexual orientation."

That group of people, Sanders revealed, includes members of his staff -- and his daughter.

Such a speech would be easy in Los Angeles, where marriage equality has strong support and political leaders long ago backed plaintiffs in their constitutional challenge to the restriction adopted seven years ago as Proposition 22.

But Sanders is mayor of San Diego, a city that generally votes conservative, and he is facing a reelection challenge from his right. The last-minute reversal of a long-held position against same-sex marriage makes him vulnerable. It takes nothing from L.A. leaders -- or even from groundbreaking San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who defied the initiative with his 2004 decision to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples -- to recognize Sanders for a special brand of leadership.

Still, the video of the mayor's emotion-filled news conference reveals more at work than simply political courage. Parental love had a hand as well. For every Dick Cheney who resists marriage equality despite having a gay child or other loved one, there will be more and more people like Jerry Sanders.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill to overturn Proposition 22 two years ago, and a similar bill now on his desk may meet the same fate. State Supreme Court justices will consider briefs from plaintiffs challenging the measure and from their supporters -- including Los Angeles, San Francisco and, now, San Diego -- and the court ultimately will decide whether the initiative can stand. In the meantime, Sanders has set an example for politicians. And for parents.

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