S.F. Mayor Rides High After Gay Marriage Ruling

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom i i

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference on May 15, following the California Supreme Court's decision to overturn a state ban on same-sex marriage. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference on May 15, following the California Supreme Court's decision to overturn a state ban on same-sex marriage.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Across California, thousands of gay and lesbian couples are awaiting June 17. It's the day same-sex marriage will become legal in California, thanks to the state Supreme Court's recent 4-3 ruling to overturn a ban on such unions.

It also marks a political comeback for San Francisco's young, straight mayor, Gavin Newsom.

Newsom — who was pummeled for being an early champion of same-sex unions when he issued marriage licenses to gays and lesbians four years ago — is riding high. Some speculate that he could be a contender for the Democratic nomination in the state's 2010 governor's race.

"It's about human dignity, it's about civil rights and it's about time in California!" Newsom said shortly after the court issued its ruling on May 15. Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples gathered near city hall to hear him proclaim victory.

Newsom's Comeback

In 2004, Newsom wasn't riding as high. After he issued marriage licenses to about 4,000 same-sex couples, some Democrats accused him of recklessly tying his party to a divisive social issue. More than a few pundits began writing his political obituary.

"This is the first step in his comeback as a viable candidate," says Barbara O'Connor, who teaches politics and media at California State University, Sacramento. "And clearly he's proven to be right in the civil rights nature of the issue. And you have a Supreme Court where six of the seven are Republican appointees — and he won. So it's very difficult to describe it as other than a victory."

The victory could be short-lived, however, if the court's decision is trumped by an initiative planned for the November ballot that seeks to ban gay marriage.

Conservative groups also are seeking to put the ruling on hold until voters can decide the issue this fall. Same-sex marriage initially was to have been legal in California on June 14, but the date was pushed back because the court has until June 16 to rule on a stay.

Regardless, Newsom may benefit from the visibility of having defended the rights of same-sex couples, says former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

"If that measure qualifies for the ballot, all 58 counties should be visited by Gavin Newsom," Brown says. "And there will be a constituency in all 58 of those counties. I think it gives him a platform. He gets a chance to talk to people about issues more than same-sex."

The Governor's Race

Even Republican strategists agree that the state Supreme Court ruling has vaulted Newsom to the forefront of potential Democratic nominees for the California governor's race in 2010. Tom Del Beccaro, the vice chairman of the California Republican Party, says Newsom's championing of same-sex marriage was a huge gamble politically.

"When he did do it, it was reckless, because our appointed leaders are sworn to uphold the constitution and the state's laws not to abrogate them," Del Beccaro says. "So that was a risky move, but then again in a Democratic primary, often that's viewed as leadership."

In a statewide Democratic primary, Newsom would probably face some well-known figures, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the state's aging but ambitious former governor and now Attorney General Jerry Brown.

But how far can Newsom go on same-sex marriage as an issue? A Los Angeles Times poll on May 23 found that slim majorities oppose the state Supreme Court decision and would support banning gay marriage by changing the state constitution at the ballot box. That's not necessarily bad news for Newsom, according to Republican strategist Dan Schnur.

"If you look at public opinion polling on the issue, it breaks down almost precisely on a generational bias," Schnur says. "Older Californians tend to be more opposed to same-sex marriage than younger Californians. And each successive generation becomes more supportive of it."

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