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Some in GOP Undiplomatic Over Openly Gay Ambassador Nominee

Politics: Clinton's pick for Luxembourg envoy enrages key conservatives. But many support James Hormel, whose nomination is stalled in Senate.

July 06, 1998|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — To court their conservative base, key Senate Republican leaders are digging in their heels on an issue that does not seem ideological at all: Who should be the next U.S. ambassador to a tiny European country most Americans could not find on a map?

With a land mass smaller than the city of Los Angeles and at the center of no burning diplomatic dilemmas, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg would not appear to provide the kinds of issues--such as abortion or flag-burning--that would tweak conservative politicians.

But San Francisco gay activist James C. Hormel--President Clinton's choice as ambassador to the predominantly Roman Catholic country--has so enraged some conservative groups that they have made his defeat a legislative priority.

As a result, the nomination is now stalled in the Senate, even though Republicans increasingly are divided as to how to proceed--conservative Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), facing a tough reelection campaign in a state with a large gay population, recently endorsed Hormel. Democrats, meanwhile, have vowed to push aggressively for an up-or-down vote in the weeks ahead, hoping at least to spotlight the dispute.

It is not Hormel's diplomatic experience that is at issue. Luxembourg is traditionally an outpost for big campaign contributors and Hormel qualifies on that count because of his $209,950 in Democratic donations in 1995 and 1996. And his resume shows that he served as an alternate U.S. representative to the 51st United Nations General Assembly in 1997--a post that required Senate confirmation--and that he was a member of the 51st U.N. Human Rights Commission in 1995.

Rather, the furor stems from the fact that Hormel--a lawyer who comes from the well-heeled family that makes Spam--is openly gay and has actively used his wealth to fund gay causes. His appointment would make him the first openly gay U.S. ambassador in history, which his conservative detractors denounce as "precedent-setting."

Hormel's critics have circulated videotapes in Washington that feature ominous music, bold graphics and men dressed as nuns participating in a raucous gay pride parade on the streets of San Francisco. There on the sidelines, laughing at it all, is Hormel.

Critics call the nomination anti-Catholic, saying that Hormel is unfit to be an ambassador.

"I don't think he represents the majority views of our country," said Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), one of three senators who has put a "hold" on the nomination.

Also on the videotape is footage from a documentary that Hormel, 65, partly funded in which gay activists are seen discussing gays and lesbians with schoolchildren.

"It's a pro-active thing with him," said Smith, who joined Sens. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) in publicly blocking Hormel's nomination.

Numerous people have come to Hormel's aid--from former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who served in GOP administrations, to Hormel's ex-wife, retired psychologist Alice Hormel Tucker, who publicly defended him as a man who tried to "live what was a lie" during their decade-long marriage. To lend support, she attended Hormel's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last fall, as did their five children and several of their 13 grandchildren.

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In his bid to quell critics, Hormel has seemed at times to distance himself from the activism that has seemed to be such an essential part of his life. If he becomes ambassador, he has vowed, he will discontinue most of his public service and philanthropic activities. And he has assured uncomfortable senators that his partner, Timothy Wu, would not live with him in Luxembourg.

Despite these efforts, Hormel's nomination has languished since the Foreign Relations Committee approved it, 16 to 2, last fall. And now, according to Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), there is not enough time on the Senate schedule to consider the controversial nomination before Congress adjourns this year.

Lott's stance has buoyed conservatives, who have been angered in recent months by what they consider a lack of responsiveness by GOP leaders.

This spring, representatives of the Christian Coalition, Family Research Council and more than a dozen other groups met with House Republicans to push an agenda that included a ban on late-term abortions, abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and phasing out the so-called "marriage penalty" that compels many couples to pay more income taxes than those who file single returns.

On the Senate agenda, the groups added Hormel's nomination.

"We consider it an important issue," said Steven A. Schwalm, a policy analyst for the Family Research Council who has prepared reports critical of Hormel. "This is about the basic issue of civilization. We think his agenda represents a clear and present danger to our country."

But Republicans are by no means united.

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