BY DANIEL WEINTRAUB
The New York Times
Nearly six years after Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco ignited a political and social firestorm by allowing same-sex couples to wed in his city, the issue of gay marriage remains at center stage, in the Bay Area and across the country.
But Mr. Newsom has been nearly eclipsed by a new generation of advocates and by an all-star legal team that took over the battle after his own efforts hit a wall.
Even as a federal judge in San Francisco prepares to decide a case that could ultimately reshape marriage laws across the nation, Mr. Newsom is largely on the sideline. He is like the founder of a start-up company who has been shunted aside just when the new enterprise finally hits its stride. These days he seems more at ease talking about health care and budgets and the Muni transit system than same-sex marriage. He declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
State Senator Mark Leno, a fellow San Francisco Democrat, has emerged as the most prominent gay rights leader in the Legislature, and the State Assembly just elected its first openly gay speaker, John A. Pérez of Los Angeles.
The court case that may now decide the issue for the country was filed by a Los Angeles group represented by the lawyers Theodore B. Olson and David Boies. The two litigators, who were on opposite sides of the Supreme Court decision that helped to put George W. Bush in the White House, have moved into the spotlight once dominated by Mr. Newsom.
Mr. Newsom’s lower profile could not be more different from the profile in February 2004, when the mayor plunged into a controversy that would define his career. The state’s voters had banned same-sex marriage in 2000, but the Legislature was steadily expanding domestic partnership rights as an alternative for same-sex couples. The larger debate was at a standstill.
Mr. Newsom changed that when he decided to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of state law. At first, he has said, he thought the city would issue just one license as a protest and to prompt a court case. But the idea snowballed, and San Francisco allowed thousands of couples to marry before a judge ordered a halt.
The State Supreme Court later ruled that Mr. Newsom had overstepped his authority as mayor by taking the law into his own hands. But the court did not rule on the constitutionality of the marriage ban itself, and the justices all but invited a challenge along those lines. One was filed, and in the summer of 2008 the court struck down the ban, opening the door to same-sex marriages throughout California.
That door was slammed shut months later when voters narrowly approved Proposition 8, placing a new ban into the Constitution and out of the reach of state judges. That is the law that is now under challenge in federal court.
On the political front, Mr. Newsom’s bold stand energized both sides but may have helped soften the opposition by putting a human face on a bitter controversy.
“This is one of those issues where a lot of people don’t support it initially because they grew up believing that marriage is only between a man and woman, and when they see people who are getting married, when there is something in the news that questions that assumption, they sit down and think about it,” said Geoff Kors, director of Equality California, an activist group that has pushed for legalizing same-sex marriage.
Mr. Newsom’s leadership on the issue made him a viable candidate for governor, by giving him a statewide and national profile, his former political consultant, Garry South, said.
“People would take his calls; people would fawn over him,” Mr. South said. “When he came to L.A., the paparazzi would follow him around.”
Yet as a candidate in a race with no official opponent but one very big presumed foe — Attorney General Jerry Brown — Mr. Newsom could not raise enough money to compete. He dropped out in October and faces an uncertain future. His second term as mayor ends early in 2011.
On Wednesday, as legal experts and observers picked apart the latest machinations in the federal case, the mayor delivered a state-of-the-city address to a small audience at the Asian Art Museum. His focus was almost exclusively on jobs and economic development. He did not even mention marriage.
Daniel Weintraub has reported on California politics and policy for more than 20 years.
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