WASHINGTON -- After a confirmation hearing yesterday notable for its lack of controversy, a San Francisco supervisor seemed certain of a Senate committee's backing to become the highest-ranking avowed homosexual ever appointed to federal office.
Roberta Achtenberg, 42, who was picked by President Clinton to become an assistant secretary for housing and urban development, was the first openly gay White House nominee for public office to appear for Senate confirmation. If confirmed by the Senate, she will be in charge of HUD's fair housing and equal opportunity division.
"You're crossing one of those invisible lines that we have in our society . . . with respect to sexual orientation," noted Michigan Democratic Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., chairman of the Senate hTC Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, who strongly endorsed Ms. Achtenberg.
"Someone had to be the first, and I'm glad it's you," he said to a burst of applause from many of the 100 or more spectators who packed the public gallery.
Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee, attended part of the hearing but did not speak. He said later: "I expect to support her. She has some very strong qualifications."
Shortly before the hearing, however, a group called the Traditional Values Coalition issued a statement denouncing Ms.
Achtenberg's nomination as an attempt by President Clinton "to further satisfy the quota demands of the Sexual Perversity Movement."
In her statement to the committee, Ms. Achtenberg did not declare her sexual orientation, although she did introduce to the panel her "life partner," San Francisco municipal Judge Mary Morgan, during the introduction of friends and family present at the hearing. She and Ms. Morgan have an adopted child.
Strong support for Ms. Achtenberg also came from the three new women members on the committee: Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington state.
A public interest and civil rights lawyer, ardent defender of lesbian and gay parenthood, and a law school teacher, Ms. Achtenberg has served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 1990.
As chair of the city's housing and land use committee she campaigned for, and won, legal protections for families with children to have the same rights and access to housing as people without children.
"She knew what it meant to be discriminated against; to be told that you were not wanted, that you were not the right type of tenant," said Senator Boxer.
But it was Ms. Achtenberg's anti-discrimination record -- her opposition to the Boy Scouts of America's refusal to accept homosexual troop leaders -- that provoked the only bout of tough questioning.
Referring to an occasion last December when Ms. Achtenberg sponsored legislation requiring San Francisco to withdraw a $6 million fund from the Bank of America because it contributed to the Boy Scouts, Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North
Carolina questioned whether such actions were in accord with her avowed commitment to social and cultural diversity.
"I'm all for diversity," he said. "But unfortunately there are some people who are only for diversity when it suits their special agenda."
Ms. Achtenberg replied that she had only been campaigning against discriminatory practices and not against the Scouts as a movement.
She pledged that, if confirmed, she would use her position to try to eradicate all forms of discrimination in the housing market -- discrimination which, studies show, makes it more difficult for minorities and families with children to rent or buy homes in America.
The committee adjourned without setting a date for the confirmation vote.