In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, much attention has rightfully been focused on the bold actions of the Democratic mayor of San Francisco in 2004.
But the actions of a Republican mayor in San Diego may also be said to have played a role in helping to shift public opinion.
The year was 2007 and the City Council had voted to join a lawsuit pending before the California Supreme Court attempting to overturn a ban on gay marriage.
Mayor Jerry Sanders had vowed to veto the council action. His views were in line with the standard GOP stance that civil unions for gay couples were acceptable, but not marriage.
Instead, Sanders abruptly reversed his opposition and announced, “I’ve decided to lead with my heart ... to take a stand on behalf of equality and social justice.”
He said he could not tell his daughter, Lisa, who is gay, that her relationship with her partner was less important than that of a straight couple.
A video of Sanders’ tearful announcement went viral. Just a week earlier he had announced his reelection bid.
Pundits suggested that Sanders, a former police chief, had ruined his political future in the Republican Party. Gay marriage opponents held rallies.
In an editorial, The Times said that it was easy for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom or various Los Angeles leaders to support gay marriage but Sanders’ reversal “makes him vulnerable.” He had shown, the editorial said, “a special brand of leadership.”
In the years that followed, Sanders has followed through: supporting the political and legal opposition to Proposition 8 and traveling to Washington to join a national coalition of mayors favoring marriage equality.
He was reelected easily in 2008 and remains undoubtedly the most popular political figure in San Diego.
On Friday, Sanders, now chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce, was attending a reelection fundraiser for Mayor Kevin Faulconer when his wife called with news about the high court decision. She was elated.
“She was whooping it up,” said Sanders. He declined any credit for himself in the shift of public opinion and praised those who “have had the courage to step forward and say they are gay.”
And he expressed surprise that the four dissenting justices had “not taken the opportunity to be on the right side of history.”