I Do ... No, You Don't!

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NEWSOM AND THE NEWLYWEDS: The mayor with Cissie Bonini and Lora Pertle

If you wanted to get to Mayor Gavin Newsom's office at San Francisco's city hall last week, you had to navigate your way through a happy sea of gay newlyweds. Dozens of small groups were strewn randomly on the mayor's balcony, on the grand staircase, under the echoing rotunda modeled on the U.S. Capitol. Each group offered a similar emotional tableau: the couple beaming with pride, the earnest volunteer officiator in casual dress, the distracted children, the supportive friends wielding cameras or holding up cell phones so parents could hear "I do." Which is exactly the kind of scene Mayor Newsom imagined when he put the gay wedding train in motion just before Valentine's Day. "Put a human face on it. Let's not talk about it in theory," he explains. "Give me a story. Give me lives." The only thing Newsom was surprised by was the sheer number of lives involved—he hadn't expected so many out-of-state couples. By Friday, nearly 6,000 same-sex newlyweds had streamed out of city hall.

Newsom's decision has set off a nation-wide chain reaction that is putting public officials on the spot. President Bush declared himself "troubled," hinting that San Francisco's actions make him more likely to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued stern warnings to heed California law, which bars same-sex marriage. "It's time for the city to stop traveling down this dangerous path of ignoring the rule of law," he said. Meanwhile, other civic leaders embraced Newsom's actions. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said he would have "no problem" with Cook County issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson welcomed San Francisco's new policy. Victoria Dunlap, a Republican county clerk in New Mexico, issued licenses to 26 same-sex couples last Friday until the state attorney general shut her down.

Like the lives of the couples his decisions have changed, Newsom's political career has been irrevocably altered. He began it as the millionaire owner of the PlumpJack Cafe and Winery, the son of a local judge, and the husband of former lingerie model turned cnn and Court TV commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom. At 36 he is the youngest Bay Area mayor since the Gold Rush era. Now, less than 50 days into his tenure, the slick-haired, smooth-talking politician has become both poster boy and punching bag on the hot-button issue of gay marriage. Many Democrats are fretting that a presidential election year is a bad time for Newsom to take a principled and potentially unpopular stand on an issue that might hurt the party in the general election. But throughout all the controversy, the mayor remains almost preternaturally calm. "He's like Dean without the anger," says a Newsom staff member.

Before they elected him by a narrow margin over his Green Party opponent last December, San Franciscans thought they had Newsom figured out. He was a Clintonian New Democrat, the party establishment's choice to replace outgoing Mayor Willie Brown. The issue Newsom was best known for was a favorite with conservatives: he wanted to slash welfare payments to the homeless in return for more city housing. During a contentious campaign, Newsom voiced enthusiasm for same-sex marriage—but that is hardly an unusual platform in America's capital of gay culture. "Every San Francisco politician supports it, and then they run and hide when they get in office," he says. "That's why politicians are unpopular. We're always looking for a leader who speaks his conscience, and then when he does, we say, 'Boy, that was brave, but a little risky. Let's find someone more safe.'"

Newsom did not arrive at city hall spoiling for a fight on gay marriage. He started out by making some symbolic appointments—the city's first female fire chief, the first female police chief, the first openly gay chief of staff. He cut his own pay in the face of an estimated $330 million budget deficit. He had a 63% favorability rating (which has risen barely 3% since the gay marriages began). "He had already ingratiated himself a little with liberals," says San Francisco pollster David Binder. "Politically, he didn't need to do any more."

So why did he? To hear Newsom tell it, he was incensed by Bush's vow during the State of the Union to preserve the sanctity of traditional marriage. He studied the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that said gay couples could marry, the Supreme Court's decision in the Texas sodomy case and the California constitution. The latter's equal-protection clause gave him the rationale he needed. He decided that Proposition 22—the successful 2000 ballot measure in California that defined marriage as between a man and a woman—was discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. At the same time, he began calling Democrats in Washington, telling them what he had in mind. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both advised the mayor against attacking the law by flouting it. Openly gay Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank said Newsom was jeopardizing gay marriage elsewhere and making a constitutional amendment more likely. If Newsom allowed gay marriages, the party said, it would be a liability for his political future.

But the mayor's mind was made up. Gay activists came to city hall every year as part of a protest movement called Freedom to Marry. Newsom timed his directive so that this year they would not be turned away. During the long Presidents' Day weekend, Newsom even officiated at some weddings, including those of his chief of staff and his policy director. Meanwhile, impromptu parties convened on the city hall steps. Each couple that emerged waving a certificate was saluted by a mariachi band and a tap-dance troupe. Cookies, cake and roses were passed around. "This is our generation's Selma," said a straight white male attendee.

Conservatives begged to differ. A religious group called Repent America staged a sit-in at city hall last Friday. "Gavin Newsom is a renegade, and the word equality is being misused to rob all the sacred things of their uniqueness," said Randy Thomasson, founder of the Campaign for California Families. "What's next? Legalized heroin? Prostitution? Polygamy? Incest?" Thomasson's was one of two groups that asked for a temporary restraining order to halt the marriage spree. On Friday a local judge refused the request.

Newsom's daring actions may end up being merely symbolic. Sacramento officials say they won't accept the licenses on bureaucratic grounds. But that doesn't put a dent in the happiness of those newlyweds under the rotunda. And Newsom? "My reward at the end of the day is that I can live with myself," he says. "I did my job and had a conscience. That's more powerful than being mayor."