Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007 | With his wife by his side, Mayor Jerry Sanders fought back tears to explain Wednesday why he would no longer veto a measure endorsing same-sex marriage because the rights of his daughter and other gays and lesbians were more important than a campaign promise.

“The arrival of the resolution in my office late last night forced me to reflect and search my soul for the right thing to do,” Sanders said. “I have decided to lead with my heart, to do what I think is right, and to take a stand on behalf of equality and social justice.”

The announcement came as a surprise, as Sanders vowed a day earlier to veto the controversial proposal. The legislation, which the City Council approved Tuesday, directs the City Attorney’s Office to send a legal brief endorsing same-sex marriage to the state Supreme Court, which is considering multiple lawsuits seeking to overturn a ban on the marriage of gay and lesbian couples.

The Mayor’s Office announced initially Sanders would veto the council’s decision in order to remain consistent with campaign statements he made during the 2005 mayoral election.

But Sanders said he changed his mind in the meantime. “I have personally wrestled with that position ever since,” he said. “My opinion on this issue has evolved significantly, as I think have the opinions of millions of Americans from all walks of life.”

Many people close to him, in his family and his mayoral administration, are gay and he couldn’t deny them the rights that he enjoys with his wife, Sanders said.

“I want their relationships to be protected equally under the law,” he said. “I could not look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships — their very lives — were any less meaningful than the marriage that I share with my wife Rana.”

The “friend of the court” letter that Councilwoman Toni Atkins proposed was an opportunity for city officials to sound off on a social issue that local governments don’t normally grapple with as a practical matter. By a 5-3 vote, the council decided to sign on to the same-sex lawsuit on San Diego’s behalf, which mirrored moves taken by many other municipalities around the state, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.

As mayor, Sanders has the opportunity to either sign the legislation, veto it, or — as is the case with many City Hall proposals — do nothing and allow it to be unceremoniously codified into law 10 days after passing at council.

Sanders’ spokesman Fred Sainz said on Tuesday that Sanders would veto it because of his prior commitment against same-sex marriage. Sainz said the mayor wanted the city to focus on restoring its financial health instead of dealing with a social issue. He also argued that California voters already spoke on the matter, banning it in 2000 with the passage of Proposition 22. In San Diego, that ballot measure was approved by 62 percent of the voters.

Sanders’ was a position that some members of the gay and lesbian community could live with.

“While I’m disappointed and wished he would have changed his mind in support, he is being consistent in what he has told our community,” said Nicole Murray-Ramirez, the chairman of the city’s Human Relations Commission and a prominent gay activist, in an interview before Sanders changed his mind.

Sanders is largely viewed in the gay and lesbian community as an ally. He’s ridden in gay pride parades since serving as the city’s police chief and is moderate on other social issues, such as supporting a clean-needle exchange program in San Diego.

Sanders undoubtedly felt the political tug to stick to his veto, as his stiffest competition will likely come from Steve Francis, his probable competitor in next year’s mayor’s race and a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage. Francis has forced Sanders to the right before, most notably in the 2005 campaign when Sanders matched Francis’ pledge to not raise taxes to deal with the city’s massive funding shortfalls.

Sanders said his feelings got the best of his political sense.

“I acknowledge that not all members of our community will agree or perhaps even understand my decision today,” he said. “All I can offer them is that I am trying to do what I believe is right.”

Sanders appeared overwhelmed during the speech. A spokesman estimated that it would take him about a minute and a half to read prepared remarks to the flock of reporters and cameras assembled in City Hall’s press gallery. Instead, Sanders’ speech lasted several minutes, as he frequently broke from reading to swig water, breathe deeply and brush away tears.

Critical to the speech was Sanders’s revelation that his daughter, Lisa, was a lesbian — a fact that Sanders said he knew about for three or four years but that had been largely shielded from the public eye.

But Sanders downplayed that as his overriding factor, instead saying that he had been a visible supporter of the gay and lesbian community for a decade and noting that he surrounded himself with several members of that constituency in his professional life.

Included in that list are his spokesmen Fred Sainz and George Biagi, fire Chief Tracy Jarman, and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, a close political ally.

Sanders’ decision comes a day after the City Council heard three hours of testimony on the issue. Besides Atkins, council members Scott Peters, Donna Frye, Jim Madaffer and Ben Hueso voted for it. Councilmen Kevin Faulconer, Tony Young and Brian Maienschein voted against it.

Madaffer, another Republican who crossed the party’s typically hard line against same-sex marriage, applauded the mayor.

“I commend the mayor for leading with his heart and making a decision on what he believes and not what politics dictate,” he said in a statement.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre also applauded Sanders’ change of heart, but said it showed the mayor was a better leader when he sided with instinct over politics.

“It really shows that when Jerry does what’s in his heart, he’s a good person. He really has the right instincts,” Aguirre said. “When he personally gets involved, he makes the right decisions. When he listens to political advisers, he makes wrong decisions.”

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