EL CENTRO, Calif. — Chuck Storey ran for county clerk-recorder in a remote, desert corner of southeast California on a pledge to run a lean operation in churning out government documents like property deeds, birth certificates and marriage licenses.
"Imperial County needs a businessman," he said during last year's campaign.
Less than two months in office, the low-key real estate agent became something else: a very public face against gay marriage in California. Storey asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month to let him be the primary defendant in a lawsuit to uphold Proposition 8 – if a coalition of religious and conservative groups that sponsored the measure is removed.
Though Storey represents a county that voted overwhelmingly to ban gay marriage, his hometown critics say he was disingenuous when he didn't raise his intentions earlier. Many voters thought the county's role in the contentious issue ended Jan. 4 when the appeals court ruled its board of supervisors and deputy clerk had no legal standing to defend the ban.
Aaron Popejoy, president of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce, said the new clerk didn't mention gay marriage, or give any hint of the legal bombshell he was about to drop, at a Rotary Club lunch Feb. 24, the day before he stepped into the lawsuit.
"I'm a little disappointed that he would open up this can of worms for us," said Popejoy. "It's one of those huge red flags that draw the wrong kind of attention to our community. We need to be a little more warm and welcoming."
The Imperial Valley Press editorialized that Storey was inviting misguided stereotypes that the region is "bad or backward" – the kind of attention it got after becoming the only California county that tried to defend the marriage ban in 2009.
"We can't think of one bit of good to come out of this effort in retrospect. It was a waste of time, energy and was damaging to the county's reputation. And it's happening again thanks to one self-aggrandizing man in Storey," the newspaper wrote.
Storey's supporters note that 69.7 percent of county voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008. They say he is protecting voters' wishes, unlike former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Attorney General and current Gov. Jerry Brown and other elected officials who refused to defend the measure.
They also say the lifelong El Centro resident didn't hide his views. His campaign website touted his membership at El Centro's Christ Community Church, whose members were known to promote Proposition 8.
"I don't know why anyone should be surprised," said Dennis Freeman, 50, an associate pastor at Storey's church. "All Chuck's trying to do is say ... 'This is what the people voted for, so let's see if we can give them what they want.'"
Storey, 57, declined to answer questions or be photographed by The Associated Press.
"People are trying to take things out of context and I'm not going to get into it," the graying, bespectacled widower and father of three said in a brief phone conversation.
In his court filing, Storey wrote that he was in a bind over whether to obey voters' wishes as amended in the state constitution or a ruling by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker that found the measure unconstitutional. He said he was concerned that Walker's decision "would create significant confusion for me and other Imperial County deputy clerks and officials in the performance of our legal duties regarding marriage."
Imperial, a county of 175,000 people that is battling 25 percent unemployment, is known more for its churches than nightclubs. The nearest gay bars are across the border in Mexicali, Mexico. There are no gay advocacy groups.
Lisa Solomon, a history instructor at Imperial Valley College who counts herself as one of four openly gay faculty members on a staff of about 250, says there aren't many social options for single women like herself.
"If you aren't attached, you're sort of in a no man's land," said Solomon, 50, who has tried without success to organize a campus group to promote tolerance of gays.
Phil Valenzuela, a 38-year old pharmacy technician in El Centro, has seen gay advocacy groups fizzle over the years due to lack of interest.
"We'll actually have a few meetings," he said. "They never go anywhere."
County supervisors voted 3-2 in December 2009 to defend Proposition 8 after Supervisor Wally Leimgruber got in touch with Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a Murieta law firm that, according to its website, fights court rulings "that have created a society increasingly devoid of the message and influence of God." The firm represented the county for free.
Last August, the board voted 4-1 to join the appeal after the measure was struck down.
"I don't believe in strange-sex marriage," said Leimbruger, a farmer who has been married 36 years. "I believe marriage is between one man and one woman."
Dolores Provencio, then clerk-recorder, resisted pressure to join the lawsuit. She said in an interview that she felt same-sex marriage was allowed under California law and declared it "a matter of tolerance."
Provencio, who estimates her office issued about 50 same-sex marriage licenses when the practice was briefly allowed in 2008, didn't seek another term after a 31-year run, leaving the field wide open.
Storey, the brother of a former Imperial County district attorney, ran as an outsider who would clean up an office that he said was plagued by inefficiency and bad employee morale. His only previous public involvement noted on his campaign website was a six-year stint on the El Centro Planning Commission.
He took office as county clerk-recorder the day before the appeals court ruled the county had no legal standing.
Leimgruber and another supervisor who supported the county's involvement in the lawsuit lost bids to remain in office. The new board had no appetite to continue the fight.
Gail Pellerin, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, knows of no other county clerks who have expressed interest in defending Proposition 8.
Imperial County supervisors say Storey is on his own. He is being represented by Advocates for Faith & Freedom at no charge.
"We were not involved in any way, shape or form," said Supervisor Gary Wyatt, who has opposed the county's involvement. "It's a case of an individual who happens to be the clerk-recorder."
Supervisor Jack Terrazas, who has supported the county's involvement, said the court appeared to say the clerk is the only official who has a chance to prevail.
"He took the door that was left open and went right through it," Terrazas said. "If I were in that position, I might have taken the same door."