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"I knew things that were happening across the country, but it opened my eyes the more as to how this legislation would erode civil, religious rights," Cordileone said in an interview on A Body of Truth, a Catholic radio show. "This has happened all over the country and in other countries as well. And as well as, basically, 'We'll label and treat as bigots anyone who believes this idea, that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.' Which has been believed in every human society in all of history."
According to Atkins, Cordileone's campaign swamped the San Diego City Council with stacks of letters, begging the council not to back gay marriage. "We got thousands of e-mails, particularly from the Catholic community," she said. "And he was at the forefront of that effort." Hundreds of people from both sides packed the council chambers, stepping up to the podium and fiercely pleading with the council. After a few hours, the vote was tabled until the next session, when hundreds more showed up, and Bishop Cordileone personally asked the council not to do this thing. The pressure, Atkins says, was almost overwhelming. But in the end, the city council stood its ground and voted 5-3 to send the brief to the California Supreme Court.
There was just one problem. The mayor, a rock-ribbed, law-and-order Republican named Jerry Sanders, had already vowed to veto the legislation. That wasn't especially troubling, since the council had the votes to override his veto. But if he noodled over it and then issued a veto, the delay could hinder the filing just long enough for the Supreme Court to decide the case without hearing from San Diego. Atkins came to Sanders with a request: If you're going to veto it, just do it quickly.
What followed was one of the most remarkable moments in the history of California's experiment with gay marriage. Atkins and state Senator Christine Kehoe were at San Diego City Hall the day after the vote when the mayor walked up to them. "He pulled Senator Kehoe and I aside and said after a great deal of soul-searching and consideration with his family, he had decided not to veto the resolution," Atkins said. "We were shocked. Christine was literally speechless for a moment. And she said, 'Thank you, your honor.' It was a pretty emotional moment."
This was a moment of truth for Sanders. He was running for re-election in a few months and had yet to get his fund-raising operation started; when word got out that he was going back on his pledge, his political career could end on the spot. Later that afternoon, Sanders convened a press conference. With his wife by his side, choking back tears and repeatedly pausing to pull himself together, this former police chief explained why he couldn't veto the legislation after all.
"I have close family members and friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community," Sanders said. "Those folks include my daughter Lisa, as well as members of my personal staff. I want for them the same thing that we all want for our loved ones. For each of them to find a mate whom they love deeply and who loves them back. Someone with whom they can grow old together and share life's experiences. And I want their relationships to be equally protected under the law. In the end, I couldn't look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationship, their very lives, were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife."
Sanders' announcement was an immediate YouTube sensation, a raw, honest, vulnerable moment that laid bare the essential humanity of homosexuals everywhere. A few more moments like this, gay men and lesbians allowed themselves to hope, and their love could finally live in the sunlight.
But Bishop Sal wasn't quite as pleased. "That whole event is what set off an alarm button for people," he said in a later interview. "They realized how fast things were changing, and what was at stake. ... We had to decide what to do. And that's how the idea came up."
Only one thing would cauterize this wound, Cordileone and his friends decided. In a series of meetings through the fall of 2007, Cordileone, LiMandri, and fifteen to twenty fellow Catholic San Diegans came to a conclusion: The time had come to amend the state constitution.
At first, Cordileone's project looked utterly impossible. After all, everyone said so. "People who are very supportive of this, with lots of experience in California politics, said that this was impossible to do," Cordileone said on A Body of Truth radio show. "We needed to file the initiative by the third week of April; we would need to raise at least $1.5 million, possibly more, in order to collect paid signatures. ... In addition to that, we would have needed a record number of volunteer signatures through the churches and other means. They said we simply did not have enough time; it would have been wiser to wait until June 2010."
But the bishop and his friends were too worried that the Supreme Court would make gay marriage a reality. After considering and rejecting a proposal to include the outlawing of domestic partnerships, the core San Diego group decided to take the fourteen words in Proposition 22 and submit them as a constitutional amendment. "We decided we have to step out in faith, to step out boldly, and pray to God and ask for a miracle."
Fortunately, Bishop Sal had a little more than God on his side. Cordileone had been strategizing with ecumenical opponents of gay marriage for years, and a shadow network known as "Protect Marriage" was already in place. The National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey nonprofit dedicated to fighting same-sex marriage around the country, had what Cordileone called both the intellectual arguments and the "practical know-how" to run the campaign. On December 23, 2007, Cordileone called organization president Maggie Gallagher and asked her group to come to California and get to work. Within weeks, the organization was helping to collect signatures.
But it was in the area of fund-raising that Cordileone was most helpful, especially in the project's first days. With just a few months before the deadline to submit signatures, the campaign was flat broke. Cordileone opened up his Rolodex and called a friend of his, a man with a lot of cash and connections. The bishop refuses to name this donor, claiming that gay-marriage supporters could retaliate against him. But he says that without this donor's initial contribution, the campaign would never have gotten off the ground. "Early on, I was going to people that I thought would be supportive of this," Cordileone said. "That kind of got the ball rolling."
Eventually, millions of dollars would flood into the campaign, much of it from powerful Catholics, and especially from Catholic businessmen in San Diego, Cordileone's home turf. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, gave $1 million. Doug Manchester, a San Diego hotelier who sat with Cordileone on the University of San Diego board of trustees, gave $125,000. Terry Caster, who operates San Diego's A-1 Self Storage, donated almost $700,000. Throughout it all, Cordileone continued to speak at fund-raisers around Southern California.
"The National Organization for Marriage were the ones that took the lead, but he had the contacts, and he had the position of authority," said Proposition 8 leader Charles LiMandri. "He's always been on the front lines of issues. He's known to be someone that walks the walk and not just talk the talk. Other priests and bishops don't want to get out there. They don't want to be criticized as being intolerant because of their beliefs. I think bishops have a lot more influence than they realize. And he uses his influence."
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