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 gay marriage onto California’s radar. As San Francisco mayor in 2004 he pushed the city to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, opening a turbulent 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 gay 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 gay 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 gay couples. It was a rebellious gesture: Gay 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 fight 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 gay 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 gay 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 gay marriage, he growled out a finger-pointing, taunting message to gay marriage 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 gay marriage has surged at warp speed. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in May of 2013 found that 58% of Californians approved of gay marriage, almost double the percentage from nine years earlier. In that poll, more than a quarter of conservatives and 35% of Republicans supported gay marriage.
Similar dramatic shifts have occurred elsewhere. And it is voters who have led the politicians: Not until late spring of 2012, after he was publicly prodded by Vice President Joe Biden, did President Obama pronounce his support for gay 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 gay 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 theirr 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."
Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to www.latimes.com/decker.