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Ruling is a boost for Newsom

S.F. mayor basks in the decision on same-sex unions. But the issue could hurt him later.

May 17, 2008|John M. Glionna and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — For a moment, right after the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Mayor Gavin Newsom rejoiced privately. Then he phoned a onetime critic of his campaign for same-sex unions: his father.

Retired state appellate Judge William Newsom initially faulted the mayor's decision to allow same-sex marriages in the city in 2004. But he later admitted his son was right and that naysayers like him were confusing the secular with the religious.

"He said, 'I've really thought about this and you've changed my mind on this gay marriage thing,' " the mayor said. "That's what this is all about."

The polarizing issue has propelled the 40-year-old Newsom on a continuing personal and political odyssey.

The Republican court's decision Thursday backing Newsom's controversial stand has cemented his popularity in this city with a vocal gay population. And some analysts say it could help him gain broader recognition if, as rumored, he decides to run for governor.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, May 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Same-sex marriage: An article in Saturday's Section A about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's push to legalize same-sex marriage in California said Newsom got the idea to allow gay marriages in his city after attending George W. Bush's second inauguration. Newsom decided to launch his campaign after he went to Bush's 2004 State of the Union address.

"Until now, what voters know about Newsom outside San Francisco is still shallow," said Simon Rosenberg, director of the NDN, a Washington-based political think tank once known as the New Democratic Network. "But this cause will help him define himself. Now he can speak to a state and national audience on an issue where he has stuck by his principles."

But as Newsom basks in his revived rock-star status here in the aftermath of the ruling, questions remain about how his fight for same-sex marriage will affect his political future.

The mayor admits he had no opinion on gay unions when he was sworn into office on Jan. 8, 2004. That soon changed, he said, when he attended President Bush's second inauguration.

He said he was alarmed, listening to the inaugural address, by the president's moral tone, especially on social issues such as who had the right to marry. Instead of going to a party after the speech, he went to his hotel to call staffers.

"I feel like I'm living in a parallel universe here," he said he told them. "We've got to do something."

At first, that something centered on longtime San Francisco lesbian couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Newsom knew the couple had been together for more than half a century but that state law forbade their marriage. The idea was to use their story to put a human face on the issue and advance a court challenge, he said. "It just didn't seem right that two people who loved each other couldn't get married."

Then Newsom broadened his approach by publicly ordering that the city issue marriage licenses to all same-sex couples who requested them. On Feb. 12, Martin and Lyon got theirs. But they weren't alone. By the time a local judge stopped the process a month later, 4,000 licenses had been issued.

The mayor became a hero to some, a pariah to others -- including some fellow Democrats.

Newsom's sanctioning of the marriages in the middle of a presidential year marked him to many party members as a dangerous leftist out of touch with the party agenda. Trusted advisors deserted him. Some even say he scared off potential crossover voters in the 2004 presidential election and hold him partly responsible for fellow Democrat John Kerry's loss to Bush.

"A lot of people I admired and respected were none too pleased," Newsom recalled. "The biggest surprise came when members of my own party, some of them friends, turned their back on me."

Democratic White House hopefuls Kerry and John Edwards avoided him. An invitation to speak at that year's Democratic National Convention was rescinded, he said.

"In my own naivete, I didn't understand -- that was a presidential election year. Now I get it. It wasn't the right time," he said. "But the flak was immediate. Here I was, a newly minted mayor, considered a rising star. Then I learned there are two sides to every story."

Newsom returned to the less glamorous task of managing San Francisco. Then last year, he acknowledged an affair with the wife of his campaign manager and found himself the subject of scandal. At a crowded news conference, he admitted to having a drinking problem and promised to get help.

San Franciscans soon seemed to have forgiven a politician who for many evoked Bill Clinton -- in charisma and social vision and in personal failings.

Locally, his poll ratings soared again. This week will probably keep them soaring.

But a run for governor still would present a challenge: Any association with same-sex unions could remain a political liability outside of San Francisco.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor and one of Newsom's mentors, took a conservative stand on the death penalty to play to voters outside the city, said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. Newsom, on the other hand, "has taken a liberal stand on an issue that's almost as radioactive," he said.

To make a successful run for statewide office, Cain said, Newsom must steer his liberal image toward the center. In that light, he called Thursday's court ruling a plus for the mayor.

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