Last Friday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shocked a ballroom full of gay Republicans – and perhaps an entire state – when he announced that he would oppose a constitutional amendment to ban equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians in California. The religious right screamed “betrayal” from a governor who twice vetoed legislation to make marriage equality the law, and liberal Democrats were befuddled by what they saw as a shift of position.
Outside of California, the announcement to the Log Cabin Republicans was seen as a change of position, making the California Governor seem like the enigmatic maverick he has endorsed for president. But in reality, Schwarzenegger has never changed his position on gay marriage and gay rights; indeed he’s signed into law more pieces of gay rights legislation – 19 in all – than any other governor. Instead, he has but slowly revealed how he feels about an issue mired in the complexities of California lawmaking.
Schwarzenegger’s position on gay marriage comes from a wholly California perspective. As he sees it, there is a difference between marriage equality as a constitutional amendment versus a legislative statute or an initiative statute. That’s why he twice vetoed legislative statutes granting marriage rights. But it’s also why he said he would support an initiative statute if the people decided the issue at the polls.
Of course, given his record, it came as a shock when Schwarzenegger announced in 2005 that he would veto a bill from the legislature designed to grant gay couples the holy grail of civil rights: the right to marry. During the month that followed that announcement and his actual veto of the bill, gay rights groups led by Democrats thought they could win him over by comparing him to Governor George Wallace–an attempted scare tactics that in the end proved only to get the door to Sacramento’s Horseshoe slammed in their face. He is, after all, The Terminator.
When he vetoed the marriage rights bill, Schwarzenegger was very forthright in his reasoning. Because the voters had passed Proposition 22, defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, the legislature could not, constitutionally, override the will of the people. Only the courts, or the people themselves with another ballot initiative, could do that.
Schwarzenegger subsequently said that if the people decided to make marriage equality the law, he would be for it.
So let’s review the Governator’s positions on marriage equality. He is against a legislative statute allowing it, acknowledges the fact that there is an initiative statute banning it on the books, would support a court decision or initiative statute making it law, and is against a Constitutional ban on gay marriage.
But until Friday, Schwarzenegger had not taken a position on whether gays and lesbians should have equal marriage rights. This is why there has been so much confusion. Early statements outlined the governor’s positions on how the legal means used to grant such rights, not on their merits.
On California’s November ballot, there may will be a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage which would make the debate over legislative versus initiative statutes irrelevant. Governor Schwarzenegger said that he thought that such a measure would not only be “a waste of time” but that he would fight against it – creating room for a solution to the procedural problems that give gays the right to marry – and drawing rancorous applause from the Log Cabin audience.
It’s not as easy as saying Schwarzenegger is “for it” or he is “against it” when it comes to same-sex marriage. And if Democrats weren’t trying to score political points in their attacks, they might even call his positions “nuanced.” The reality is that Schwarzenegger’s position is as complex as California’s government itself. A telling statement on the the governance of the state as a whole and why it can be so difficult to get anything done in Sacramento.