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Mayor's gay marriage stance surprises former foes

Mayor Newsom scratches his eye during a news conference Friday.
Mayor Newsom scratches his eye during a news conference Friday.

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SAN FRANCISCO, California (Reuters) -- Once branded as too conservative for famously liberal San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom has emerged as the unlikely hero of the gay rights movement after he opened City Hall for same-sex marriages and stepped to the forefront of a brewing national debate.

Newsom, who last week authorized the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even officiated at the wedding of one of California's most prominent lesbian politicians Friday as the millionaire Democrat continues to confound his critics.

When Newsom won office in December as a big business candidate promising big change, his foes warned that would mean pushing the famously liberal city too far to the right.

San Francisco pollster David Binder said Newsom, 36, certainly came into office with the backing of business groups and the expectation from critics that the son of an influential judge would govern as a social and fiscal conservative so far as San Francisco is concerned.

Yet, the telegenic mayor married to a CNN legal analyst and former lingerie model quickly dispelled those notions by appointing women to head the police and fire departments. He also raised eyebrows with recent visits to murder scenes in some of the city's roughest areas.

"It has been surprising," said Binder, who has worked for Newsom. "He got elected with the votes of the moderate and conservative elements in San Francisco while the progressive, liberal voters went overwhelmingly for his opponent."

The headlines generated in the media frenzy surrounding gay marriages in San Francisco are also nothing new for a man with close ties to the wealthy Getty family which has bankrolled a number of his business ventures.

Homeless policy uproar

As a city supervisor, Newsom waged a high-profile battle to rename a city playground after baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and led the opposition to a plan to install a waterfront attraction with scaled-down replicas of San Francisco's famous landmarks.

But it was his push to transform the city's homeless policy that brought him front page headlines in San Francisco newspapers and made him enemy No. 1 for liberal and progressive voters who charged it was immoral to end a controversial monthly cash allowance paid to indigents.

That issue also energized supporters of Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, who put up a surprisingly tough challenge to Newsom in the last mayoral election.

Now, however, many of those same critics are singing Newsom's praises after he took a leading role in the national debate over gay marriage by authorizing city hall last week to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians. He has cast the fight over same-sex marriage as similar to the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

Since then, more than 3,000 same-sex couples have applied for the certificates. "This is way better than anything that I could have ever expected," said San Francisco writer Suzan Revah, who voted for Gonzalez in the last election.

His opponents in city hall are taking a wait-and-see position to determine if the young mayor's lurch to the left is a one-time event or part of a more complete shift.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, one of the highest-ranking gay politicians in San Francisco, has often clashed with Newsom but gave the mayor points for his stance on gay marriage.

"I wouldn't marry him yet," Ammiano said. "But I might date him."



Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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