Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A smart move by Jerry Brown.

California's Attorney General Jerry Brown did a politically smart thing opposing Proposition 8 last week.

Brown is making no secret of his desire to run again for Governor of California. And to some observers, it might seem a foolish, if brave thing to stake out a legal position to overrule the will of a majority of California's voters.

However, Brown isn't yet running in a general election. Instead, the first major hurdle for his return to the Governor's mansion will be the Democratic primary. By supporting marriage equally, Brown is able to publicly display his commitment to equality, garnering support of the progressive and LGBT communities who are important constituencies in the Democratic primaries.

With two terms as Governor under his belt, a mayorship of Oakland, and numerous runs for the United States presidency, Brown already has more name identification than any potential rival, save possibly Dianne Feinstein. But with a crowded and talented field, Brown won't be able to rest on that familiarity to win over a plurality of the party's regulars.

Among others, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is a strong likely rival to Brown for the Democratic nomination. Newsom has a statewide and national profile for ordering San Francisco to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Newsom's decision may not sit well with all Californians, but it's made him a hero to the LGBT community. Furthermore, support for same sex marriage is quickly becoming a prerequisite for California's Democratic primary voters, and Newsom has the most irrefutable bona fides for supporting marriage equality. He doesn't just support same-sex marriage, he married people.

Brown's decision to oppose Proposition 8 in the courts allows him to try to eat into Newsom's inroads with the LGBT community. It shows that he's not just someone who'll just talk about marriage equality. Like Newsom, Brown can now point to an official act that he's taken to advance the cause of civil rights.

Once more, the question of whether marriage equality should be the law of the land in California was not put to rest by Proposition 8. It is still tied up in the courts. And no matter what the California Supreme Court rules on the validity of Proposition 8, we can assume that its decision will be followed by initiatives either to support or restrict marriage equality. And with Newsom running in the primary, there can be no doubt that the issue of marriage will feature prominently in the political debate.

But Brown's decision isn't just a tactical, short-term move to diminish Newsom's singular status as a lion for LGBT equality. This isn't just a smart move for Brown in the context of the Democratic primary. Brown will soon find himself on the winning side of the marriage issue.

We are trending rapidly into a pro-marriage state. Proposition 8 passed by 52.30%, versus 47.70% who opposed the measure. That's a spread of only 4.6%. Only eight years earlier, Proposition 22, which banned marriage equality in California, passed by a margin of 22.8%. Assuming the historical trend remains constant, a majority of California voters will support marriage equality in two years.

Of course it's possible that the historical trend toward supporting marriage won't progress in a neat linear form. There will probably be some leveling off of support, and the numbers will stabilize. But the fact of the matter is that the bare majority who oppose marriage equality today will be fewer in a general election in 2010, and they may in fact be resigned to a minority. Brown's support for marriage equality today may win him support with the Democratic primary voters, and by 2010, the majority of general election voters may very well support marriage equality.

None of this is to say that Brown is a Machiavelli here. I suspect he really does believe in equality, and that he thinks in his heart of hearts that the initiative process shouldn't be used to strip rights, including marriage rights from minority groups. But he's also a shrewd political operator. And that's a good thing. Whoever wins the Democratic primary for governor of California should be an able and deft politician. They'll need to be fierce competitors against their Republican general election opponent. As someone who supports marriage equality, I want my party's nominees to be willing and eager to do the same.

In fact, I think Brown deserves some accolades for understanding the particular direction of this issue's political winds. He's not just sitting out on the sidelines, letting the cards fall where they may. Instead, he's taking some action to advance the cause of equality. But let's not presume that he's falling on his sword here. The old lion may be in winter, but he knows what he's doing.