The Marrying Man

updated 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

In his office at San Francisco City Hall, Mayor Gavin Newsom is talking about the moment that launched a thousand weddings. On Jan. 20 he was in Washington, D.C., to attend the State of the Union address when President Bush praised the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that defines marriage as an act between a man and a woman. Says Newsom: "At that point in my mind I realized the President was going to use this as a wedge issue to divide this country. I felt offended by it."

Newsom's wife, Court TV host Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, who has been listening quietly, suddenly perks up: "If the people in that room only had a clue what you were going to do!"

By now, almost everyone knows what Newsom, 36, decided to do. After huddling with his advisers back in San Francisco, some of whom warned he was about to commit political suicide, Newsom jump-started the national debate over gay marriage on Feb. 12 by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. "I thought I had an obligation," says Newsom. "I'd just taken an oath as mayor of the most diverse city, where people are living together and prospering together across every conceivable difference. And for the President to try to deny millions of Americans the same rights that he and I have just didn't seem right."

Mayors in towns and cities across the country were soon following Newsom's lead (see box), heartening supporters of gay marriage—and calling to arms those who oppose it. "Newsom acted like a dictator, trampling on the people's vote with his ultraliberal agenda," says Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families. Indeed, on March 11, after 4,161 couples had tied the knot, California's supreme court ordered San Francisco to cease and desist.

Newsom vows to keep up his crusade, although the matter is now in the hands of the courts. In the meantime, with his matinee-star good looks and an obvious flair for political theater, he has already emerged a winner. "He's got an extraordinary future. A lot of people are talking about Gavin the way they talked about Clinton 30 years ago," says Simon Rosenberg, director of the New Democrat Network, a Washington, D.C., organization that scouts future Democratic talent. A fourth-generation San Franciscan, Newsom was raised by his mother, who worked as a waitress, a book-keeper and a real estate agent after his parents divorced in 1971. After attending college on a partial baseball scholarship, Newsom returned home and opened a wine store with backing from billionaire Gordon Getty, a family friend. In 10 years the business had grown to include restaurants, a hotel and a winery.

Newsom won his first election for a seat on the city's board of supervisors in 1998. By then he was already dating Guilfoyle Newsom, now 35, a former lingerie model and prosecutor, who would go on to help win a murder conviction in a lethal dog-mauling case that made national headlines in 2002. The case propelled Guilfoyle Newsom into a career as a TV legal commentator. Three years after the couple's 2001 wedding, she went to work for Court TV in New York City, where she still lives today, except for weekend visits home.

When not courting controversy, Newsom has been knee-deep in city affairs: He just drafted a bill to cut his own salary and require staffers to pay for their own parking. "We haven't been to a movie in six months," says Guilfoyle Newsom. But for both of them, the benefits of keeping in the thick of things are obvious. "The other day a 7-year-old girl was crying and tugging on my jacket at City Hall, saying, 'Mr. Mayor, come meet my parents,' " says Newsom of a recent gay union. "The sky hasn't fallen in and thousands of couples have been affirmed. History will judge that what we've done is right."

J.D. Heyman. Johnny Dodd in San Francisco and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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