The Governor's Prop 8 Problem

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The one thing that seems clear in the wake of last week's approval of Proposition 8 is that the emotional issue isn't going away anytime soon. And to understand the murkiness of what should, or shouldn't, happen... look no further than Governor Schwarzenegger.

In an interview with CNN this weekend, the governor called the passage of Prop 8 "unfortunate" and predicted the proposal may ultimately fail in the courts. "We will maybe undo that," he said, "if the court is willing to do that... and then lead in that area."

A casual observer could be forgiven if left with the impression that Schwarzenegger is strongly pro-gay marriage. On the contrary, his position... at times confusing and perhaps symbolic of the conflicted feelings of many... has been hard to pin down over the years.

The only way to describe his stance may be this: a personal opposition to same sex unions, but a professional laissez faire approach.

Consider the careful line Schwarzenegger walked in the winter of 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. In condemning the action, the governor focused on Newsom... not the issue itself.

But at the same time, he was using verbage that sounded much more like an endorsement of a legal ban. Consider his official statement in the wake of Newsom's action: "Californians spoke on the issue of same-sex-marriage [Proposition 22, the 2000 initiative defining the state's view of marriage]. I support that law and encourage San Francisco officials to obey that law."

Still, it was always unclear who Schwarzenegger thought should have the final say. Appearing on The Tonight Show in May 2004, the governor said, "Let the court decide." But he then quickly added: "Let the people decide."

That same month, he told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle: "When the people vote, people are not legal experts, constitutional experts or any of that," he said. "I think that's why we have the courts."

A few months later, in an interview with me in his Capitol office, Schwarzenegger again seemed ambivalent. "It's a decision made by the people," he said. He then hesitated for a moment, adding: "And by the courts... I support whatever the law is."

Schwarzenegger would later veto multiple legislative attempts to legalize gay marriages, saying only the courts could overturn an initiative like Prop 22.

When Prop 8 made its way onto the ballot, the governor made headlines for telling a group of gay Republicans he not only opposed it... but "will always be there to fight against that."

Many took that as a sign Schwarzenegger would actively campaign against Prop 8. He furthered such speculation in an interview with KCRA-TV in Sacramento this past May. "I defnitely will be actively speaking out against it," he said.

But in the same interview, in response to the state Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriages, the governor said this: "I never wanted to overturn the will of the people [in Prop 22]."

As we now know, Schwarzenegger was all but invisible on Prop 8 this fall, with only his image appearing in a final TV ad appeal by the opposition.

The governor's path through the political minefield over gay marriage doesn't offer much guidance for others. He will no doubt be asked to clarify his position in the days and weeks ahead, now that legal challenges to Prop 8 are underway, and opponents of the ban are taking to the streets in ever growing numbers. And the issue presents enormous political challenges for the moderate Republican governor. After all, the vote was very close. And the issue could bleed into other policy debates in 2009 with both parties... just consider his need to forge some kind of compromise with the conservative wing of the state GOP over California's ever worsening fiscal climate.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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