Erin Allday, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008
Gavin Newsom has always played a starring role in the same-sex marriage debate, but in recent weeks that role has turned decidedly unheroic.
The mayor has become the reluctant face of the campaign opposing same-sex unions with the help of a prominent Yes-on-Proposition 8 TV ad. Conservative blogs have been atwitter about Newsom last week officiating at the wedding of a lesbian teacher whose class of first-graders took a field trip to celebrate with her.
In many ways, Newsom has become the single best campaign tool for proponents of Prop. 8 – and that might have been inevitable, political experts said.
“His pictures have become the rallying cry for Prop. 8. It’s unfortunate for him, and it’s unfortunate for the anti-Prop. 8 campaign,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor of political communications at Sacramento State University. “I don’t know that I would change his behavior, because he’s representing his constituency, and he’s been totally consistent in his position. But he’s become everyone’s worst nightmare.”
Indeed, analysts say the mayor should be trying his best to keep out of the same-sex marriage spotlight – something that Newsom’s handlers, and even the mayor himself, say he’s been trying to do.
Newsom has led several college campus rallies against Prop. 8 and has hosted private fundraisers for the campaign. Last week he sent an e-mail to 20,000 supporters asking for donations to the campaign.
Eric Jaye, Newsom’s chief political strategist, said the mayor has “redoubled” his efforts to support opposition to Prop. 8. “He sees it as part of his job as mayor to protect the rights of all of his constituents.”
Yet for the most part Newsom has kept a low profile with the opposition campaign, and a couple of weeks ago, when asked about TV advertisements against Prop. 8, Newsom said he had no intention of appearing in them.
Behind the scenes
As for Friday’s wedding of a lesbian teacher and her longtime partner, Newsom wasn’t aware that the first-graders would be skipping school for the event, Jaye said. The mayor performed the ceremony because one of the women was a friend of a friend. The students didn’t attend the wedding itself but surprised their teacher on the steps outside City Hall.
Newsom believes the students should have stayed in school that day, Jaye said. “He doesn’t think it’s a good idea for students to come out of class to attend any wedding,” Jaye said.
Political insiders say images of children attending a same-sex wedding plays right into the hands of the proponents of a same-sex marriage ban. The more proponents can make the issue about protecting children and less about removing people’s rights, the better their chances, several people said.
Already, the pro-8 campaign Web site is prominently displaying a reaction to Friday’s wedding.
Frank Schubert, campaign co-manager of the yes campaign, writes on the Web site, “Taking children out of school for a same-sex wedding is not customary education. This is promoting same-sex marriage and indoctrinating young kids. I doubt the school has ever taken kids on a field trip to a traditional wedding.”
Whether Newsom was aware of the student involvement or not, political analysts said it’s just a matter of time – days, probably – before Prop. 8 proponents find a way to capitalize on the mayor’s role in schoolchildren attending a same-sex wedding.
Political consultant David Latterman called the wedding a “gimme for the right-wingers.”
“I really hope Newsom had no idea those kids were going,” he said. “If this in his mind was a publicity stunt, that just boggles my mind. The mayor of San Francisco officiating a gay wedding that kids took off class to go to – I’d be disappointed if I didn’t see an ad made out of that. It’s an ad crying to be made.”
In the meantime, political analysts say Newsom should back far away from public involvement in the No-on-Prop. 8 campaign. David McCuan, an associate political studies professor at Sonoma State University, said the mayor should “drop out of sight and maybe take a vacation to a light blue state where these culture wars aren’t as prominent.”
Political consultant Jim Ross agreed that Newsom is not the best No on 8 spokesman, especially in the Central Valley and other conservative pockets of California. He said the mayor should be working the phones to get Democratic allies in places like Bakersfield, Modesto and Turlock out campaigning.
“What they need is people who can connect with voters in those places,” he said. “The mayor of San Francisco, no matter who it is, isn’t that person.”
Between Newsom’s behind-the-scenes fundraising and his prominent position in the anti-same-sex marriage campaign, many political analysts say his role in the Prop. 8 battle will end up neither favorable or unfavorable.
In many ways, it was inevitable that Newsom would end up bearing the brunt of the pro-Prop. 8 attacks, said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who now runs the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes legislative races across the state.
Hoffenblum said that Newsom’s role in the same-sex marriage campaigns is likely to have a much larger impact on his run for governor than on the fate of the proposition.
“Look at it this way: You’re getting a good idea of what the commercials will be if he should decide to run for governor,” Hoffenblum said. “A lot of what happens there is going to depend on whether (the proposition) passes or fails. If it is defeated, it will have little impact on Newsom.
But if it wins, that could hurt him.”
Chronicle staff writer Heather Knight contributed to this report. E-mail Erin Allday at email@example.com.