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Off Mic

Divorcing His Politics

Perhaps Toni Atkins, a gay city councilwoman, knew her effort would be in vain. She persuaded San Diego's city council to sign a resolution in support of gay marriage. But the Republican mayor swiftly promised a veto . That would be consistent, he said, with the views he'd always expressed in public.

The mayor would not talk to me about his decision. Instead, his spokesman Fred Sainz, who's gay, told me the mayor does not believe in gay marriage. End of discussion.

But I had no idea of the mayor's private turmoil that night.

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On Tuesday evening, Jerry Sanders was on the phone with his daughter, a lesbian in her 20s. Friends and neighbors stayed awake with a man whose heart was at odds with his politics. Just 48 hours later, the mayor would launch his re-election c38aign, already facing competition from a conservative rival. And he would address the core of the GOP at a major conference here.

On Wednesday afternoon, a surprise announcement:

<b> Mayor Sanders TO SIGN Council Resolution on Gay Marriage Brief; Mayor to Explain Principled Stance at News Conference this Afternoon </b>

I ran through all the political explanations in my head. Here's what I came up with: The city council speaks for the people, and it would be wrong for the mayor to resist the will of the people, and a veto would be needless political theater that distracts the city from its real business.

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I scooted to the the 13th floor of City Hall with my gear. It's a routine that felt different as soon as I entered the room. The mayor's entire staff was there. Fred walked in and asked us to please keep our questions brief, as it had been a very rough day for the mayor. He started to leave and then doubled-back. By the way, he informed us, Rana will be here .

Rana S38son is Jerry Sanders' wife. The reporters had to get the spelling of her name, because most of us had never written it down before. She had never appeared with him in the press before.

Rana was stoic, even stern. She never uttered a word. The mayor wore a crisp suit, as he does at every press conference, and smiled at the reporters. A photograph would have revealed nothing unusual. Sanders began a prepared speech, then paused, then took a shaky sip of water. ( Watch the video -- Windows Media )

He told us he suddenly felt the "enormity" of the city council's resolution, and that his gay friends and family prompted serious soul-searching. He told us he had evolved. Oh my God, I thought, he's coming out.  

I was wrong. Perhaps more stunningly, Sanders revealed his daughter's sexual orientation, and that several staffers are gay. "I couldn't look any of them in the face and tell them their relationship, their very lives, were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife," he said through tears.

Arrested, I stopped taking notes. A press conference is normally so sterile, so superficial, so staged. This moment was none of those. "Wow," a friend later told me. "He totally just accepted that his daughter is gay."

I struggled to maintain my professional distance. No matter your politics, you could not have watched this speech unaffected.

The mayor finished speaking and sailed out of the room. We sat stunned, silent. A few moments later, the frenzy of phone calls began. Fred came back in the room to tell us the mayor would answer questions inside his office.

I resisted the urge to tell the mayor how courageous he was, how much I appreciated his honesty. He spoke to us softly, repeatedly thanking us for being with him. I knew the live shots, the sound bites, the news alerts would take over the airwaves within hours. I knew the story would be scooped up by the national media and the blogosphere. But for a few minutes, sitting next to Jerry Sanders, I felt like the moment was ours.

-- Andrew Phelps is a reporter for KPBS News and co-host of Off Mic . Please read our guidelines before posting comments.

See also:

KPBS reporter Alison St John reflects on the mayor's change of heart.

Emotional Mayor Reverses Opposition to Gay Marriage