Ever since Gavin Newsom opened San Francisco's City Hall to same-sex weddings in 2004, he hasn't shied away from the political, legal and social firestorm he helped fuel.
Yet the San Francisco mayor's gubernatorial campaign has also been working doggedly to shed his single-issue candidate persona. Newsom and his handlers have tried to advance his image as a "hard-headed pragmatist" who gets things done, who reshaped San Francisco with green buildings and new housing and now is making tough city budget choices amid California's fiscal crisis.
But when the California Supreme Court affirmed the Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage --while preserving 18,000 same-sex marriages already performed -- Newsom retook center stage on the issue. And despite a renewed flurry of news stories speculating whether he can define himself more broadly, his campaign increasingly sees the marriage issue as a winner in the Democratic primary.
"We're not backing away from the issue," Newsom's senior campaign adviser, Garry South, said today. "Newsom has made it clear over and over again that he will stand where he is on same-sex marriage. In the Democratic primary, this is an issue that I think will propel him to victory. Far from shying away from it, it is a major, major part of who he is and who he will be as governor."
On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, Newsom appeared nationally on CNN's Larry King to declare that the court's support for legal civil unions is not enough. "Separate is not equal," he said of the marriage debate. "A word does matter."
South argues that will be particularly true in the Democratic primary, where Newsom's stand may give him sway with Democrats who voted 68 percent to 34 percent against Proposition 8 -- which passed statewide 52 percent to 48 percent. He will likely compare his standing on the issue with that of Attorney General and former Gov. Jerry Brown, who filed unsuccessful court briefs arguing that Proposition 8 violated an "inalienable right to liberty" under the state constitution.
The Newsom camp is clearly wagering that the mayor will have more street cred in the primary as the man who took on the gay marriage issue first -- and longest. It also making another, perhaps riskier, calculation that the issue won't hurt him if he becomes a general election candidate.
South points to a 2008 CNN post-election poll that showed independent voters opposing Prop 8, 54 percent to 46 percent. The way his political theory plays out is that a Republican gubernatorial candidate needs 60 percent of California's "decline to state" vote in order to win in the blue state.
"It's pretty hard to see how you're are going to do that if you are demagoguing on same-sex marriage," South said.
Meanwhile, the issue may prove tricky in the Republican primary because none of the current GOP candidates is staking out a position clearly in concert with social conservatives.
Meg Whitman, who supported Prop 8, also said the same-sex marriages performed before the initiative's passage should stand. Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- who also supported the gay marriage ban -- back civil unions, a position still out of touch with many conservatives. And Campbell took an even greater risk with Republicans voters, who overwhelmingly supported Prop 8. Shorly before the election, he penned an editorial calling for a "no" vote, declaring that "discrimination at any level is bad for business."
But whether Proposition 8 is good for gubernatorial politics is a question soon to be answered.