‘ An un­be­liev­able jour­ney’

Lieu­tenant gover­nor says he didn’t think de­ci­sion would come in his life­time.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Cath­leen Decker

Gavin New­som, who put same- sex mar­riage onto Cal­i­for­nia’s radar, ref lects on the rul­ing.

Gavin New­som was jump­ing into the car, headed to a break­fast speech on job cre­ation, when a com­mon­place day turned ex­tra­or­di­nary: The Supreme Court of the United States had af­firmed the right of gays to marry.

Gay rights have been fought for over decades. But among the po­lit­i­cal class, New­som was the pro­tag­o­nist who al­most sin­gle­hand­edly wrenched same- sex mar­riage onto Cal­i­for­nia’s radar.

As San Fran­cisco mayor in 2004 he pushed the city to is­sue mar­riage li­censes to same- sex cou­ples, open­ing an 11- year siege of unions cel­e­brated and blocked, anti- mar­riage cam­paigns and court bat­tles, and public op­po­si­tion that slowly then swiftly turned into public ac­cep­tance.

On Fri­day, a ma­jor­ity of the court’s jus­tices an­nounced that they, too, saw same- sex mar­riage as a ba­sic right too long de­nied.

“It was a pretty re­mark­able mo­ment,” said New­som, re­call­ing with marvel in his voice the near- si­mul­ta­ne­ous spout­ing of the news from his phone and the car ra­dio Fri­day. “It’s been an un­be­liev­able jour­ney.”

And not one that New­som,

since 2010 the state’s lieu­tenant gover­nor, imag­ined would end like this. Not af­ter be­ing scourged by fel­low Democrats for rais­ing the is­sue in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign year. Not af­ter the bal­lot mea­sures all over the coun­try in sub­se­quent years that sought to for­bid same­sex mar­riage.

“In 2004, if you had told me it would hap­pen in my life­time, I hon­estly would have given it a small per­cent­age chance — I mean that,” he said, adding that by 2008 he was think­ing: “Jeez, this is never — we’re go­ing back­wards in­stead of for­ward.”

San Fran­cisco’s move on Feb. 12, 2004, made it the first mu­nic­i­pal­ity in the na­tion to is­sue mar­riage li­censes to same- sex cou­ples. It was a re­bel­lious ges­ture: Same­sex mar­riage was illegal al­most ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing in the state of Cal­i­for­nia. New­som was then 36 and lit­tle known out­side the Bay Area.

He had grown out­raged weeks ear­lier, he said, when he at­tended Ge­orge W. Bush’s State of the Union ad­dress and heard the pres­i­dent re­it­er­ate his op­po­si­tion to same- sex mar­riage.

New­som had just sur­vived a tough elec­tion f ight to be­come mayor, chal­lenged by an op­po­nent who came at him from the left. But if there were po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits to be had in­side quirky San Fran­cisco, New­som was, in a broader po­lit­i­cal sense, alone.

Prom­i­nent Democrats — in­clud­ing both of the state’s U. S. sen­a­tors, from the Bay area — were op­posed to same- sex mar­riage. Na­tional Democrats wor­ried about the im­pact on the 2004 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, John Kerry. ( When Kerry lost, some blamed New­som for stir­ring up the cul­ture wars.)

And while San Fran­cisco is more lib­eral than other ar­eas of the state, there was lit­tle to in­di­cate a sweep­ing up­side for an am­bi­tious politi­cian. A Los An­ge­les Times poll taken two months af­ter New­som’s ac­tion showed that only 31% of Cal­i­for­ni­ans sup­ported same- sex mar­riage, while 40% con­sid­ered it morally wrong.

New­som’s ac­tion was ul­ti­mately quashed by the courts, but he re­mained an in­te­gral player, in the worst way. In May of 2008, when the state Supreme Court le­gal­ized same- sex mar­riage, he growled out a fin­ger­point­ing, taunt­ing mes­sage to op­po­nents.

“As Cal­i­for­nia goes, so goes the rest of the na­tion. It’s in­evitable. This door’s wide open now,” he said. “It’s go­ing to hap­pen — whether you like it or not.”

The last sen­tence, which New­som later said he re­gret­ted, was seized on by pro­po­nents of Novem­ber’s Propo­si­tion 8, who aired ads that made New­som the poster boy for the mea­sure that banned mar­riage ex­cept be­tween a man and a woman.

The propo­si­tion won, but by less than a sim­i­lar propo­si­tion had in 2000. In the nar­row­ing mar­gin was a harbinger of as­ton­ish­ing change to come.

In the last sev­eral years, ap­proval of same- sex mar- riage has surged at warp speed.

A USC Dornsife/ Los An­ge­les Times poll in May of 2013 found that 58% of Cal­i­for­ni­ans ap­proved of same­sex mar­riage, al­most dou­ble the per­cent­age from nine years ear­lier. In that poll, more than a quar­ter of con­ser­va­tives and 35% of Repub­li­cans sup­ported same­sex mar­riage.

Sim­i­lar dra­matic shifts have oc­curred else­where. And it is vot­ers who have led the politi­cians: Not un­til late spring 2012, af­ter he was pub­licly prod­ded by Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, did Pres­i­dent Barack Obama pro­nounce his sup­port for same- sex mar­riage, a move that New­som called “a pro­found mo­ment” be­cause of the com­pet­i­tive re­elec­tion race the pres­i­dent faced. ( Not un­til 2013 did Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, now the lead­ing Demo­cratic can­di­date for pres­i­dent, an­nounce her sup­port.)

In the end, New­som said, hu­man­ity drove the change of opin­ion: As more Amer­i­cans ac­knowl­edged their sta­tus and sought their rights, fewer Amer­i­cans could turn their backs.

“It’s the mil­lions — I mean, lit­er­ally mil­lions — of con­ver­sa­tions that were held and won on this topic that changed it,” he said. “De­bates, scream­ing matches amongst fam­ily mem­bers, emo­tional en­gage­ment be­tween gen­er­a­tions, talk­ing about this is­sue, putting a hu­man face on this is­sue, re­mind­ing peo­ple that this is about our bar­ber, this is about the butcher.... At the end of the day I don’t think it was more com­pli­cated than that.”

New­som still can’t stom­ach the ob­jec­tions raised by fel­low Democrats — “you had the pun­dits point­ing fin­gers still at San Fran­cisco, you know, for this and that; ‘ too much too soon too fast.’ ”

That was “the most dis­heart­en­ing thing,” he said, re­fus­ing to name names. ( A hint: Cal­i­for­nia’s se­nior Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein did say in 2004 that same- sex mar­riage sur­faced “too much, too fast, too soon.”)

When he was elected mayor, New­som noted, he got un­so­licited ad­vice from fel­low politi­cians. “It was al­ways the same: Do what you think is right,” he said, “and the minute we did that, those are the same folks that got on the phone and said, ’ What the hell did you just do?’ ”

More needs to be done on the gay rights front, he said, as in­di­cated by re­cent bat­tles in In­di­ana and else­where over whether busi­ness own­ers can refuse to serve gays.

“This de­ci­sion to­day is not go­ing to end ho­mo­pho­bia. It’s not go­ing to end big­otry against the gay, les­bian, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der com­mu­ni­ties,” he said. “These things trig­ger sub­stan­tively the op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to think anew and ul­ti­mately act anew in terms of their own con­science. It’s got to be a cul­tural shift, and we have enor­mous work to do still there.”

But there was still joy in the day and no small amount of pride.

“The one thing that con­nects ev­ery sin­gle one of us re­gard­less of our sta­tion in life and our back­grounds is the de­sire to be loved and to love,” New­som said. “For that to be de­nied be­cause of a quirk of fate, be­cause you hap­pen to love some­one of the same sex, is wrong.

“And to see that righted to­day is a pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary thing.”

‘ This de­ci­sion to­day is not go­ing to end ho­mo­pho­bia. ... It’s got to be a cul­tural shift.’

— Gavin New­som, lieu­tenant gover­nor

Justin Sul­li­van Getty I mages

LT. GOV. GAVIN NEW­SOM, who put same- sex mar­riage on the radar in Cal­i­for­nia, mar­veled at the “un­be­liev­able jour­ney.”

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