From the start of his run for governor, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has tried to show there is more to his career than the gesture that won him worldwide fame: his 2004 decree legalizing same-sex marriage.
Yet there he was Tuesday on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” speaking out for gay rights after the state Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban that Californians passed in November.
For Newsom and five major-party rivals, the resurgence of the same-sex marriage issue has added a new complication to the race for governor.
If gay rights groups get their way, the nominees to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will share the November 2010 ballot with a measure to repeal Proposition 8, turning an emotionally charged cultural issue into a central focus of the campaign.
Across the nation, the subject has grown more challenging for candidates of all kinds as the mere concept has given way to the reality of tens of thousands of married gay couples. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and Iowa have legalized same-sex marriage.
Voters have also shifted their views. In April, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 49% of Americans said gay marriage should be legal, and 46% said it should be illegal. Three years earlier, 36% had said it should be legal, and 58% had said it should not.
“The trajectory of public opinion on this issue has been dramatic,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
In California, where Newsom’s rebel edict in 2004 touched off the court battles that spawned some 18,000 marriages that were declared valid Tuesday, candidates for governor face multiple dangers on the issue. Although support for gay marriage has risen over the last decade -- the 52% yes vote on Proposition 8 was down from 61% on a similar measure in 2000 -- the issue still sharply divides Californians.
“People care about this one -- a lot -- on both sides,” said Steve Smith, a Democratic strategist who worked on the campaign to defeat Proposition 8.
A Field Poll taken three months ago affirmed stark generational and ideological splits on same-sex marriage.
Younger voters were far more likely to approve of it than older voters. And Democrats overwhelmingly favored it, while Republicans were strongly opposed.
In that environment, candidates for governor are juggling wildly different needs for the primaries and the general election.
To score points with partisan voters in the June 2010 primary -- regardless of party -- is to risk harm in the broader arena of the general election.
So Newsom or any other Democrat who gets too bold about same-sex marriage in the primary could face a backlash if running as party nominee come November, said Republican strategist Frank Schubert.
“In the general election, it’s a huge problem, because it identifies you so closely with a polarizing issue that could define your candidacy,” said Schubert, who led the campaign for Proposition 8.
Schubert said blacks and Latinos, both strong Democratic constituencies that have largely opposed gay marriage, will be targets of opportunity for the Republican nominee -- particularly if a marriage measure is on the same ballot. Likewise, Democrats believe that a staunchly anti-gay marriage stance could limit a Republican nominee’s success in appealing to the moderates whose support is necessary for victory.
So far, the candidate taking the biggest gamble on the issue is a Republican, Tom Campbell of Orange County. The former Silicon Valley congressman supports gay marriage, putting him starkly out of sync with the conservatives who hold sway in GOP primaries. (That is not a surprising position for Campbell, who is also touting higher taxes as a way out of the state’s fiscal mess.)
Republican rival Meg Whitman, a former EBay chief executive, supported Proposition 8. But she too has vexed conservatives, in her case by saying the 18,000 same-sex marriages that occurred before the measure passed should stay legal.
“That’s very troubling,” said Karen England, a key state Republican Party leader. England also faulted another GOP candidate, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, for not speaking out sooner and more forcefully for Proposition 8.
On the Democratic side, a spat has broken out between Newsom and state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown over which man has been a stronger supporter of same-sex marriage.
In a tack apparently aimed at undercutting Newsom among backers of gay marriage, Brown waged a court fight to overturn Proposition 8. It was an unusual move for an attorney general, who typically defends initiatives passed by voters, and the state Supreme Court rebuffed him Tuesday.
But Newsom, in turn, has cast Brown as late to the gay-marriage cause. Newsom strategist Garry South hammered Brown for a bill that he signed into law as governor in 1977; it defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
In an interview, Brown brushed the bill off as a technical clarification of previous laws. “I saw it as codifying legislative intent,” he said.
South, however, said Brown “is responsible for the fact that California defines marriage as between a man and a woman.” And for a man who often “blabbers” about being a forward-looking governor in the 1970s, South said, “there’s a certain irony to that.”
This week, Newsom made clear that he would not shy from the gay-marriage issue, even as he tries to familiarize Californians with his record on healthcare, education and other issues.
“It sets him apart as a politician in terms of doing what he thought was right,” South said.
Another potential candidate, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has also made a point of speaking out for gay marriage as he weighs whether to run. On Tuesday night, he took part in a West Hollywood protest against the California Supreme Court’s ruling.