It is the hottest ticket in the country. On Tuesday morning, only a lucky few will be inside the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the historic arguments over whether California’s gay marriage ban is constitutional.
Among the 400 courtroom spectators will be a guy who arguably deserves more than any other elected official to be in the room: California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Newsom has earned his place in the history of the fight for gay civil rights. In 2004, as mayor of San Francisco, he abruptly legalized gay marriage in his city, shocking supporters and opponents alike.
A week ago, he said, when he looked into attending the proceeding, he was told there was no seat available. Then, he said, “Out of the blue, Nancy called. It was like divine intervention.”
Nancy, of course, is former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow San Francisco Democrat, and in some sense, the godmother of Newsom’s 2004 gay marriage surprise.
Nine years ago, Newsom said, Pelosi invited the mayor of her adopted hometown to be her guest at President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech. Bush focused mostly on the war in Iraq and homeland security, but he also detoured into social issues, urging support for a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the concept of marriage as between a man and woman:
“Congress has already taken a stand on this issue by passing the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996 by President Clinton,” Bush said. “That statute protects marriage under federal law as a union of a man and a woman, and declares that one state may not redefine marriage for other states.
Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives. On an issue of such great consequence, the people’s voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”
Newsom was offended. “Why did he want to change the Constitution? What was wrong with it?”
He flew back to San Francisco, brooded, and on less than a month later, on Feb. 12, 2004, he ordered the city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“I will not abdicate and step back and say what we were doing 10, 15 days ago -- before this action -- is appropriate,” Newsom said. “I do not believe it’s appropriate for me, as mayor of San Francisco, to discriminate against people. And if that means my political career ends, so be it.”
Four thousand couples married. The legal backlash was immediate. The California Supreme Court halted the weddings and later ruled that Newsom had overstepped his authority. Four years later, the state’s electorate passed Proposition 8, outlawing gay marriage. Whether that measure was constitutional is what the U.S. Supreme Court will now decide.
Newsom was accused of pushing gay marriage at a time the country was not ready for it, for delivering a wedge issue on a silver platter for Republicans to exploit, and he suffered a loss of status in the Democratic Party. Others were astonished at his nerve.
“I was completely knocked out by Gavin’s courage,” said Sheila James Kuehl, the former state assemblywoman and senator who was the first openly gay person to serve in the California Legislature. “Lots of my friends made immediate plans to go to San Francisco to be married, and I actually officiated at five weddings on March 8, 2004. It was so joyful!”
Newsom, 45, is as surprised as most Americans at the speed with which the country seems to be accepting gay marriage.
Supporting same-sex marriage, he said Monday from Washington, “was a minority opinion in San Francisco in 2004, let alone the country. The position we took was certainly contradicted by the Democratic Party, which did not endorse or support it. (He even took grief from his own family. His father, Bill Newsom, a retired state appeals court judge was “vehemently opposed,” Newsom said.)
“I never imagined we would be represented by the likes of David Boies and Ted Olson at the Supreme Court this soon,” he said, invoking the names of the powerhouse attorneys, opponents in 2000’s Bush vs. Gore, who will represent the pro-gay marriage position in court Tuesday.
As for why the change has come so fast, Newsom noted, “It always comes down to the water cooler conversation. It comes down to the human connection. ‘Hey, my niece just came out as gay.’ Every gay or lesbian in our country is the son or daughter to someone—a Will Portman or a Mary Cheney. It connects people of all stripes.”
He declined to rap Republican Sen. Rob Portman for coming out for gay marriage last week, only after learning his son, Will, was gay.
“I think all of us should be cautious not to criticize anyone for coming out and supporting marriage equality,” Newsom said. “But I do understand the broader concept that it shouldn’t just be a loved one that should persuade. We all have to see the world from other people’s eyes.”
A plethora of high-profile politicos and businesses have professed support for gay marriage in recent weeks. On Monday, two Democratic U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Mark Warner of Virginia, said they favor it. And dozens of major American companies, including Walt Disney, Viacom and Goldman Sachs, declared in full-page newspaper ads, “America’s leading businesses agree: Same-sex couples deserve to be treated equally.”
All of which, Newsom said, has to have an effect on the justices. “Every judge is a human being,” he said. “They read the newspaper, they watch TV, they talk about popular culture, they have kids and grandkids.”
No matter what the justices decide, though, the case is a kind of vindication for Newsom.
“I just really wanted to be there,” he said. “For me, it’s a personal journey.”