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Another seismic shift emanates from California -- this time on gay marriage

March 08, 2009|Cathleen Decker

The ground trembled again last week, another aftershock of one of the wrenching seismic shifts that always seem to start in California and skitter across the nation's political and cultural plates. This time it was same-sex marriage, as the state Supreme Court took up the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the November ballot initiative that outlawed such unions.

The court hearing was the latest chapter in a saga that has enmeshed California, off and on, for nine years. In 2000, voters banned same-sex marriage. Last year, acting after San Francisco became the first city in the state to marry gay couples, the Supreme Court cleared the way for such unions. Opponents returned fire with Proposition 8, which put the ban into the Constitution. Statements of some justices during Thursday's court hearing indicated that the proposition probably will stand -- at least for now.

There was an odd familiarity to it all. As with the modern conservative movement, the antitax rebellion of the 1970s and a host of other less important, if useful, things -- the hula hoop comes to mind -- California was first in the mix.

Despite our conceit that the sun shines brighter on California's golden denizens, residents here are really not so different from people everywhere else. Ponder surveys of voters taken last November in California and nationally, and the surprising conclusion is how similar we are. We are less white and more Latino, slightly richer and more educated, and we go to church a bit less. But we resemble the rest of the nation on many other measures -- our age range, the number of kids living in our homes, and even our views on whether government, rather than businesses and individuals, should solve problems in a pinch.

The state does differ from the other 49, though, in its quest for change.

"California is the magnet for people from all the states who come here to dream, hope, or fit in," said Bob Mulholland, who since landing here via Philadelphia and Vietnam 39 years ago has been a Democratic party advisor and unofficial electoral historian.

Ace Smith, a San Franciscan who like all political strategists keeps a firm eye on Californians, sees the state as a place that is "always churning," like a frustrated computer user repeatedly pressing the refresh button.

"California is always a state of hope and promise," said Smith. "When you are coming here, wherever you're coming from, you're coming to break out of the rigid economic or cultural places you came from."

That desire to break out turns into policy through the state's unusual reliance on voter initiatives. The system was set up by reformist leaders bucking the power of the railroads and fleeing the corrupt political machines elsewhere. The story of California, said social historian D.J. Waldie, is one of "breaking power" and, for the activists, initiatives are a way to grab it for themselves.

To Californians, "direct government by the electorate always feels like more than just reform; it feels almost like a revolution against the status quo," Waldie said. But the reformers' solution presents its own problems. "The system of government we have doesn't allow the frequent small revolutions to have lasting impact . . . we have to come back again and again and again."

Thus, on gay marriage, the state has lived through Proposition 22 in 2000, San Francisco's unilateral wedding spree in 2004, the Supreme Court's 2008 support for same-sex marriage and about 18,000 ensuing weddings, November's narrow endorsement of a gay-marriage ban and Thursday's hearing on the measure. It is not over yet, since the court has three months to issue its ruling.

And it probably won't be over even then. The next reverberation may be in the 2010 governor's race.

As things stand now, that race probably will pivot on the economy and the state's perilous budget, but it may also include a taste of the social issues that frequent California campaigns. Candidates already are tied to the marriage issue, not least Gavin Newsom, who would like to be the Democratic Party nominee. As San Francisco mayor, Newsom pushed for gay marriages, and his exuberant cackle that "it's going to happen, whether you like it or not" was a rallying cry for the anti-gay-marriage forces.

Thursday was a mixed blessing for Newsom -- reminding both supporters and foes of his role -- but the week was arguably worse for his Los Angeles counterpart, Antonio Villaraigosa. He spent time after Tuesday's reelection batting down suggestions that his unenthusiastic showing undercut his gubernatorial aspirations. Villaraigosa earned fewer than 128,000 votes out of the 1.6 million registered in the city. To his supporters, it was the fallout of an underwhelming race lacking a serious opponent; to his opponents, it was a sign that he is not ready for a statewide run.

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