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Schwarzenegger's support for gay rights only goes so far

Kate Folmar
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Perhaps more than any Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger openly professes his support of gay rights. He has signed more than a dozen laws strengthening domestic partnerships and hate-crimes protections.

Some of his close friends and advisers are gay and lesbian. And the live-and-let-live governor evinces no moral qualms about same-sex marriages. He's "not personally hung up on the whole thing."

So will Schwarzenegger sign a gay marriage bill? No.

Not now. Perhaps never.

On so many subjects, including health care and stem-cell research, Schwarzenegger is willing to risk political capital to propel a national debate.

And with his fame, centrism and popularity, the governor could have a unique platform to lead on gay marriage.

But on a subject that stirs passions among activists on both sides, he's uncharacteristically passive: The people of California can navigate, he says. Or the courts can steer. That hands-off stance isn't what some Californians have come to expect from their take-charge governor.

Some observers think his actions are aimed at safeguarding his conservative base.

But the governor's confidants say the stance isn't calculated to duck political shrapnel. In fact, even the governor's close gay advisers disagree on the marriage debate. His allies believe his stance makes perfect sense for a man who cares more for the tangible - say, allowing domestic partners to file joint state tax returns - than the symbolic, even if it makes history.

"His sort of feeling is, `What's the big deal? If you're gay, you're gay. There should be no discrimination,'" said a former aide, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is politically fraught. Schwarzenegger is "not a cause kind of guy."

The governor "does not calculate the political balancing act of the gay marriage issue," said Adam Mendelsohn, his communications director. He tries to represent "the position of the people of California."

So, while the governor backs domestic partnership rights, he also abides by a 2000 ballot measure, Proposition 22, that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Intentional or not, that may be an astute straddle. Majority Democrats yearn to legalize same-sex marriage, but it's not a top priority for most. Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the governor's own party already thinks he is too accommodating. It's unclear if Schwarzenegger could push the subject much further without backlash.

Polling suggests the governor's views align with Californians. Support for gay marriage has grown in recent years, especially among Democrats. Residents are now roughly split on the gay-marriage question, but Republicans remain overwhelmingly opposed.

Still, the governor's nuanced position leaves activists on both sides unsatisfied. That nuance leads some to study his record, personal history and public statements for any hint the governor might sign a marriage bill under the right circumstances.

Schwarzenegger ran as a pro-gay rights Republican in 2003, but he never courted the marriage debate - which was spotlighted when San Francisco in 2004 briefly allowed same-sex unions.

A year later, he vetoed a gay marriage bill, citing Proposition 22. Schwarzenegger also defers to the courts and the California Supreme Court will likely weigh in by year's end. The governor vows to abide by the court's ruling.

"If the ban of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, this bill is not necessary," Schwarzenegger wrote in his 2005 veto message. "If the ban is constitutional, this bill is ineffective."

Schwarzenegger has vetoed three other gay rights bills sponsored by Equality California, the state's main advocacy group for gay rights. He has enacted 13 gay rights measures, extending tax rights to domestic partners and limiting the use of "gay panic" defenses in trials.

Over the last three years, Schwarzenegger has signed 76 percent of the bills sponsored by Equality California.

This year, Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has revived what he calls "gender-neutral" marriage. He expects AB 43 to pass the Legislature with little fuss. Despite the governor's vow to veto it, Leno hopes Schwarzenegger - who is secure in his final term - will seize "the opportunity of a lifetime."

"I think he would prefer to be remembered not as someone who vetoed it repeatedly," said Leno, one of five openly gay legislators, "but as a historic figure."

After winning re-election handily, Schwarzenegger has clout and popularity to spare. But if he were to sign AB 43, it would rile conservatives. That could complicate budget negotiations and distract attention from Schwarzenegger's preferred second-term agenda: health care reform, global warming and prison reform.

Asked about gay marriage recently, Schwarzenegger has not equivocated.

"I believe in all the same rights," he said last month. "And I've passed and signed many bills in order to make sure that we have that here in California. But I don't want, as the governor, to go against the will of the people."

Some conservatives already consider that a tepid defense of traditional marriage.

Mike Spence of the California Republican Assembly contends Schwarzenegger has "done the bare minimum to keep the radical homosexual agenda from being signed." And, "he could break his word."

Those concerns were only reinforced by comments from comedian Tom Arnold, Schwarzenegger's motorcycle-riding buddy, following the governor's re-election.

"When you're a lame duck, or whatever you call it, you can do whatever you want," he told KQED public radio. Such as? "Gay marriage," Arnold said. "I want (it), and I know he feels the same way."

Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, laments that Schwarzenegger has "played politics with our community."

"I believe he does support full equality," Kors said. "And, in a way, that makes his vetoes of bills the right wing screeches about all the more infuriating."

The governor's rapport with the gay community dates back decades, beyond Hollywood to his bodybuilding days.

When a teenage Schwarzenegger started weight-lifting seriously, his mother fretted and sent her son to the doctor.

"What is the matter - what are all those pictures on your wall here of these naked men, all oiled up with little posing trunks?" his parents asked, Schwarzenegger told CNN in 2005. "What's going on?"

The ease with which he shares such a story suggests his personal comfort level.

But Schwarzenegger's interest goes deeper than that.

As a new governor, Schwarzenegger summoned Erwin Chemerinsky, a noted constitutional law professor, to discuss the legal questions surrounding gay marriage.

"He listened very carefully and asked good questions," said Chemerinsky of Duke University.

Which is not to say he is always eloquent about the subject. After the San Francisco same-sex weddings began, the governor suggested the marriages had shaken the city with "riots." Not so.

Still, the governor did not exploit gay marriage during his re-election campaign. And last summer, he helped raise funds for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group favoring same-sex marriage.

The governor's closest staffers include four who are openly gay or lesbian, including his chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, senior adviser Daniel Zingale, deputy chief of staff Ross LaJeunesse and his personal assistant Clay Russell. Three of them have longterm partners.

Zingale favors gay marriage. Kennedy has argued it would be an end-run around voters - and one that could backfire on gays and lesbians. (The governor's office denied requests to interview them.)

So how much does it matter - given current domestic partnership protections - if a marriage bill is signed?

California already has some of the nation's strongest gay rights protections behind Massachusetts, where marriages are legal. Even some supporters argue that the distinction between current domestic partners and state-sanctioned weddings are largely semantic.

Others, though, say this is the next frontier of civil rights. They remain hopeful Schwarzenegger will take the next step.

James Vaughn, director of the Log Cabin Republicans of California, believes if the state Supreme Court clears the way, that Schwarzenegger will "be the man responsible for giving us marriage."

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