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Openly gay nominee for HUD post proves a lightning rod for conservative foes

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- On paper at least, Roberta Achtenber should be a shoo-in for confirmation as an assistant secretary of housing and urban development.

A civil rights lawyer, San Francisco supervisor and mother of a 7-year-old boy, Ms. Achtenberg was the first elected official in California to endorse Bill Clinton's presidential candidacy. But her nomination is under attack, despite a 14-4 recommendation from a Senate committee.

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The reason: She is a professed lesbian and a fierce champion of the gay cause who has attacked the Boy Scouts of America for barring openly homosexual members and Scout leaders.

Helms' opposition

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With the support of conservative interest groups, Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, has maneuvered to delay ** consideration of Ms. Achtenberg's nomination. But White House officials and Democratic Senate aides believe that Mr. Helms has little chance of preventing the confirmation of the first avowed homosexual ever nominated for a federal senior executive post.

But Mr. Helms, who used his senatorial prerogative to delay a routine vote on Ms. Achtenberg's nomination Wednesday, seemed intent on mounting a rear-guard action against the confirmation of a woman whom he described Friday as a "militant-activist-mean lesbian."

"She's not your garden-variety lesbian," he told the Associated Press. "She's a militant-activist-mean lesbian, working her whole career to advance the homosexual agenda.

"Now you think I'm going to sit still and let her be confirmed by the Senate? . . . If you want to call me a bigot, go ahead."

Senate aides said there was no way to tell how long the delay would last and whether it would be resolved in behind-the-scenes discussions or go to a floor debate.

The controversy over the Achtenberg nomination marks the second time in Mr. Clinton's presidency that the administration has been caught in a political fight over homosexuals. The White House is still preparing for the next bout in the fight over Mr. Clinton's promise to end the military's ban on homosexuals.

The issue comes at a time of heightened awareness of gay issues, particularly in the wake of the gay rights march on Washington last month, in which Ms. Achtenberg participated.

Most damaging to the 42-year-old lawyer's prospects in the Senate has been her opposition to the Boy Scouts' anti-gay admissions policy.

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Last year, she supported a resolution requiring San Francisco to withdraw $6 million in deposits from the Bank of America because the bank contributed to the Boy Scouts.

She also supported efforts to bar the Scout movement from using school facilities to promote its "learning for life" program as long as the movement refused to admit openly gay Scouts and troop leaders.

"These sorts of cases show that she will use a position of influence to fight anyone who disagrees with her agenda," said Elizabeth Law, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council of America, which opposes Ms. Achtenberg's appointment.

Ms. Achtenberg has declined to give interviews. But friends said that if she is confirmed, her "life partner," Mary Morgan, who is a San Francisco municipal judge, and their 7-year-old son, Benjamin, will move to Washington. Benjamin is the biological child of one of the women, according to a close friend who spoke on condition of anonymity, but he would not say which woman bore the child.

As an assistant secretary in charge of fair housing and equal opportunity, Ms. Achtenberg would supervise 700 employees and earn $115,700 a year, compared with the $24,000 she has earned as a San Francisco supervisor.

A major issue in her appointment as HUD's chief enforcement official is likely to be her interpretation of the Fair Housing Act, which seeks to eradicate discrimination in housing on the basis of race, gender, national origin, disability or familial status.

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Questioned at hearing

Questioned at her confirmation hearing on whether she intended to interpret the law as providing protection for gay rights, she replied that her job was to carry out the law and that any change to the law would be made by Congress, not by her.

But she left open the question of interpretation. "I commit to you that should I be confirmed," she said, "I will bring to this task every bit of ingenuity I possess, a demonstrated willingness to persevere against the odds, and a fervent commitment to work hard . . . to make this nation's fair housing dream a reality for those who have been pushed aside and forced to live separate and apart."

Aside from her activities relating to the Boy Scouts issue, as a San Francisco supervisor, Ms. Achtenberg supported a plan to give health benefits to the partners of gay city employees. She also sponsored legislation that supported the rights of families with children to have equal access to housing.

Before joining the Board of Supervisors, Ms. Achtenberg was executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She was also dean of the law school at New College of California in San Francisco.

Friends and associates say child-rearing and politics are two of Ms. Achtenberg's abiding passions.

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"Her idea of a good time is to get together with close friends for dinner," said Andrew Barrer, head of Coalition '93, an alliance of gay groups that proposes political candidates. "When she wants fun, we go out to an Italian restaurant and talk civil rights -- not only gay and lesbian rights, but Democratic politics, too."

Gay activists make no secret of the importance they attach to Ms. Achtenberg as a trailblazer.

That role places "an enormous responsibility" on Ms. Achtenberg, said William Waybourn, head of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a 2-year-old political action committee for gay candidates. "Every aspect of her life is under scrutiny. Senators are giving far more hostile attention to her than they would typically to an assistant secretary of housing."

The Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative church group that has bitterly opposed Ms. Achtenberg's nomination, said his group is less concerned with Ms. Achtenberg's homosexuality than with "her long record of lesbian activism" -- activism that Mr. Sheldon said is intended to foment a "cultural revolution" and elevate homosexuality to legal minority status.

'Never fanatical'

But that's not the view of Lee Korins, chairman of the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco, who recalls that Ms. Achtenberg worked to soften new city health regulations that would have cost his company, and others, millions of dollars in structural changes.

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"I have never found her fanatical," he said. "She's shown herself to be very responsive to the business community. But like all politicians, she has a constituency to serve."

Carol Piasente, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, echoed Mr. Korins' view.

"The business community here has a tremendous respect for the way [Ms. Achtenberg] has worked in understanding and responding to business issues," she said.

But Mr. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition said: "San Francisco is not America. She'll now be serving all Americans, and there's a big difference between San Francisco and Macon, Ga., or Bowie, Md."


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