Features

Anatomy of a victory

California | Inside a razor-thin vote to preserve marriage in the Golden State

Issue: "MS-13: Criminals next door," June 18, 2005

Three floors above Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Capitol Building office, the flotsam in Brian O'Neel's office reveals his inner tilt: Books by Thomas Aquinas, Ronald Reagan, Judith Reisman, Barry Goldwater. A picture of Thomas More. And on the personal side, photos of Mr. O'Neel's wife and four kids, along with a Green Bay Packers bobblehead and a replica of Lambeau Field.

But amid the blizzard of paperwork that covers his desk, there is no Bat Phone, although perhaps there should be.

An insider as Capitol Director for California Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, Mr. O'Neel, 38, is an unabashed conservative activist who daily tracks and parries the machinations of the nation's most liberal legislature. Earlier this month, he and fellow conservatives in California handed liberals a painful defeat.

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On June 1 and 2, the Assembly failed on two votes to pass AB 19, a bill that would have amended California law to define marriage as between "two persons" instead of between a man and a woman. Among 80 members, none of the chamber's 32 Republicans voted for the measure; five Democrats voted no, while six Democrats and one Republican, Keith Richman, abstained.

Had AB 19 passed, California lawmakers would have become the first in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage without a court mandate. San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno, backed by the country's only official state legislative gay caucus, six Democrats strong, introduced the bill last December.

For six months, activists on both sides fanned out across Sacramento. State and national gay-rights groups lobbied for the measure, and conditions seemed ripe for revolution: Golden State gays already have domestic partnership rights that nearly mirror those of marriage. And in March, San Francisco trial judge Richard Kramer ruled unconstitutional state laws limiting marriage to partners of the opposite sex.

But for more than three years, Mr. O'Neel had been assembling a database of thousands of pro-family Californians. When AB 19 debuted, he called them into action, firing off talking points, alerting voters to the names of potential swing-vote Democrats, and urging citizens to call their legislators. From the Capitol Building, he also monitored lawmakers' AB 19 leanings: Who's a yes vote? Who's a no? Who's on the bubble? And he traded data with conservative allies like Karen Holgate at the California Family Council (CFC).

Ms. Holgate, CFC legislative affairs director, worked phones and databases from her own office a block and a half away. When controversial bills like AB 19 come down to the wire, "you never know what the last minute is going to bring," said Ms. Holgate, a veteran of other razor-thin votes. Eleventh-hour shifts can include flip-flopping loyalties, changes in bill language, or procedural maneuvers that grant new life to bills that seemed dead.

For example, lawmakers on June 1 voted down AB 19, 37-35, with eight abstentions. But they also approved a "motion to reconsider," handing Assemblyman Leno a parliamentary mulligan. That sent Ms. Holgate on a June 2 round of broadcast and print interviews, which in turn propelled conservative citizens to their phones and computers to contact their legislators.

Conservatives like Bob and Denise Howe of Pleasanton, Calif., who e-mailed Ms. Holgate to say they had repeatedly called and e-mailed Assemblyman Alberto Torrico's office to register their opposition to AB 19. During the June 1 vote, the Democrat had abstained. But during a June 2 re-vote, he voted yes along with Rudy Bermudez, a Norwalk Democrat who abstained in Round 1 but then flopped into the yes column.

Still, AB 19 fell short of the 41 votes necessary for passage, and on June 2 died in the assembly. But Mr. O'Neel warns Californians that the issue of state-sanctioned gay marriage is still very much alive.

By his count, at least three reliably liberal Democrats abstained who would have voted yes had they thought they could do so and keep their jobs. And though conservatives held the line this time, he noted much room for improvement. "In a very secular state, we've done a poor job of educating the public on nonsectarian arguments against same-sex marriage," he said. "I predict that within 10 years, if we don't start making those arguments, we're going down."

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