San Jose Councilman Pete Constant began his remarks on gay marriage Tuesday with an acknowledgment of his strep throat. "Whoever's got strep out there, I've already got five kids to get me sick,'' he said. "So go easy on me later.''

It was near the end of a six-and-a-half hour meeting that contained a little bit of everything the council does -- a rezoning at Bascom & San Carlos, the interview of elections commissioners, and a lively debate over whether to give Team San Jose a $350,000 performance award.

About 20 advocates of gay marriage, who wore pink hearts to identify themselves, had waited all day for the council to vote on whether to join a legal brief challenging Proposition 8. In truth, the vote was largely symbolic, but it was important symbolism.

For years, Constant has been the council's lone Republican -- though he has been joined now by Johnny Khamis, who left before the gay marriage vote. Though he's no bigot, Constant voted for Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The ex-cop Tuesday night acknowledged the impact of his faith, which does not recognize gay marriage. "It keeps coming back to me that my position is clearly and deeply rooted in the faith in which I have been brought up,'' he said.

Then, in a move that was extraordinary for a conservative Republican, he used the argument of religious freedom to question his own stance. And he wound up voting for the proposal to support the gay rights advocates.


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Rules of faith

"I've been thinking about this a lot,'' he said. "I wouldn't want someone with a faith different than mine insisting that I follow their faith. If there was a law saying that I had to follow the tenets of another faith, I'd be pretty pissed off.''

In politics, we are accustomed to seeing things in cynical terms, a reading that can't be wholly dismissed here. Constant still has political ambitions, and any politician opposing gay marriage in this county erects an enormous roadblock for ambition.

It is one reason that political insiders assume that Mayor Chuck Reed, who opposed the gay marriage proposal, has no higher ambitions.

In Constant's case, however, the cynical reading overlooks a man who was genuinely wrestling with his conscience.

"It was a huge moment,'' said James Gonzales, the president of Baymec, the gay and lesbian political action group. "Not many people in the crowd were fans of Pete's.''

Later in the week, I called up Constant and asked how long the idea of switching his position had been percolating in his mind. He told me that one key was the conversations he had with Campbell Councilman Evan Low, a gay Democrat.

"I was fighting the perception that I was a right-wing bigot,'' Constant told me. "I'd ask Evan, 'Why is it?' ''

It was only one vote. But Pete Constant's remarks Tuesday night remind us of one important lesson in public life: You're measured not just by where you end up, but by how far you've traveled.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Twitter.com/scottherhold.