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We now know the answer to the quiet questions asked about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s national political ambition.
Yes. He does have them. In abundance. That didn’t take long, did it?
With his decision to allow San Francisco to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Newsom has deftly corralled the city’s contentious gay community as his first step onto the national stage. It’s a very smart strategy and it’s been well executed at all levels. Watching Newsom on BBC America Saturday evening, you knew the mayor and the city had changed. And think, just the other day I was starting to miss former mayor Willie Brown.
Regardless of what the courts rule and rule and rule again; (this is a classic test case headed straight at the Supreme Court), Newsom has earned himself friends and fundraisers — politically minded gays give and give generously — for a long, long time.
This is the stuff that makes political careers: good timing, smart politics and, not to be too coy about it, properly orchestrated grandstanding and intelligent media manipulation. Newsom got himself and his city a full slow news worth weekend of national and international ink and pretty much everybody involved looks good. After all, who doesn’t like a wedding? Unlike the usual San Francisco displays, Newsom’s piece of political theater – Gay Weddings on Valentine’s Day, how corny, how memorable, how sweet –- concerns a pressing issue of our time. The right to marry, the legal and social protections the institution affords couples is an issue that affects millions of people, their parents, and their children. Newsom’s decision will resonate farther than the cheers that greeted almost every couple that appeared on City Hall steps holding their freshly signed marriage licenses aloft. It’s a mountain. It’s not a molehill.
The city politics are obvious. Newsom has consolidated support within the city’s gay community, a group that was divided debating his liberal credentials. Mayoral rival Matt Gonzalez is going to have a hard time calling Newsom a Republican or suggesting that his ideology or ideas are superior. Of course, Republicans are going to have a hard time dismissing Newsom’s decision to allow same-sex couples to marry. A straight, good-looking Irish Catholic with a beautiful wife and a lot of rich friends, well, uh, he’s almost one of them, isn’t he?
As for the state politics, again, Newsom has good timing. You’ve noticed how quiet it is out there? Me too. There are a couple of reasons for this. Gov. Schwarzenegger needs support for his bond issue propositions which will be on March 2 ballot – the day of what looks like it might be a pretty hot Democratic primary. He can’t alienate Democrats right now. He needs them and he will continue to need them until the state’s budget woes are resolved. So Schwarzenegger can’t exactly land on Newsom with both feet for violating the state’s constitution. Not that he would, anyway. The governor’s on record — I believe his exact words were that he didn’t “give a shit” who people sleep with — as being pro-gay rights.
That leaves the most the national Republican Party, itself divided on this issue as Schwarzenegger, New York Times columnist David Brooks and blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan regularly illustrate, to take Newsom on. Win or lose as he goes up against the right wing, Newsom looks good to his supporters, especially those newly converted liberal gays. So he boxes in his local critics. He gets more media exposure, nationally and internationally, which gives him political clout locally and across the state. More importantly, he very quietly, gets points from the Democratic Party for taking the heat on this issue so national figures – like oh, possible presidential candidates from Massachusetts where gay rights is also hotly contested – can duck while the party gets credit for doing the right thing by the gay community.
In a slight paraphrase of the great Al Davis: It’s just a win, baby, just a win.
UPDATE: Want to see how much media coverage we’re talking about? See the links Alex Clemons has culled for The Usual Suspects which provided the leads for some of the links in this post. Thanks, Alex!

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