Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gay marriage bill dead till '07, says speaker


Speaker Fabian Nunez. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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State lawmakers will not return to the issue of gay marriage next year, when Democrats hope to retake the governorship and many legislators are up for re-election. Instead, any attempts to pass a marriage equality bill in the Statehouse will not come until 2007, said the leader of the Assembly.

Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) confirmed during an interview with the Bay Area Reporter Friday, October 14 that gay marriage will not be part of the Democrats' legislative agenda when lawmakers return in January to begin a new session.

"2007 is what we are looking at right now on reintroducing the marriage bill," said Nunez, referring to the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act introduced by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and passed by state lawmakers this summer but vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last month.

Instead, Nunez said the Democratic agenda will focus on four issues in 2006: universal healthcare for anyone under the age of 18; raising the state's minimum wage by a $1 to $7.75; investing in the state's roads, levees, and transportation networks; and universal preschool. While it will not be a part of the legislative package next year, Nunez made a promise that he will champion the issue of marriage equality in 2007, and in 2008 if needed.

"I am in the Legislature until 2008. One of the things I am committed to before I leave is we need to do right by offering people the civil rights they deserve," said Nunez, a co-author of Leno's bill this year. "I think we are going to do it. It is going to happen."

Of course, past pronouncements of the gay marriage bill being dead have proven wrong. When the state Assembly at first failed to pass the bill in June, state Senator Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) told the San Francisco Chronicle the issue was "dead for the year." But Leno used a parliamentary procedure to revive his bill in the state Senate, and ultimately, see it to passage in the state Legislature.

When asked about the speaker's comments last week, Leno said he had yet to make a final decision on when to reintroduce his bill. But he indicated it likely would not be next year.

"The consideration of reintroducing the bill in 2006 is not a conversation I have yet personally had with the speaker. But it is certainly worth having that conversation to see what his and our caucus' thoughts would be on bringing it back knowing that this governor would veto it a second time," Leno said. "I think the singular focus in the coming year will be the defeat of proposed constitutional amendments and any thought of reintroducing the bill should be considered in light of those amendments."

A one-year reprieve in the fight to see California become the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry without a court order would come as the gay community prepares to fight attempts to ban gay marriage in the state's constitution and repeal already won domestic partnership rights in the form of ballot initiatives expected to go before voters next June and November. It also comes as the national Democratic Party sees an opportunity to win back control of both houses of Congress from Republicans, and would deprive the Republicans what has been a useful tool to rally their base and bring conservative voters to the polls.

In 2004 Leno first introduced his marriage equality bill amid the presidential battle between Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry. Some Democrats and political pundits blamed Kerry's defeat and the success of nearly a dozen constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in various states to both Leno's bill and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to order city officials to wed same-sex couples.

While California Senator Dianne Feinstein's now-infamous comment that the push for marriage equality "has been too much, too fast, too soon," won her a Pink Brink award at this year's Pride Parade, her assessment mirrored that felt by many observers of how the issue led to the Democrats' defeat last November. Nearly a year later, Nunez's take on the debate stands in stark contrast to those prior sentiments.

"We are turning the corner on the negativity the issue first brought to the progressive world," he said while sipping on a latte at a café near Fisherman's Wharf. "Everyone said in order to govern you have to get there first, then you can govern. But you have to fight for the right issues on your way there."

The debate over granting the same rights heterosexual couples receive when they marry to same-sex couples has not hurt the Democratic Party, insisted Nunez.

"This debate has been a healthy one," he said. "It is about gay and lesbian couples embracing the traditional values of marriage as more and more straight people walk away from it. People said the Democrats would lose seats over this; none of that has panned out. In fact the opposite has happened."

Not only have those lawmakers – whether in California or in Massachusetts where gay marriage is legal – who have championed marriage equality won election or retained their seats, Nunez described how he has even seen legislators adamant they would never support gay marriage change their thinking on the issue.

"I've seen Democrats go from saying, 'I am not going to do it,' to in a week, when people think about it and talk to their family about it, changing their mind. Watching that progress, seeing them change their minds, it is amazing," said Nunez.

While national Democratic leaders vary on where they stand when it comes to gay marriage – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) backs gay marriage while Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean favors civil unions – both Democratic candidates for California governor, state Controller Steve Westly and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, are in support of gay marriage. Thus, if either man were to defeat Schwarzenegger next November, and state lawmakers again passed Leno's bill in 2007, then gay marriage could conceivably be legal in the state by 2008.

Granted, voters would have to defeat both antigay marriage ballot measures next year. In California voters are increasingly signaling they support gay marriage, with one recent poll showing for the first time foes and supporters evenly split on the issue. Leno has defended his pushing the issue legislatively by arguing that in doing so, he and others are helping to educate the electorate on the need for marriage equality. With the argument next year centered on defeating the ballot measures, Leno acknowledged there would be no need to reintroduce his bill in order to keep the conversation alive.

"I am of the firm belief that if we had Democratic leadership at the higher levels embracing marriage equality as the civil rights issue as it is, we wouldn't need to operate out of a position of fear. But given we don't see that leadership, there is, in fact, potential risk by moving the issue forward proactively," said Leno. "Now, the bill, of course, served us greatly over the past two years in moving the debate forward and moving public opinion dramatically in our favor and in raising consciousness across the state. The battle to defeat the initiatives will serve us in that fashion in 2006."

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