Opinion - Kasim's gay problem

Mayor Reed's aspirations are put to the test with gay marriage issue

Not long off is Kasim Reed's day of reckoning, his bid to parlay those local plaudits into the national profile his mother always said he deserved. But locked between the president for whom he campaigns and the hapless state party for which he serves as kingpin, the enormously ambitious Atlanta mayor's designs for that prized Senate gig have been pinched by the political crises of those closest to him.

Eleven words. That was all it took to rock Reed's almost-assured contender status for that inevitable statewide bid: "I think same sex couples should be able to get married." Never have so few words had such an impact on a Georgian politician — except, perhaps, for the whopper that struck ex-Obama foe Herman Cain last year: "He put his hand on my leg and reached for my genitals."

President Barack Obama's new, if long-presumed, support for gay marriage has made Reed uniquely vulnerable by forcing the mayor to prematurely square this new normal with the countervailing religious convictions of his own natural constituency.

Just as opposition to gay marriage and diluted civil unions are a virtual litmus test for Republicans — look no further than my former boss, Jon Huntsman, whose moderate posture toward gays netted him firm opposition from Christian conservative groups — so too has the corollary become true for Democrats. "In the Democratic Party, it has become something of a core issue, and politicians are reacting to where a majority of people are," Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and former DNC communications director, told National Journal even before the president had completed his evolution.

Threading the needle of this apparently defining issue is an immoderate challenge even for candidates boasting strong party support in their region. The mayor instead will bank on a state political organization with few supporters and fewer donors.

Reed's immediate response was to mirror the Obama model, even appropriating the president's now-dated language. He was "still wrestling," he said, with his own "personal beliefs on the issue of marriage," even as a local petition begging the mayor's conversion had swelled to more than 4,200 supporters. Not quite large enough to force his outright evolution, the petition had at least grown large enough to warrant a city hall summit: Its primary organizer landed a meeting this Wednesday to discuss gay marriage with Reed.

Yet unlike the president, whose top political lieutenant recently forswore a deep Georgia footprint in this fall's contest, the Atlanta mayor must vie for votes in the Democratic wasteland of the rural South if he's ever to take his act to the national stage in D.C.

The only major candidate not to endorse gay nuptials in Atlanta's 2009 mayoral contest, Reed already knows well the political risks in the deepening marriage divide: He notched a runoff victory by a 750-vote margin opposite a white candidate in a majority-black city. And despite winning the city's black neighborhoods, he took a thumping in its gayest district.

Even as opinion surveys confirm Democrats overwhelmingly supporting gay marriage, cross tabs find it weathering opposition from black and independent voters. Spurning the position traditionally held by Southern black voters on marriage is fundamentally a losing proposition for a pol like Reed, whose path to victory lies primarily through this group should he take the federal plunge.

Both hallmarks of Democratic base politics, the two constituencies have become competing centers of gravity in the debate over marriage equality. Which one Reed satisfies will be a greater reflection of the man's political aspirations than his politics.

With those eleven little words, cringe-inducing the lot of them for Reed, President Obama assured last month his 2008 nod would be the last instance in which Democrats anointed an anti-gay marriage pol as their party's standard bearer.

It's this marker, more than anything else, that will spur Reed to embrace gay marriage. Whether or not he can extend that franchise to fellow Southern black voters will determine his fortunes.

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