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Republicans delay Hormel vote - Heir seeks to become first gay ambassador

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By Louis Freedberg

San Francisco Chronicle

The Senate Republican leadership has indefinitely postponed a vote on the nomination of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg in response to opposition to the openly gay San Francisco philanthropist.

Supporters, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, are continuing to press Majority Leader Trent Lott to bring the nomination to the Senate floor. But the prospect that Hormel will assume the post are more remote than ever.

Senators have raised numerous objections to Hormel, including his financial support for a gay and lesbian collection at the San Francisco Public Library that they say includes material promoting pedophilia and incest.

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Some lawmakers also are upset with his refusal to condemn the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay men who appear at public events in San Francisco dressed in nun's habits.

Hormel, an heir to the Hormel meat-packing fortune, has taken several steps to placate his critics. Last week he promised senators that if confirmed he would resign from boards of gay organizations and not let his name be used for fund-raising purposes for gay projects, as he has in the past.

And to deflect concerns about who would fill the role of ``ambassadorial spouse,'' he told them that his partner, Timothy Wu, would not move with him to Luxembourg.

But these assurances have apparently not been enough to satisfy those who contend that Hormel will use his post to promote a gay rights agenda.

Hormel's chance to become the first openly gay ambassador in U.S. history now rests in Lott's hands, but the majority leader is refusing to set a date for a vote. ``I don't foresee it (bringing it to the senate floor) in the near future,'' Lott said Thursday. ``But I haven't declared it dead.''

Lott made his statement after the Washington Times quoted unnamed sources as saying that Lott had ``no intention'' of bringing Hormel's name up for a vote.

When asked about the status of the Hormel nomination, Susan Irby, Lott's spokeswoman, said, ``At this point it is not on the radar screen.''

Hormel was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November. But since then a number of conservative organizations have intensively researched Hormel's background and his support for various gay organizations and projects.

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Initially, just two senators -- Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., and James Inhofe, R-Okla. -- came out against Hormel. But Irby said there are now ``multiple objections'' to his nomination, although she declined to name any other senators.

``It is clear that the strategy is to delay it and hope it goes away,'' said a pro-Hormel Senate aide who requested anonymity. ``My assessment is that it will take a lot of work to get him confirmed, but when it comes time to get him confirmed, he will be confirmed overwhelmingly. That doesn't mean it will be easy, but it's doable.''

The opposition to Hormel is based in part on his $500,000 donation to establish a gay and lesbian collection at the San Francisco Public Library. The facility, which was later named the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, opened in April 1996. It is thought to be the only collection of its kind in the world.

In recent weeks, Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, which has long opposed homosexuality on religious grounds, has circulated a thick binder of materials from the center on Capitol Hill. Sheldon, who spent two days in the San Francisco library gathering the material, said the works -- including publications from NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) -- promote ``bizarre, immoral and illegal acts.'' She said one publication, titled ``Boys Speak Out on Man/Boy Love,'' extols pedophilia, while others carried pictures of naked boys. Hormel dissociated himself from the material in a letter he sent last week to Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. ``I have never had any input or control over what materials are to be included in -- or excluded from -- the library,'' he said. But Sheldon said that, at the very least, Hormel should denounce the material in the library and demand that his name be removed from it.

``The fact is that he has not denounced this kind of thing in his library,'' said Sheldon. ``If that was a library with a politician's name on it, that politician would be run out of town.'' Chuck Forester, executive director of the San Francisco Library Association, said Hormel did not want the collection named after him and agreed to it only after supporters said they wanted to honor his many contributions to the city.

In any case, Forester said the library has a policy of rejecting gifts that stipulate what books should or should not be bought.

``My guess is that if you went into any major library in the country, including the Library of Congress, you would find these materials,'' he said. Jim Van Buskirk, the librarian in charge of the Hormel center, defended the inclusion of NAMBLA material. ``We thought it was important to have information on what they are up to so anyone wishing to do research on the subject could do so,'' he said.

Republicans have expressed their opposition on several other grounds. When Hormel met with Hutchinson in December, the Arkansas senator asked him to repudiate the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Hutchinson had seen the group in a videotape of a San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade supplied to him by the Family Research Council, another conservative organization opposed to Hormel.

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``The senator was disturbed he (Hormel) would not repudiate those who mocked the church,'' said Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for Hutchinson. ``In fact, he said he found them humorous.''

The meeting did not have the outcome Hormel had hoped for. ``It was a cordial visit, but Mr. Hutchinson is still opposed to the nomination,'' she said.

Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., was incensed by Hormel's $12,000 contribution to a film called ``It's Elementary.'' The film is intended to help teachers make their students more sensitive to gays.

The film contains excerpts from a speech Smith delivered on the Senate floor denouncing gay education programs. ``We can and must protect the taxpayers by keeping this kind of trash out of our schools, and that's exactly what it is, it's trash,'' Smith says in the film.

``We're proud to have Mr. Hormel's support for this film,'' said Debra Chasnoff, the film's producer. ``It is designed to make sure every child who goes to school feel safe and good about themselves and who their parents are.'' Observing long-standing protocol, Hormel has declined to comment publicly about the controversy surrounding his nomination.

But David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said that he was ``cautiously optimistic'' that the nomination would move forward. ``This is nothing but a vicious, mean-spirited campaign being mounted by anti-gay special interest groups,'' he said.@et

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