Politicians Getting a Warm Reception


The groom was scanning the marble staircase. Ten minutes until the wedding and the officiant had yet to arrive. Kevin Giberson would have settled for Vegas, but his bride had wanted this guy, someone memorable, who did movie stars’ weddings. She was starting to pace when he finally materialized, smiling so warmly they’d never have guessed that this was his third wedding in two weeks.

“Hello,” said the celebrant.

“I’m Willie Brown.”

Here comes the ... mayor. And the congressman. And the governor. And the legislator, councilman, supervisor, attorney general, lieutenant governor and secretary of state. In a quintessentially California confluence of celebrity and politics--and a dash of wartime civics--elected officiants are suddenly showing up at fashionable weddings all over the state.

Brown has averaged a wedding a week so far this year and did two in one day after Sept. 11. Both House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein flew home after the September attacks to perform marriages, each for the first time since their respective elections to Congress. U.S. Rep. Robert T. Matsui officiated in October in Pasadena for the head of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing and his bride, who is president of the National Asian Women’s Health Organization. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante did the impromptu Thanksgiving wedding of two widowed friends of his chief of staff in Sacramento.


And they just keep coming: Last month, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer presided over the Nob Hill marriage of two politically active lawyers--one of whom had been treasurer for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign--and state Senate Majority Whip Richard Alarcon (D-San Fernando Valley) is gearing up to do his first wedding this spring.

The flurry of politically touched unions has inspired both good feelings and gossip in this post-Sept. 11, mid-Enron moment, when it isn’t always clear whether to celebrate or suspect the gestures of elected officials toward constituents and friends.

“So many people thought it was political,” said Karen Caufield, whose Sept. 22 marriage to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Frank Caufield was officiated by Pelosi. “But Nancy is our neighbor. It was just a coincidence that she became whip a few days after the wedding. She and my husband have been friends for years.”

In fact, government watchdogs say that parson-playing politicians are the least of their worries. “We’re concerned about the legislative favors, not the personal ones,” says Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause.

The greater risk, perhaps, is the potential for courting wisecracks.

“These are the people you want to put in charge of the making of promises?” joked Republican political consultant Wayne C. Johnson. “Although the possibilities are endless. You could have them focus-group the couple, bring in the campaign team. Poll the family and friends.”

For some couples, an elected officiant celebrates the success, not just of their relationship, but also of their social circle. For others, it’s a novel twist on an otherwise conventional exchange of civil vows. Giberson, a Bay Area software developer, and his bride, Karen Holsclaw, a corporate contract negotiator, said they wanted Brown because he’d officiated at actor Don Johnson’s 1999 wedding to socialite Kelley Phleger. Holsclaw felt his presence would give their City Hall wedding a touch of panache.

Though several San Francisco mayors have performed civil marriages--by city tradition, mayors are automatically deputized as marriage commissioners as a perk of the office--the dapper Brown has by all accounts made unprecedented use of the power. Last year, according to city records and the mayor’s spokesman, Brown--who has lived apart from his own wife for decades and had a child out of wedlock last year--did 18 scheduled weddings, a private commitment ceremony, a vow renewal and at least three off-calendar marriages that were done as personal favors to friends and social acquaintances.

That’s not counting his annual mass commitment ceremony, which has joined more than 500 gay and lesbian couples since Brown did the first one in 1996, the year he took office. “It’s a lot of fun, and I love it,” Brown says, “and of course, it’s part of being the mayor of San Francisco.”

Kathleen Moran, Colusa County’s clerk-recorder and a former legislative liaison for county clerks statewide, also notes that weddings also “are a great political gesture.”

“Presiding over a ceremony,” she says, “lets you affect a lot of constituents.”

Nancy Cott, a Harvard University history professor and author of “Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation,” pegs the interest in elected officiators to “a kind of celebrity seeking, which these days is part of our culture in general.” The bride and groom, she says, get attention, both personal and public. The politician, meanwhile, is associated with happiness by a roomful of voters.

“I didn’t think he would do it when I asked, but he did,” recalls San Francisco interior designer Sumi Sereni, who is a friend of Brown’s personal assistant and whose April 2 wedding was among those that didn’t appear on the mayor’s 2001 official calendar. “He has always been more like a king than a mayor to me, and I imagined City Hall was my mansion, and the very king of San Francisco shall wed me! Afterward, when I tried to shake his hand, he reached out and hugged me. Thank God for waterproof mascara. I sobbed through the whole thing.”

Elected officials--like all adult Californians--have for years been able to perform weddings. State Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), for example, has done at least 10 in his 20-year career. One made it onto national TV when a camera crew tried to crash Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to Larry Fortensky in 1991 at Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch and ended up settling for O'Connell, who was in the area, officiating for a former staffer.

But, until recently, lawmakers such as O'Connell were the exception, and few presided with any frequency at weddings. The reason? Most people are unaware of the option. Under state law, county clerks, who are authorized to solemnize civil marriages, can in turn appoint deputy marriage commissioners to stand in for them. Usually, these deputies are municipal employees or volunteers in the clerk’s office. But about half of the state’s counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Francisco, Ventura and Sacramento, have additional, unadvertised programs that can extend the certification at the clerk’s discretion to any citizen over 18.

The authority is good for one day and one wedding only. Until 1998, most elected officials who were asked to perform marriages simply applied for one of these 24-hour deputizations in the county in which the ceremony was to take place.

But the deputization process is time-consuming. Not all counties offer 24-hour permits, and those that do tended to insist that the officiants-to-be apply in person. Plus, over the years, the permits crept up in price.

“Some counties charged, like, $100 every time they swore you in,” recalled U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who officiated “maybe three or four times” in his previous job as a state legislator from the Napa Valley.

“And it wasn’t as if you could pass that cost on to the couple. Or charge them for your time.”

Finally in 1998, elected officials quietly solved the problem by putting themselves on a par with ministers and judges. Thompson says the change came out of a casual conversation he had that year with Pat Johnston, a Stockton Democrat who was then chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I said it was ridiculous that we had to repeat this process every time someone asked us this favor, and he said, ‘Yeah, and expensive,”’ Thompson remembered. On the spot, Thompson said, they decided legislators, members of Congress and state constitutional officers such as the governor should be freed from the hassles of having to be designated repeatedly as “deputy for a day.”

Johnston, who is now a lobbyist and lecturer in politics and public policy at UC Berkeley, said he doesn’t recall the incident but is “glad to take credit for it.” Both Thompson and a former legislative staffer said that, after making sure other lawmakers had no objections, Johnston slipped the idea into a 1998 “omnibus” bill of legislative loose ends and, without fanfare, it became law.

The following year, Secretary of State Bill Jones, now a Republican gubernatorial candidate, used his new powers to perform two marriages--one for the son of a staff member, the other for a friend of his daughter.

Orange County real estate developer Roland Arnall, chairman of Ameriquest Capital Corp. and a longtime Democratic fund-raiser, got Gov. Gray Davis to officiate at his wedding.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff presided first over his chief of staff’s wedding and then over the union of two constituents at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Alarcon--remarried after a bitter marital breakup--will officiate later this year for the son of an old friend.

Lockyer, who had done “two or three” weddings in his career as a state senator under the old rules, did triple that number after the new law was enacted. So far, he says, all the couples are still together (though Lockyer is twice-divorced).

“I could have asked any one of two dozen judges, but we wanted someone we both knew,” said Harry Wartnick, a San Francisco attorney who married former Clinton-Gore campaign treasurer Joan Pollitt last month at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. Wartnick, speaking by phone from Kauai, where the couple were honeymooning, said that having the state’s top law enforcement officer at the altar “reinforced” the couple’s decision to keep the wedding small “and not let it turn into a spectacle.”

Venture capitalist Frank Caufield and his wife, Karen, said they, too, had familiarity in mind when they asked Pelosi to preside over their wedding at Caufield’s sprawling second home in Montecito. Caufield, a longtime contributor to Democratic causes, also lives in San Francisco, a block from Pelosi in Pacific Heights.

“Frank’s been involved in Washington, D.C., quite a bit, so he knew she could do it,” said Karen Caufield. “And she was just darling. She did a beautiful job. She had to fly in on Saturday afternoon because they were in session because of Sept. 11. But she made some notes on the back of a fax that got to her at the San Ysidro Ranch, where she was staying.”

Pelosi said the wedding was tinged with patriotic emotion. “Frank is a West Point graduate, and his father was a general and the ceremony was opened by a presentation of the flag that had been his father’s,” she recalled. (Other guests were impressed with Caufield’s estate, the private jets doubling as guest shuttles and the bridal procession, for which the couple hired Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, to riff on “Here Comes the Bride.”)

The wedding Feinstein presided over also had a personal angle. The groom was Norbu Tenzing, development director of the American Himalayan Foundation, of which Feinstein’s husband is founder and chairman. Ditto for the October nuptials of Dennis Hayashi and Mary Chung, who enlisted Matsui because, Hayashi said, “he has been like a mentor to me.”

But sometimes--as with love itself--famous officiants just happen. Take the couple married in November by Bustamante in a suburban kitchen near the state capitol.

The groom--who asked that names not be used because they haven’t told their grown children--said Bustamante’s chief of staff made the suggestion while they were visiting for Thanksgiving.

“He just kinda asked if, well, ‘If you’re going to get married, would you like to be married by the lieutenant governor?’ ” said the groom, a man in his 60s who runs a machinery sales and service business in Corona. “Well, we said of course. Why not? It’s not every day you get to do something like that.

“I’m a Republican and probably would have gone for George Bush if I could have gotten him, but Cruz did a real nice job,” he said, laughing. “We even got pictures. I donated $100 to his campaign a couple days later, even though he didn’t ask for it. Who knows? Next time he runs, I may even vote for him.”