Community activist Jewel Thais-Williams, left, Los Angeles City Councilman… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
One night nearly 20 years ago, a political newcomer showed up in Hollywood at California's oldest gay and lesbian Democratic club looking for an endorsement in a state Assembly race.
Amid the flurry of questions was one he had never heard before: Do you support gay marriage?
Antonio Villaraigosa paused. "I've never thought about that," he said. "But yeah, I'm for it."
His simple gut response stands in contrast with President Obama's painstakingly gradual evolution on the issue, which culminated in the president's announcement last month that he now supports same-sex marriage.
While many politicians have taken a cautious approach on gay issues, Villaraigosa has earned a reputation as a fierce and early advocate for gay equality, pushing for the passage of groundbreaking anti-discrimination measures in the Legislature and helping win protections for transgender inmates in city jails as mayor of Los Angeles.
In recent months, he has used his position as chairman of this summer's Democratic National Convention to call for marriage equality to be included in the convention's official platform — a politically sensitive calculation for the party in a close presidential race.
Villaraigosa meets regularly with a group of gay and lesbian advisors, and each June he hangs a rainbow-striped flag outside his Windsor Square residence and throws a garden party for the community. And while gays may not deliver mountains of votes in elections, they are a potent fundraising force. The mayor has benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from gay and lesbian activists, including some of the same wealthy gay donors that Obama will tap Wednesday at two fundraisers in Beverly Hills.
Villaraigosa says his connection to the gay community is partly ideological and partly personal. Several of his family members are gay, including his cousin, John Perez, the speaker of the Assembly. And when he was a kid growing up in the 1960s in East Los Angeles, his mother sometimes had a gay couple over for dinner. "They'd be holding hands and from time to time kissing on the cheek," he remembers.
As a union organizer and later as president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Villaraigosa became attuned to discrimination against gays, especially when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s. He says he began to see the struggle for gay equality as the next frontier in a continuum of battles fought by Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
"I am very cognizant that I am here because there was a civil rights movement," he said in a recent interview. "And I believe this is a civil rights issue."
In 1994 Villaraigosa headed to Sacramento and was sworn in alongside Sheila Kuehl, the first openly gay member of the Assembly. At a luncheon on one of their first days in office, he and a few other lawmakers walked over and introduced themselves as "the honorary gay and lesbian caucus," she said.
Working with Kuehl and others who supported gay rights, Villaraigosa played a central role in the passage of several major bills, including legislation that banned discrimination in housing and in the workplace. "Supportive is too small a word," Kuehl said. "He was just fierce and unwavering."
During one debate, Villaraigosa brought his young son onto the Assembly floor and told his colleagues he wanted to make sure that his son was protected by law whoever he turns out to be and whomever he wants to love.
The opponents of those bills were not just Republicans but sometimes conservative Democrats who "were afraid of their own districts," Kuehl said.
Eric Bauman, who was president of the Stonewall Democratic club when Villaraigosa sought its endorsement in 1994, said Latino and African American elected officials were particularly hard to win over.
"We spent more time educating Democrats on gay and lesbian issues than garnering their support," said Bauman, who is now the chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
In 2000, Villaraigosa campaigned against Proposition 22, a state law passed by California voters that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. When the state Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional in the spring of 2008, he married 11 gay couples at City Hall.
That fall, voters approved Proposition 8, another ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage. Most African Americans and Latinos voted for the measure. At a boisterous rally outside City Hall after its passage, Villaraigosa spoke to the crowd in Spanish. "If we're going to start a conversation, we have to have it in many languages," he said.
But Villaraigosa's views on same-sex marriage aren't popular with all Latinos. Some Latinos say Villaraigosa is out of touch on the issue.
"I admire him," said Esther Valdez, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which supported Proposition 8. "But I think he's far to the left of the mainstream in his community."
Valdez thinks Democrats may alienate minority voters if they make gay marriage a key part of the presidential campaign.
Villaraigosa acknowledges that possibility. "There's no question some people will support [Obama] because of this issue and some people won't," he said. But the mayor said he — and now Obama — are standing on the right side of history.
This spring, before President Obama altered his position, a reporter asked Villaraigosa if he would support gay marriage at the Democratic Party convention he's chairing in North Carolina. He responded much as he did two decades earlier. "I do," he said. "I think it's basic to who we are."