Politicians hit a hot button

Gay marriage debate has drawn elected officials into roles that may affect their futures - and shape opinion on the issue.

Massachusetts lawmakers will reconvene Thursday to continue work they left unfinished a month ago: deciding how to handle the sensitive question of gay marriage.

But even as the Bay State remains a key battleground, a host of officeholders from Chicago's mayor to a county clerk in northern New Mexico have mounted their own bully pulpits. The wrangling in Massachusetts, prompted by a 2003 court ruling, is no longer the centerpiece of this national debate. Instead, a series of officials both powerful and parochial have helped push gay marriage to the fore in multiple locales. Vowing to "go with the law" may for now be the politically safe course, yet it is becoming harder for elected leaders to avoid entering the debate.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for one, was pilloried by advocates on both sides for not taking a clear stance. Recently he appeared to support gay marriage in a meeting with gay journalists, but has not taken a public position beyond supporting civil unions, despite lines of New Yorkers last week demanding same-sex marriage licenses, and the recent move by the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., to marry 25 gay couples.

The example highlights how, if a few public figures have voluntarily taken a stand on gay marriage, others are being pressed by circumstance to play hands they would have just as soon kept close to their chests.

"Politicians have to make instant decisions, like day traders," says Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant in San Francisco. But with a majority of Americans opposed to gay marriage, he says, "Who wants to take the stand right now?"

Like Bloomberg, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a Republican, wavered - and finally softened - his stance on gay marriage. In a recent appearance on the "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," he said it would be "fine with me" if courts or voters change state laws to make gay marriage legal.

Winners and losers, politically

Whether or not this is "waffling," such positions - often emphasizing "upholding the law" - may ultimately be the politically safest stance to take, as it represents the ambivalence that many Americans feel, say experts. Those pushing hardest on either side of the battle, could face harsher consequences.

"The most strident voices on both sides on this debate are going to be the losers," says Dan Schnur, a California Republican consultant. "The people who sound the most measured are going to do the best job of developing public support."

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom has issued thousands of marriage licenses in the past month. His popularity rating has surged in the city. "But once you cross over the Bay Bridge, it's a big world out there that might not be as receptive," says Mr. Schnur.

When the mayor of Elmira, an old industrial town of New York with a population of 30,000, saw events unfolding in California, he went right to the city clerk, saying under no circumstance would marriage licenses be granted to gay couples in his town. "I am unwavering in my belief that the bonds of matrimony are to be between a man and a woman," Mayor Stephen Hughes says.

To date, no gay couples have approached him seeking a marriage license - as they have in other towns and cities across New York, where there is a higher tolerance for an "anything goes" lifestyle, Mayor Hughes says.

Still, just as civil unions were a radical notion five years ago - having since become something of the centrist position - some experts say gay marriage is likely to be the norm over time. According to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, only 16 percent of voters over age 65 support gay marriage, while 41 percent of voters between ages 18 and 24 do.

The political high ground could shift over time. Boston College law professor Charles Baron, for one, compares governors' stances on gay marriage to those against desegregation in the 1950s. "Those governors who did resist it have gone down in history as villains," he says. The same could be true of public officials so adamantly opposed to gay marriage today.

Meanwhile, grass-roots efforts to marry gay couples continue. On Monday, a city clerk in Asbury Park, N.J., cleared the way for two men to wed there. And earlier that day, Seattle's mayor said he'd recognize the marriages of same-sex city employees who marry in other states.

Legislatures well beyond Massachusetts, continue to tackle the issue. On Tuesday, lawmakers in Michigan blocked a bill that would have permitted voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Kansas and Wisconsin both moved closer to changing their constitutions last week.

Impact of leaders' views

For gay rights advocates, public support from elected officials like Schwarzenegger is encouraging. "He does have the power of his celebrity and now the visibility of his new public office, so those who may be undecided or less familiar with the issue may be encouraged to give it an open-minded consideration," says Mark Leno, an assemblyman from San Francisco.

But few experts believe the rhetoric and actions of politicians has significantly altered public opinion. Even when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley came out in support of gay marriage last month, it "didn't make a splash," says Tom Smith, a survey researcher at the University of Chicago. "Conversation locally has died down now."

Attorneys general across the country have been left to enforce the laws of their states, sometimes adding their own caveats. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued a legal opinion saying gay marriage was illegal in the state (New Paltz Mayor Jason West faces misdemeanor charges) but added that he wished it weren't so.

Attorney General Henry McMaster of South Carolina, meanwhile, was unapologetic in his views - as he watches mayors breaking state laws across the country. "Public officials may not agree with the law, but they've given an oath to support the law, so they ought to do it," he says. "If they find it so repugnant, they ought to resign."

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