Wedding present

Democrats wonder if taking up a gay-marriage bill is actually a gift to Republicans

Assemblyman Mark Leno’s gay-marriage bill appears to be a victim of bad timing.

Assemblyman Mark Leno’s gay-marriage bill appears to be a victim of bad timing.

It wasn’t until an early-February call from his hometown mayor, Gavin Newsom, that Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, realized what a significant year 2004 would be for the issue of gay marriage. But even Leno, who, at the time, was planning to introduce his bill allowing same-sex marriage, could not have envisioned cultural shifts so significant that even his staunchest opponents, like Senator Pete Knight, would begin to give ground.

When the San Francisco mayor told Leno about his plan to issue marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, everything began to change. For years, gay couples had come to San Francisco’s City Hall to ask for marriage licenses on February 12. That’s Freedom to Marry Day, when gay activists highlight the fact that same-sex couples can’t legally wed. The couples had always been turned away. But Newsom didn’t feel like keeping that tradition alive.

Leno also had plans for February 12. He was scheduled to hold a press conference after introducing his same-sex marriage bill, which he’d been crafting for months. When Newsom issued marriage licenses, grabbing the country’s attention, Leno shelved his press conference and went to San Francisco, where he ended up officiating marriages for more than 100 gay and lesbian couples.

His bill got lost in the commotion, a victim of bad timing.

Two months later, same-sex marriage has advanced so far as an issue that even Republicans like Knight, a senator from Palmdale, seem to be changing their minds. In 2000, California voters overwhelmingly approved Knight’s Proposition 22, which said the state would recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. Knight once wouldn’t even consider civil unions and expanded rights for domestic partners, but now he’s willing to compromise—under certain conditions.

Since Proposition 22 passed in 2000, he’s seen its power erode—most notably when his gay son recently got married in San Francisco.

Today, Knight says he might be willing to accept some of the domestic-partner rights won last year by lesbian Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles. Knight has been fighting in court to block Goldberg’s Assembly Bill 205, which gives domestic partners many of the same rights as married couples, from taking effect next year. But two weeks ago, Knight met with lobbyist Steve Hansen of Equality California, a gay-rights advocacy group that’s sponsoring Leno’s bill. Both sides described the meeting as friendly.

Knight told SN&R he would support something short of marriage if same-sex-marriage advocates called off their quest for the real thing. “I’d be willing to compromise,” Knight recalled saying at the meeting. “We might be able to come up with some system that would allow, for example, domestic partners to be registered, and they would have certain rights associated with that, in consideration for [ending] all of the efforts to change the definition of marriage.”

Hansen politely declined, and the rivals agreed to disagree, but just hearing Knight say that was something of a victory for his opponents.

Knight believes most Californians side with him, but he also acknowledges that the Republican governor is “wishy-washy” on marriage. And Knight knows he doesn’t have much of a chance to stop Leno’s marriage bill if Democrats do get behind it. Asked what he could do, Knight looked straight on and deadpanned: “Nothing.”

Yet, timing troubles continue to vex Leno’s marriage bill. At press time, a key Assembly committee was refusing to let it move.

Republicans appear monolithic in their opposition, so passage depends on how many Assembly Democrats will vote aye. But Democrats, worried about losing seats in November, don’t know what to do. Meanwhile, the courts have taken up the issue, which gives skeptical lawmakers an excuse to reserve judgment.

Leno chairs the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Caucus, a 2-year-old group made up of the state’s five gay and lesbian lawmakers: Senator Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly members Leno; Goldberg; Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego; and John Laird, D-Santa Cruz. Last year, the group scored a big victory with Goldberg’s AB 205, a bill Goldberg originally didn’t think could go the distance. But the timing was right: Former Governor Gray Davis signed it while fighting the recall; Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn’t have.

In the most technical sense, Leno’s bill is no big deal. It changes the definition of marriage in the state Family Code from “between a man and a woman” to “between two persons.” In a political sense, the bill is radioactive.

So far, the question isn’t how many lawmakers think gay marriage is right or wrong. Rather, it’s how many Democrats think the political timing is right.

“Not everyone’s sure where they are,” said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg. “It’s an emotional issue, and it could impact the elections.” Canciamilla, like other moderates, won’t back gay marriage, but even some Assembly Democrats who do support same-sex marriage sound skeptical about addressing it now.

“If it were my call, I probably would not highlight this issue this year,” said Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, a same-sex-marriage supporter. “Most Republicans I talk to are very pleased that this has become an issue.”

“This is not an easy issue for some of the caucus members, and they’ve expressed that to the speaker,” said Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. “Right now, we don’t need a wedge issue to divide the caucus.”

At first, Kuehl said, even LGBT Caucus members themselves weren’t sure about the bill’s timing. “We really lacked information about how members, especially in the Assembly, would view it in an election year,” she said. “But the whole issue got kicked up a notch when people started getting licenses. Public perceptions changed, and the awareness made people more comfortable supporting the bill.”

Leno acknowledges getting an earful about the bill’s timing. “There were folks both here and in San Francisco who asked me before I put the bill across the desk why I was doing it now, that this might not be the best time, and people expressed their nervousness and concern,” Leno said, refusing to name the nervous.

For their part, Republicans say they’d love to have the issue hanging around the Democrats’ necks as November nears. “In an election year, it’ll be the lead weight that sinks them,” said state GOP spokeswoman Karen Hanretty. “I’d love nothing more than for Democrats to actively campaign for an issue like gay marriage, which the vast majority of Californians don’t support.”

Though “vast majority” might be a stretch, Californians don’t favor gay marriage, at least according to a February survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). It found 50 percent of Californians opposed, 44 percent in favor and 6 percent unsure. But the survey also shows Californians embracing gay rights more as the years go by—suggesting that, while the timing for gay marriage may be questionable right now, acceptance isn’t far off. PPIC found the percentage of Californians who favor gay marriage was up 6 percent in the last four years, from just 38 percent.

Right now, Leno’s bill is still awaiting referral by the Assembly Rules Committee, which must send it to hearings in policy committees. Rules Chair Cindy Montañez, D-San Fernando, brushed off any suggestion that Assembly leadership was killing Leno’s bill. Montañez, a co-author on the bill, said she’d been talking with Leno and Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, about the best way to move forward.

“It’s important to know what the courts decide,” she said. “We have to look at the bigger issue, what we’re trying to accomplish.” Montañez wouldn’t say when or if the bill would move. “We are constantly talking about it. Things are changing on a daily basis,” she said.

“It’s a nonsensical position” to wait for the courts, countered Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California.

A Núñez spokesman said the speaker doesn’t want gay marriage to be something that distracts from efforts on workers’ compensation and the budget.

Leno insisted there’s still plenty of time before the April 23 deadline to get his bill heard in the Judiciary Committee. But if it isn’t heard, then it will be effectively dead for the year, because resurrecting it after that deadline would require Republican support.

Leno said he’s expecting the speaker’s help. “He encouraged me to move forward, so I’m sure he would be supportive,” Leno said.

Leno’s bill needs 41 votes to pass in the Assembly, so he can only afford a few defectors among Democrats, who hold 48 of 80 seats.

Leno said he wouldn’t push a floor vote just to make a point. “As committed as I am to my bill, I’m also not interested in anything but supporting the greater caucus.” Nor will he bring the bill to the floor unless he’s sure it can get to 41. And, right now, Leno knows he doesn’t have the votes.

Should it get to the Senate, the bill could have an easier time, because fewer Democrats there are considered vulnerable. So far, Schwarzenegger hasn’t said what he’d do if Leno’s hot potato landed on his desk. “I don’t even think about hypothetical things,” he said in February, when Meet the Press interlocutor Tim Russert asked specifically about Leno’s bill. But in another appearance with late-night host Jay Leno, Schwarzenegger said he opposed the president’s push for a constitutional amendment and suggested that he didn’t have a problem with gay marriage if the courts legalized it. So far, the governor hasn’t agreed to meet with the LGBT Caucus about the marriage bill.

Governor and Legislature aside, the recent explosion of gay marriage as an all-consuming political issue has Mark Leno and other gay activists light-years ahead of where they were last year.

A year ago, Goldberg thought she was really reaching with AB 205. But it squeaked out of the Assembly with 41 votes and then passed the Senate. And it had impeccable timing. Davis signed it just before leaving office.

This year, while the licenses were flowing still, Goldberg and her longtime partner married in San Francisco. And conservatives, as if unwittingly giving a wedding present, started sounding like they could warm up to her ideas.

“The genie is out of the bottle," Goldberg said, "and you just can’t cram it back in."