Politics

Why California Can’t Decide Whether to Make Marriage a Big Gubernatorial Issue

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Republicans are quickly learning that same-sex marriage isn’t the wedge issue it once was … just a year ago. GOP chairman Michael Steele is equally hands-on as he is hands-off, while New York governor hopeful Rudy Giuliani, a staunch anti-gay marriage advocate, has learned to tone things down (sometimes). Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is eying a presidential run in 2012; marriage equality might not even make his issues list. Then how ironic it must be, then, that letting gays get married could still be an election issue in a certain state — and one that candidates are actually touting their support?

(Pictured, L-R: Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman, Tom Campbell)

That’s the dilemma faced by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wants to take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top California job. He’s pro-gay marriage, but he recognizes voters need to know him for more than just an equality advocate. So he’s actually working to distance himself from the issue, or at least broaden his repertoire. But he’s not avoiding the issue altogether, and in fact makes a talking point out of showing the difference between him and Democratic challenger Jerry Brown, the state attorney general who sued to invalidate Prop 8. (Brown says he’s more pro-gay than Newsom; Newsom says Brown just joined the fray to win votes.)

But in California — a state reeling from Prop 8 and rocked by an issue most observers expected to be, well, a non-issue there — the matter won’t die. Which means whoever faces off in November 2010 will be appealing to voters who are also hitting the polls to vote on a possible repeal of Prop 8. And that means all candidates will have to take up same-sex marriage this election cycle, making it an election issue once again. This is significant.

Politically speaking, there’s no obvious choice where to place your support to attract voters. Los Angeles Times: “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.”

Which means any primary race candidate, no matter how much he supports marriage equality, risks going overboard with support, which could divide voters in the general election. Or maybe not: Front-running Republican candidate Tom Campbell, a former congressman, supports same-sex marriage. (He also favors higher taxes, which begs the question: Republic-a-what?)

And then there’s Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief, whose stance on gay marriage just about mirrors what happened last week with the California Supreme Court: She wants the 18,000 marriages to remain valid, but doesn’t want any more same-sex unions from here on out.

We’re still more than a year away from November 2010’s election, but there’s little indication anyone on either side of the gay marriage debate plans on going quiet anytime soon. And if equality advocates do go forward with putting a Prop 8 repeal on next year’s ballot, you can be certain we’re going to find ourselves right back where we were in November 2008: Debating whether anyone should get to vote on your relationship.