Gay marriage opponents got a surprise boost

Times Staff Writer

The campaign against same-sex marriage in California was treading water until it got help from an unexpected corner: a Republican mayor choking up and announcing he would not betray his gay daughter.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders had promised to oppose same-sex marriage. Then, last fall, hours before he was supposed to veto a City Council motion supporting gay marriage, he called a news conference at which he broke into tears.

One of his daughters is gay, he said, and he just couldn’t tell her she did not have the right to get married.

The about-face stunned political observers and energized opponents of same-sex marriage who felt Sanders had betrayed them. It was only one of the twists on the path to the November ballot for Proposition 8, which, if passed, would amend the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Other milestones included a significant boost from ministers and an assist from an out-of-state conservative group that sent an operative to San Diego to raise money.

“It’s not how things typically get on the ballot,” Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow said.


Opponents of same-sex marriage say they began preparing for the amendment campaign not long after San Francisco issued the nation’s first same-sex marriage licenses in February 2004.

During the so-called Winter of Love, officials in San Francisco married more than 4,000 gay and lesbian couples, prompting euphoria and outrage nationwide. Mayor Gavin Newsom said the California Constitution gave him the right to perform the marriages. The state Supreme Court disagreed and invalidated them because of Proposition 22, the 2000 ballot initiative that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and other marriage laws that have long been on the state’s books.

Gay rights activists decided to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s marriage laws.

Opponents of gay marriage, meanwhile, decided California needed a constitutional amendment that would put the matter out of judges’ reach, according to Andrew Pugno, a legal advisor to the Protect Marriage coalition. The coalition, which has its office in Sacramento, is made up of churches and self-described pro-family organizations and leaders across the state.

Until 2007, efforts to put an amendment on the ballot faltered.

It was hard to get people excited about a threat as abstract as the possibility that the Supreme Court might rule against Proposition 22, Pugno said, and opponents of same-sex marriage were split into factions.

One camp, led by conservative activist Randy Thomasson, pushed ballot measures that also would have stripped away gay couples’ rights to civil unions.

The other, more moderate group, which included both Pugno and Gail Knight, widow of original Proposition 22 backer state Sen. Pete Knight, considered that too radical for California voters.

Groups against gay marriage filed more than six potential ballot petitions over the last few years. Not one got anywhere near the ballot. In some cases, no signatures were even collected.

By fall 2007, some opponents of same-sex marriage were becoming worried. Court-watchers decided the Supreme Court would probably hear the challenge to the state’s marriage laws in early 2008. Opponents worried that if the court voted to legalize same-sex marriage -- which it ultimately did -- they might not collect enough signatures in time to get the matter onto the ballot until at least 2010.

Then came the San Diego mayor’s public about-face.

Sanders ran for mayor in 2005 with a pledge to veto any measure supporting same-sex marriage.

When the San Diego City Council passed a measure in September supporting same-sex marriage, he was expected to veto it.

Instead he called a news conference, and within seconds of ascending to the podium, he was choked up.

“My opinions on this issue have evolved significantly,” Sanders said. “I just could not bring myself to tell an entire group of people in our community that they were less important . . . less deserving of the rights and responsibilities . . . simply because of their sexual orientation.”

His voice continuing to shake, he said his daughter Lisa and several of his senior staff members were gay or lesbian.

At the end of his five-minute speech, Sanders said, “I acknowledge that not all members of our community will agree or perhaps even understand.”

He was right.

While some viewed the mayor’s decision as moving and heartfelt, others were outraged.

It turned out to be the boost Protect Marriage needed.

A few weeks later, about 200 pastors gathered in San Diego County to “respond to the mayor’s about-face,” according to Skyline’s pastor Jim Garlow.

The pastors began energetically collecting signatures to get Proposition 8 on the ballot. Led by their effort, Protect Marriage coalition members said, the coalition amassed half a million.

But they needed hundreds of thousands more.

That’s when they turned to a young conservative activist named Brian Brown.

Brown, a former graduate student in history at UCLA who left because he wanted to dedicate himself to the conservative movement, had co-founded the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage less than a year earlier. His group’s other founders include conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher and Princeton professor Robert George.

The nonprofit’s aim is to parachute into states and provide organized opposition to same-sex marriage laws in state legislatures.

The Protect Marriage coalition in California appealed to Brown’s group, and in December 2007, Brown and his family moved to San Diego.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” Brown said. “Both sides understand that.”

Brown’s group raised nearly $1 million in seed money. It hired professional signature gatherers, and, Protect Marriage Coalition members said, the coalition turned in more than 1 million signatures on April 24 -- three weeks before the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling allowing same-sex marriage.

As they push forward into the next phase of the campaign, some opponents of same-sex marriage still credit Sanders with helping them, however inadvertently, get where they are today.

Sanders’ openly gay spokesman, Fred Sainz, said they should not be so quick to do that.

Rather, he said, they should worry that voters they are counting on will follow the example of the Republican mayor, whom Sanders described as “this former chief of police” and a “big, butch guy.”

“This issue is going to be either won or lost with people who are undecided,” Sainz said. “And Jerry brings this wonderful life experience. . . . He comes at it entirely with the perspective of being a dad . . . who has two daughters, and he was unwilling to discriminate against one.”