Why Sanders supports same-sex marriageConversations with the Mayor of Hillcrest, Top Highlights Thursday, October 11th, 2012
LGBT WEEKLY EXCLUSIVE
Having served and worked with the last five mayors of San Diego, my relationship and friendship with each of them has been different. I first met Jerry Sanders when he was serving as the San Diego police chief in the mid-1990s.
Sanders was a very progressive Republican who extended his hand to the LGBT community in an effort to build better relationships, as well as encourage gay and lesbian officers to come out.
Chief Sanders met with leaders in the community regularly and proudly walked in our annual Pride parade. Once Sanders left the police department, he served as the executive director of the United Way where he continued to include the LGBT community in his efforts to bring all San Diegans together.
Many LGBT businesspeople and I supported Jerry Sanders in the 2005 mayoral primary and special run-off election. We not only endorsed Sanders, we hosted many fundraisers on his behalf.
Mayor Sanders was considered a moderate and that often put him at odds with the conservative San Diego Republican Central Committee. In fact, Sanders was not always endorsed by his fellow Republicans on the central committee.
Over the course of the campaign, I had the pleasure to meet Sanders’ strongly independent and wonderful wife, Rana Sampson, as well as their two beautiful daughters. I had also become good friends with his top aide and advisor, Fred Sainz, a gay Cuban-American Latino. I always privately referred to Sainz as the “real deputy mayor of San Diego.”
It was during Sanders’ first mayoral administration that marriage equality became front and center in the political debate. A case before the California Supreme Court led Mayor Sanders to make news worldwide with his infamous press conference where he announced his support of same-sex marriage. A direct contradiction to statements he made when he was running for mayor.
In September of 2007, Sanders’ announcement was made with tears in his eyes as the collected media watched with astonishment. In just a five minute press conference, Sanders helped to change the political landscape around marriage equality in the nation. Many political pundits deemed Sanders’ announcement his finest hour.
Almost immediately, the media attributed Mayor Sanders’ change of heart to the fact that he has an openly lesbian daughter, Lisa Sanders. Lisa and I know that this is far from the truth and the real story has never been told.
Lisa and I developed a close relationship because her father asked me to help Lisa maneuver the complexities of coming out while being a public figure. I felt like her fairy godmother as I have watched Lisa blossom into an LGBT activist and leader in her own right.
Almost every major city mayor in California submitted amicus briefs to the California Supreme Court supporting marriage equality. Popular City Councilwoman Toni Atkins created an opportunity for the San Diego City Council to express their support of marriage equality by a formal vote.
Then City Attorney Mike Aguirre also got involved and we had endless phone conversations about the overall marriage equality strategy from a City of San Diego point of view. Ultimately, Jerry Sanders could veto the City Council resolution in support of marriage equality.
Mayor Sanders was in a quandary. Sanders was under political pressure to veto the City Council’s resolution from within the Republican Party, plus Sanders was up for re-election. His opponent was millionaire Steve Francis who took a public stand against same-sex marriage.
I will never forget the confidential phone call I received from Sanders’ aide, Fred Sainz. Sainz informed me that the mayor had decided to veto the City Council marriage equality resolution. Sainz asked that I arrange a meeting with LGBT leaders so the mayor could personally explain his decision.
Sainz suggested that I pick ten LGBT leaders from a list that he submitted to me. In addition, he requested commentary space for the mayor in the Gay and Lesbian Times to explain his veto to the entire LGBT community.
I was not happy to be the person to arrange the meeting that promised to be so devastating to our community. So, I suggested that we have the meeting in a setting more intimate than City Hall: the mayor’s home in Kensington.
The mayor immediately agreed to the change in venue; now the task was to pick the attendees. Since I was not a big proponent of same-sex marriage personally, I decided to pick LGBT people who could speak passionately about being in long-term relationships, as well as those with close relationships with Mayor Sanders and some couples who were his neighbors in Kensington.
Dr. Delores Jacobs, Robert Gleason, Bob Nelson, Kevin Tilden, Marci Bair, Richard Valdez and former marine Sgt. Bob Lehman attended and told their stories. Gleason said “it was one of the most difficult evenings of my life,” as he spoke about his partner and their little son.
Bob Nelson spoke passionately against what he thought was a “done deal” after being encouraged by Kevin Tilden to speak honestly and openly. Each speaker poured their heart out, telling their personal stories about being a member of the LGBT community and what marriage equality would mean to them.
For once in my life I sat silently by as others, who were much more appropriate, described the love and joy they experienced from their relationship and children. My fellow LGBT brothers and sisters did not disappoint and by the end there was not a dry eye in the house. I knew only these stories and relationships with Mayor Sanders had any chance of changing the mayor’s mind.
Would the mayor be as moved as everyone else by our personal stories? Sgt. Bob Lehman, who served in Iraq, told Mayor Sanders and his wife about his service to the country to guarantee our freedom, yet he could not marry the man he loved when he returned home.
These are some of the unsung heroes who helped convince Mayor Sanders to change his mind about marriage equality and to step forward as a national leader on the issue.
Everyone left the mayor’s home deflated because we assumed that nothing had changed. We were sure the mayor would announce his anti-LGBT stance the next morning. As I left, I was handed the mayor’s commentary for the Gay and Lesbian Times explaining his anti-marriage equality position.
A few of us gathered on the street in front of the mayor’s home to debrief the meeting. I did not have the heart to tell them about the envelope I had in my pocket. I simply said, “Pray tonight.”
Bob Nelson later said that as he looked toward the mayor’s house from the street, he caught a glimpse of the mayor and his wife hugging each other tightly. Lisa Sanders says that her father called her after the meeting and spoke about the personal love stories he had heard that evening; from his friends, neighbors and supporters.
Lisa and I agree that it was that special meeting in September of 2007 at the mayor’s home that changed the heart and mind of Jerry Sanders. Our community owes those in attendance a debt of gratitude for being so open, honest and real about their lives. They spoke of love, family, and their truth. The result is they touched the very soul of the 34th mayor of San Diego and changed our city forever.
The next morning Mayor Sanders and Fred Sainz called the attendees to inform them that the mayor had changed his mind.
Nicole Murray Ramirez still has the envelope with the mayor’s explanation of his “veto” that never happened. It will be donated to the Lambda Archives upon Ramirez’ death.
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