As the California Assembly prepares to take up gay marriage legislation as early as Tuesday, the measure’s fate may rest not with lofty arguments about the centuries-old institution but with the political futures of a handful of wavering lawmakers.
All four Democrats whom advocates have identified as swing votes represent districts with many Latinos or African Americans -- two groups that, because of their religious backgrounds, are among the most wary of broadening the definition of marriage to say it is a union of two people rather than of a man and a woman.
Making the consequences of their votes even more sensitive, all four lawmakers -- Jerome Horton of Inglewood, Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino, Simon Salinas of Salinas and Tom Umberg of Anaheim -- are in their final terms in the Assembly and eyeing higher offices.
This political reality has become a factor in determining votes since the advent of term limits, and other lawmakers and political consultants say it weighs heavily on this issue, one of the year’s most controversial in Sacramento.
“Everyone who has indicated that they are still thinking about this has uniformly told me that if it were only a matter of conscience, of course they would be there, but that their own 2006 races are the issue,” said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), one of the measure’s sponsors.
The California Senate on Thursday approved the bill, the first time a legislative body in the United States had endorsed gay marriage without being compelled by a court order.
Intense pressure from both sides now is focusing on the 80-member Assembly, where a handful of abstaining members led to the bill’s narrow failure in June. Advocates say they need just three more votes to send the measure to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, although such a victory may be symbolic, given that the governor has signaled he would veto it.
Opposition groups are urging supporters to blanket pivotal lawmakers with calls and faxes. They say that lawmakers who vote for the measure, AB 849, are insulting the 61% of Californians who approved Proposition 22, which declared that California would recognize only marriages between heterosexual couples, in 2000.
“They thought they voted to preserve marriage and this wouldn’t be allowed to take place,” said Karen England, executive director of the Capitol Resource Institute, a Sacramento group that backed the proposition five years ago. “They’re pretty frustrated and letting the representatives know.”
Gay rights advocates have hired Christine Chavez-Delgado, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez and an organizer for the United Farm Workers of America, to help develop grass-roots support throughout the state. The farmworkers group endorsed the measure in late June, after the defeat in the Assembly.
Advocates are also trumpeting a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, released last week, showing registered voters split 46% to 46% on the topic.
They also note that two of the swing votes belong to Assembly members who are hoping to be elected in the fall to the seats of Senate Democrats who voted in favor of the measure. Kuehl distributed CDs with the taped Senate floor debate to the crucial Assembly members.
“Our base is incredibly engaged, and we will support the people who stand with us,” said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, the statewide gay rights group that sponsored the bill. “Ultimately, and I think these candidates know it, the people who care passionately on this issue on the other side aren’t voting for them.”
But the undecided legislators -- all of whom abstained last time -- are hard sells because of their political ambitions.
“It would be one thing if they’re running in San Francisco,” but you’ve got [places] where the voters all overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant.
Negrete McLeod is facing a primary race against fellow Assembly member Joe Baca Jr. (D-Rialto) for the state Senate seat being vacated by Nell Soto (D-Pomona). Though Democratic, the San Bernardino district has many farmworkers and a strong Latino presence, and Baca voted against the gay marriage measure in June.
Advocates are trying to persuade Baca to vote for the measure if Negrete McLeod also does, so neither can use it against the other in the primary.
“I believe in the Constitution; it’s justice for all. I believe everybody has rights,” Negrete McLeod said Friday.
Asked how she will vote, she said, “I don’t know. We’ll see what happens on Tuesday.”
Salinas is blunter about the political factors. He is weighing a challenge to Republican Sen. Jeff Denham, also of Salinas, a rural area east of Monterey on the edge of the conservative Central Valley. Salinas, who told The Times to “stay tuned” because he is “still considering” the measure, acknowledged the political benefits of opposition to the San Jose Mercury News.
“You have to ask, how does this vote impact my next election? Some will deny that, but we need to be open and honest,” Salinas told the newspaper. “If I was thinking entirely politically, I would vote no because then I could show to my constituents that I was representing them more conservatively.”
In a strong Democratic district where the primary race will determine the victor, Horton is locked in a tough fight for the Board of Equalization with fellow Assembly member Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park).
Chu supports the gay marriage bill and stands to garner the strong backing of gay rights groups. Hoffenblum said Horton cannot afford to alienate black ministers who can help turn out the African American vote. “He needs a heavy black vote, and I don’t think he wants these black preachers going around saying it’s a sin,” Hoffenblum said.
Umberg is seeking the Orange County state Senate seat being vacated by Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana). The conservative blue-collar district has one of the narrowest Democratic majority margins in the state, and Republicans view it as among those they have the best chance of winning next year.
Not only does Umberg have to worry about a strong GOP challenge, he also may face a Democratic primary battle with former Assemblyman and now Orange County Supervisor Lou Correa, who was the key vote two years ago to approve civil unions. But Correa said he would not support the gay marriage proposal if he had to vote now.
“I at this point would probably vote no on that,” said Correa, who has not decided whether he will seek Dunn’s seat. “As an elected official, I represent my constituency, and I believe that’s the belief of my constituency.”
Gay rights advocates say they will put up a primary challenge to Umberg if he does not support the measure. Advocates also say that Umberg is not in a strong position to join with those arguing to “preserve the sanctity of traditional marriage,” given that he admitted earlier this year to an extramarital affair.
“I try not to be too personal in my assessment,” Kuehl said, “but certainly people who live in glass houses shouldn’t deny other people houses.”
Umberg said he has sought spiritual guidance and had family discussions to resolve how he should vote. “I think it’s clear that both sides are pulling out all the stops,” he said. “The ultimate decision will just be a matter of conscience, and this is not something that’s dictated by politics.”
Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist, said lawmakers’ votes against gay marriage may also come back to haunt them in elections beyond next year.
“In the long term, it can affect whether they face a primary challenge for some other office,” he said.
Though advocates consider this the most important civil rights issue in a generation, there is no unanimity among Democrats that moving forcefully on is a smart play for the party or the issue, especially given that opponents are readying initiatives for the ballot next year that would alter the state Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage and could roll back domestic partner laws.
Some Democrats are mindful of the criticism that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s authorization of gay unions may have helped President Bush win reelection. And Schwarzenegger has sent strong signals that he would veto it even if the measure passes.
“Some people feel it’s going to backfire if the Democrats push too hard,” said the Assembly Democratic leader, Dario Frommer of Glendale.
But Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the measure’s primary sponsor, is insistent that the vote be held next week. For lawmakers on the cusp, taking a stand is dangerous, but continuing to stay neutral is also a risky venture, people in both parties say.
“Political abstention is a worse position than taking a position,” said the Assembly Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. “On this issue, people have strong opinions about on both sides. I don’t think they elected officials to vote just on the easy ones.”