Senator Roy Ashburn is in the twilight of his service in the California Senate. He came to Sacramento in 1996 and served six years in the Assembly before moving on to the Senate, where he has served his maximum two terms.

In his final months of service, the Bakersfield Republican has come out gay to his conservative district.

His story hit the papers like a tidal wave in March: homophobic Republican ironically turns out to be gay. After leaving a gay bar in Sacramento, Ashburn and a male companion were pulled over for drunk driving. The media attention, says Ashburn, convinced him to come clean after four days in hiding.

The 56-year-old divorced father of four now says he wants to reform the GOP from within and says he's convinced his party is ready.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted on Friday with On Top Magazine, Ashburn talked to us about gay rights, Ken Mehlman and what's next.

Not only has Ashburn flipped his votes on gay rights bills, he's increasingly speaking out on gay rights.

A bill that repeals a decades-old gay “cure” mandate from state code which was unanimously approved by senators last week was carried in the Senate by Ashburn. The law instructed the State Department of Mental Health to conduct research into the “causes and cures of homosexuality.” The bill's author, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, a Long Beach Democrat, said “Sixty years is more than long enough” in calling for the law's repeal.

“The law is clearly founded on a false premise that somehow homosexuality can and should be cured,” he said. “And there is a requirement on the department to conduct research, that means spend public money on something that is discriminatory and false.”

“So, this bill removes those requirements and those references. And the implied relationship between homosexuals and sex offenders. I mean that's implied in this because the three things that the original 1950 law said again were 'to conduct scientific research into the causes and cures of sexual deviation' and 'the causes and cures of homosexuality' and 'into methods of identifying potential sex offenders.'”

“I mean that's not only discriminatory, that's offensive,” he added.

Ashburn said he was “happy” for Ken Mehlman, a former RNC chief and GOP strategist who came out gay Wednesday after years of denying rumors about his sexual orientation. But Mehlman's coming out has met with stiff resistance from prominent gay rights leaders who have charged that the 43-year-old political strategist should have spoken out sooner against GOP strategies designed to keep the party in power at the expense of the gay community.

“I'm pleased for him,” Ashburn said, “because knowing what I've been through in trying to keep a secret for so many years and in trying to hide my secret, doing things that were hurtful to gay people, coming to the realization that you can actually admit who you truly are, and to stop the hiding and the actions around that which are hurtful … I mean that's a big breakthrough and I'm happy for him.”

Mehlman says he came out to become a gay marriage advocate. In speaking about the issue, he said he believes giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry is fundamentally a conservative value.

“I would argue … that in fact if you are a believer in individual freedom and leaving people alone and you're a believer in strengthening families that, in fact, supporting issues like the right to marry would be consistent with that. I think those are conservative positions,” Mehlman told gay weekly The Advocate.

Ashburn agreed, adding that the Republican party is ideally suited for championing gay rights.

“I would argue that the Republican party, because of the principles underlying Republicanism, really is the party that should be championing equal rights for gay people, for all people. For me this is very clear,” he said.

What's next for Ashburn? Some have suggested a congressional run, but would Republicans back an openly gay – and increasingly vocal – candidate? The evidence is mixed. While the three openly gay members of Congress are all Democrats, Republicans are becoming increasingly supportive of openly gay candidates on the local and state level.

In the meantime, Ashburn says he'll work to reform the party from within.

“My interest is in changing the Republican party. My Republican party, which I don't intend to abandon, was created on three core values. And those are limited government, maximum individual freedom and the idea that government does not get involved in the private lives of citizens.”

“Now somehow along the way … the party got off track,” Ashburn admits. “I want to change the party to reestablish itself on those three core values of what Republicans believe.”