By Stephen Kiehl

Backing same-sex marriage

Decision: The San Francisco mayor's unexpected stand could curtail a promising career.

SAN FRANCISCO - Inside City Hall, in the Rotunda where thousands of gay couples have been married in joyous celebrations over the past three weeks, the mayor is referred to with reverence as "St. Gavin." Cards are slipped under his door, and thousands of flowers arrive at his office.

But outside City Hall, Mayor Gavin Newsom is condemned as a criminal, and the couples getting married are denounced as sinners by protesters carrying signs that read, "Homosexuality is Sin! Christ can set you free!"

Newsom - a straight, Irish Catholic moderate who married a former lingerie model - is an unlikely champion of same-sex marriage. But after hearing President Bush denounce same-sex marriage in his State of the Union address, Newsom ordered city officials to wed gay and lesbian couples.

In doing so, the 36-year-old mayor has alienated fellow Democrats running for office this year, threatened his chances of being elected to any job outside San Francisco and received boxes of hate mail. He doesn't seem to mind.

"Life is bigger than politics," Newsom says in an interview. "Principles matter and policies matter and ideas matter, and they're much bigger than me, and that's what I'm advocating."

San Francisco's experiment in civil disobedience - more than 3,500 same-sex couples have married since Feb. 12 - could end this week, when the California Supreme Court is expected to respond to a state petition to stop the marriages. Two lower court judges refused to issue immediate injunctions, forcing the state attorney general to ask the high court to step in.

But even if gay and lesbian weddings end soon in San Francisco, Newsom has made a name for himself. His office gets more than 100 interview requests a day. His approval rating in the city has surged to 69 percent. And he has spurred officials from New York to Oregon to follow his lead.

"This is a hugely popular decision in San Francisco, but once you cross over the Bay Bridge, the whole world changes," says Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant who was the communications director for Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. Schnur says Newsom has taken himself off the fast track.

"Even if the rest of the state eventually adopts the same attitude toward same-sex marriage that San Franciscans now hold, he's still going to have to explain a conscious decision to break the law," Schnur said.

Newsom, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who made his fortune in the wine business, says his decision is based on his sworn duty as an elected official to uphold the California Constitution. He says that the equality guaranteed in that document takes precedence over a state law, approved by voters in 2000, that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

"You've got to take charge and stand on principle, or get out of the way," Newsom says. "I got into this office to make a difference, not make excuses, and that's something I think we're doing on this subject."

It is not what anyone expected of him. Newsom was labeled the conservative in last fall's San Francisco mayoral race. With a campaign based on improving the local economy and combating the city's scourge of homelessness, Newsom eked out a victory over his Green Party opponent.

That opponent, Matt Gonzalez, was the favorite of the city's progressives and liberals, who liked his proposals to raise the minimum wage, lower mass transit fares and battle big development. Newsom could not have won, analysts say, without the backing of Republicans.

But once he took office, on Jan. 8, Newsom tacked to the left. He appointed women to the posts of police chief and fire chief, and an African-American lesbian to the school board. He warned businesses a tax increase may be in the offing, and he showed up at murder scenes to highlight the Police Department's poor record in solving crimes.

Newsom was seen as a rising star in California politics - a socially moderate Democrat whose youth and energy had broad appeal. He has movie-star good looks, teeth that belong in a Colgate commercial and a glamorous wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, who is now a legal analyst for CNN.

Now the mayor stands in the center of a political firestorm. President Bush singled out San Francisco - and Newsom's actions - when announcing his support last month for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Newsom quickly went before the TV cameras and said the president ought to be ashamed of himself.

"Everybody should be foursquare against using the Constitution of the United States, which lays out our rights, in an effort to advance a political career," Newsom says in an interview at the downtown Marriott hotel here. "We should all be against that and what President Bush is doing. It is demeaning to literally tens of millions of people and demeaning to the core principles and values of this country."

While some political consultants say Newsom's stand could mean the end of his career outside this city by the bay, others believe he will look even better when society catches up with him and gay marriage is commonplace. They expect the country to move in that direction in five to 10 years.

"Gavin has in one fell swoop basically created a legacy for himself that he is someone who stands up for what he believes in," says Chris Lehane, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant and former adviser to the John Kerry and Wesley K. Clark campaigns. "If you look at politicians like stocks, he's a blue chip. The courage and leadership he showed will overwhelm any potential negatives."

Conservative groups, however, say he is breaking the law and must pay the consequences. Some have urged state officials to arrest Newsom and charge him with official misconduct, just as the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., who married 25 same-sex couples, was charged with violating a 19th-century New York law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. That mayor, Jason West, has pleaded not guilty.

"It's amazing that we have to discuss needing criminal statutes to punish public officials who intentionally break the law, but we have come to that," says Josh Carden, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents two of the three anti-same-sex-marriage groups that have sued the city.

"The California Constitution clearly says public officials must follow the laws unless and until an appellate court declares them unconstitutional," Carden says. "You don't have the option of ignoring the law and hoping the court will see it your way later - even laws you don't agree with."

But to the couples getting married in San Francisco's City Hall, and their families, Newsom is a hero. The weddings that many said they never thought would come in their lifetimes now fill up every corner of the ornate Rotunda.

Some of the wedding parties number 25 or 30 people, friends and families from all over converging amid tears and applause. After 49-year-old Marla Lesley married her partner of 11 years, Rose Marino, last week, Lesley turned to her mother, hugged her and said, "Now both your daughters are married, Ma."

Her mother, Thelma Ellenbee, 79, said later, "Both of my children now have happier marriages than I ever did, and how can you sit in judgment of who should be married? I always thought my daughter was cheated because she loved her partner but never had the joy of proclaiming it publicly."

As she spoke, City Hall was filled with cheers and whistles from other weddings. Tourists and city staffers would join in applauding each new marriage, and the celebrations could be heard in the second-floor office of Mayor Newsom and on the streets outside.

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