California Dem Pushes for Marriage Bill

By Josh Richman

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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SAN FRANCISCO — The clock was running down and California Assemblyman Mark Leno was a few votes short, watching his same-sex marriage bill slide toward oblivion.

For the second year in a row, Leno, a Jewish Democrat from San Francisco and one of the state legislature’s six openly gay lawmakers, was racing to beat the June 2 deadline for passing bills in either house of the California legislature. In May 2004 he ended up pulling a similar bill from consideration when he saw he didn’t have the 41 assembly votes needed for it to pass. He was expecting better success this year with his new version, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. But Democratic abstentions and defections on June 1 left Leno a few votes short, forcing him to request an 11th-hour reconsideration. He spent the next day feverishly trying to persuade his own side of the aisle that California is ready for same-sex marriage.

In his last ditch-effort, Leno, 53, brought every personal resource to bear: the Midwestern charm of his Wisconsin childhood; insights from the psychology B.A. he earned at American College in Jerusalem, where he graduated valedictorian; the spiritual earnestness of a former Reform rabbinical student, and the tirelessness he displayed as an activist with many community organizations, including the American Jewish Congress.

None of it was enough: Despite the Democrats’ 48-to-32 majority in the assembly, Leno could not find the extra votes before the deadline passed June 2.

Still, the lawmaker is vowing to keep up the fight.

“What we’re fighting for here is simple human dignity, and I will argue for that with my last breath,” Leno told the Forward several days after the defeat of his bill.

The defeat of Leno’s bill comes as supporters and opponents already are preparing for what’s sure to be an epic and costly battle over a 2006 ballot measure calling for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The amendment would effectively overrule the kind of law that Leno seeks to pass, and would render moot a lawsuit — now before a state appeals court — challenging the constitutionality of state’s existing statutory ban.

Similar amendments were passed by voters in 13 states last year and one more state this year. But Leno and other liberals believe that California voters will reject such a measure, if lawmakers approve same-sex marriage by the time of the ballot.

If a bill like Leno’s stands a chance anywhere in the nation, it probably should be in California, with its solid Democratic majority and long history of gay-rights milestones. Yet it’s not that simple: Same-sex marriage opponents have spent money and lobbied hard against the bill, especially in the legislature’s significant Latino caucus, where largely Democratic politics meet conservative, largely Catholic social values.

One Latino assemblyman, Alberto Torrico, a civil rights lawyer from a relatively liberal district, cited his born-again Christian beliefs when he decided to abstain from the June 1 vote. However, he reversed himself the next day, weeping as he embraced state Senator Carole Migden, a Jewish lesbian from San Francisco. But 10 other Democrats — including six Latinos — abstained or joined Republicans who voted against it on a party line.

Following the latest defeat, Leno said, he and his allies might try to revive the effort by shifting their attention to the state senate, where Democrats hold 25 of 40 seats. “I just think we are so very, very close,” he said.

Leno, who lost his partner of 10 years to AIDS in 1990, said he was inspired by hundreds of stories of longtime couples and their children being treated like second-class citizens and by “the ineffable joy that was experienced at San Francisco City Hall last year” as he and other officials performed thousands of same-sex marriages in defiance of state law. The marriages, later deemed void by the state Supreme Court, began on the same day that Leno had introduced the first of his two marriage bills.

Referring to his intention to continue fighting, he said, “I know I cannot stop.”

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