The way civil rights activist Dolores Huerta remembers it, she was an early endorser of San Francisco gay Assemblyman Mark Leno’s bill to legalize gay marriage in California. “When Mark called me, I said, ‘of course,’” recalled the 77-year-old co-founder of the United Farm Workers this week. Marriage is, Huerta said, “a civil rights issue, a privacy issue, and a human rights issue.”
But on the face of it, theirs was an unlikely alliance. The farm workers are mostly Mexican, heavily Catholic, and, feared gay rights advocates, natural opponents of progressive social issues like gay marriage. But some, like Equality California’s Geoff Kors, have been eyeing the state’s huge Hispanic population for years. An enormous group, more than 11 million people, about 35 percent of the state’s population, Kors guessed that Hispanics might be persuaded to see gay marriage as akin to their own civil rights issues. “They should get it, naturally,” he said.
And at the last moment, in the final throes of the battle over the marriage bill last summer, the United Farm Workers, which Huerta no longer heads, “finally came over,” Kors said, just before the final Assembly vote and endorsed the bill. “The UFW came in and saved the day. They were there in a big way for us,” he said.
A civil rights-based coalition formed around Leno’s bill and Huerta lobbied the Hispanic members of the Legislature, and her own union’s members.
California has a majority of minorities, about 55 percent. And now Leno and Huerta see that this coalition, conceived around gay marriage, can go on to tackle other issues—like ousting the state’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vetoed the marriage bill when it was passed.
That passage came in the ornate Victorian Assembly chamber, jam-packed for the vote last September, eerily silent as the votes were tallied. Advocates erupted into cheers and roaring applause as a Mexican-American legislator from the state’s conservative Central Valley cast the deciding vote. Huerta was on the floor.
Last week, Leno convened more than a dozen of the leaders, from Hispanic, black, Asian, women’s, and church groups to reestablish their coalition—along with Huerta. “I’ve gotten to be good friends with her,” he said. “She’s 70-something, and she’s got twice the energy that we have.” State gay leaders now say that that energy and the alliance among the state’s previously-disconnected civil rights groups poses a very broad threat to Schwarzenegger’s reelection campaign.
Schwarzenegger’s Democratic rival, the victor in the June 6 primary, state Treasurer Phil Angiledes, was not the choice of the state’s gay rights groups, but he has vowed to sign Leno’s bill if he is elected this fall and it makes it to his desk next year. If he is elected, California is likely to have gay marriage by next fall.
Angiledes defeated eBay millionaire Steve Westly in the Democratic primary 48 percent to 43 percent. Westly ran with the support of the state’s largest gay rights organization, Equality California, and Angiledes had refused to come out for a pending bill that would require the state’s schools to include gay history in their curriculum. Still, during the campaign Leno called the two Democrats “indistinguishable” on gay rights issues.
Schwarzenegger’s popularity, down in the basement last fall, is inching up from it low of 32 percent. Schwarzenegger ousted Democrat Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election by campaigning as a pro-choice moderate—fiscally conservative but liberal on social issues. But last year he made a veer to the right, vetoed Leno’s marriage bill, and put three measures on the November ballot that simultaneously took on the state’s nurses, its teachers, and the entire Democratic Party establishment, by attacking union fund raising political support and rearranging the way legislative districts are drawn. All three were clobbered at the ballot box.
Now, six months later, not one of the senior staff who advised him at the time—each instrumental in his veto of Leno’s gay marriage—is still around. He has hired a pro-choice lesbian Democrat and former Gray Davis aide, Susan Kennedy, as his chief of staff.
Would he now sign Leno’s bill? “The people have decided,” Julie Soderlund, Schwarzenegger’s campaign press secretary told Gay City News Tuesday. In 2000 California’s voters passed a defense of marriage act that Schwarzenegger relied on to defend his veto. “And the governor will uphold the laws of the state,” Soderlund added.
But now the state is about evenly split on the subject, and Schwarzenegger, gay rights activists say, is reading old polls. A recent non-partisan Political Policy Institute of California poll put about 46 percent in favor and an equal number opposed. An earlier Field poll found about the same, at 44 percent either way, the first time opposition to gay marriage had dropped below half.
So will gay marriage be an issue this November?
“In his campaign, the governor wants to talk about moving the state forward in education, infrastructure the state’s growing population, roads, levees public safety, and the economy,” said Soderlund. Schwarzenegger has dusted off a long-standing Democratic Party plan to borrow and spend billions in a bond measure to rebuild the state’s worn infrastructure. With the support of the state’s Democratic leaders, he has put that measure on the November ballot—along with his candidacy.
Angiledes’ campaign press secretary Nick Papas wasn’t anxious to discuss gay marriage either. “I have to run to a meeting,” he said, but did confirm that Angiledes would sign Leno’s bill. “Treasurer Angelides will continue to discuss his support for legislation that moves California forward. He believes that we must move towards more civil liberty, more inclusion, more equity for all our citizens and will never shy away from a discussion of this issue.”
“That will be the first time that we will have seen a Democrat at the top of the ticket embrace our issue for what it is,” Leno said, unfazed by the Democratic candidate choosing to be circumspect as he looks to November. “This is a first.”
With the support of gay rights organizations, all 22 pro-marriage candidates facing primary challenges, some hotly contested, won last week. Equality California maxed out its contributions, organized phone banking, and sent 150,000 pieces of mail for Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod. Leno called her yes vote on his bill last fall “a profile in courage,” but when the smoke cleared she trounced her opponent, in conservative Riverside County, by 20 points.
“No one can make the argument that support for gay marriage is a political liability anymore,” he said. “Ding dong the witch is dead. There’s nothing to fear.”
Schwarzenegger won in the recall with broad support from Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in the state by almost 10 percent. Schwarzenegger was guarded about his opinions and got many gay votes. But this time around, both Leno and Equality California’s executive director Geoff Kors vow an education campaign that they say will make sure that no gay person in the state will vote for him.
But Leno says that it is this broader civil rights coalition that has a chance of defeating Schwarzenegger. “He should be scared. You add that to labor, and you’ve got a formidable coalition.”