Hormel to receive inaugural 'Champion' award

  • by Sari Staver
  • Wednesday March 9, 2016
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Without campaign finance reform, philanthropist James C. Hormel said this year could be the last he participates in a presidential election.

"I am so offended by the obscene amounts of money pouring into" political campaigns, Hormel said in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Hormel, who is supporting Democrat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president, said he is seriously considering restricting his political giving to organizations trying to "bring about change" in campaign finance and voter registration.

Shortly before he is recognized by the Commonwealth Club of California as its first Champion of Civil Rights and Social Justice Award recipient, Hormel talked about his past work as well as his plans for the future.

On March 16, Hormel will be honored at the Commonwealth Club's $500 per person Distinguished Citizen Award annual gala at the Fairmount Hotel. This year's theme is "Beyond Boundaries."

"I'm not ready to say anything specific," said Hormel, "but I've been thinking for some time that I'd like to see how I can contribute" in the areas of campaign finance reform and voter registration.

"First," he said, "I'd like to see what existing groups are doing" in those areas, and then see how "I might supplement and magnify" those efforts.

Probably best known for his appointment as the first openly gay ambassador, serving in Luxembourg from 1999 to 2001, Hormel recalled the long and tortuous route to that job.

It all began at a 1992 dinner with President Bill Clinton's campaign treasurer, Bob Farmer. Over dinner, Farmer suggested to Hormel that he seek a presidential appointment as an ambassador.

"I was quite surprised when he brought up the idea," said Hormel, noting that over 60 percent of such positions are held by career employees who have come up through the ranks in the Foreign Service.

The appointment did not happen easily, Hormel recalled.

In fact, it wasn't until five years after that dinner that Clinton nominated Hormel for the job. During that five-year period, recalled Hormel, he made "dozens of visits and hundreds of phone calls" to keep his name in consideration.

Hormel said he was persistent because if appointed, "I would break a ceiling and make it easier for gay people to serve at the highest levels of government."

Senate Republicans and conservative Christians opposed Hormel's nomination, and Clinton ultimately employed a recess appointment in May 1999, with Hormel being sworn in a month later.

At age 83, Hormel has a full schedule involving a wide range of civic, political, and LGBT causes. A founder of the Human Rights Campaign and a member of the delegation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1995, he is also a member of the governing board of a number of organizations, including Grace Cathedral and the San Francisco Foundation.

Hormel has been very open about his private life, including early struggles with coming to terms with his homosexuality. He flunked out of Princeton after his first year, "distracted by all the men" and not knowing how to handle it.

Once he was out of the closet, life got a lot easier, he said.

Ten years ago, while attending the Equality Forum dinner in Philadelphia, Hormel had donated a table to Swarthmore, his alma mater, for LGBT students. At the dinner, he met college sophomore Michael Nguyen. "At age 70-something, I certainly was not looking" for a romantic partner, especially someone two generations younger, said Hormel. "But there was magic when we met."

"We slowly got to know each other and I realized it was real," he said.

"I realized that we are filled with judgments and preconceptions about relationships and what they could look like," Hormel said. "I had to overcome my own prejudices and come to terms with what is really at the basis of a relationship, which is how people interact and connect. It is such a mistake to make judgments based on appearances and extraneous information."

The couple married the day after Christmas in 2014. The wedding, he said, was "extraordinarily beautiful" and "something I never dreamed could happen."

Hormel said that he is "very thrilled" to be honored by the Commonwealth Club, where he has served on the board of governors. The club, he said, is an "extraordinary organization that offers a wide array of programming from many points of view."

In an email to the B.A.R., Commonwealth Club President and CEO Gloria Duffy, Ph.D., said, "For decades, Ambassador Hormel has demonstrated his courage and dedication, working to create a more equal and just society for all. He is an altruistic activist who has been supportive and inspirational to many different communities. He is a dedicated philanthropist supporting organizations serving people across the country affected by HIV and AIDS, substance abuse, and breast cancer. We are thrilled to be honoring this intellectually incisive, wonderful, generous and warm community leader."

In addition to Hormel, the Commonwealth Club will also be honoring:

Chuck Geschke, Adobe Systems co-founder and co-chairman, for his pioneering work to develop the first digital printing script, revolutionizing the publishing industry and graphic design, and for stewarding a dynamic company for over 40 years.

Robyn Denholm, executive vice president, chief financial operations officer of Juniper Networks and board member of Tesla Motors, for her leadership in the IT industry.

Charles Munger Jr., Ph.D., physicist and activist, for his support for good government, representative politics, and pushing for a more moderate platform for the Republican Party. Munger sponsored and heavily donated to 2010's Proposition 20 in California, which removed elected representatives from the redistricting process.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and Chairman of the lab-testing start-up Theranos, for pioneering a concept that could revolutionize the field of medical blood testing.


The March 16 gala starts with a cocktail reception at 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner and the program at 7. The Fairmont is located at 950 Mason Street. For tickets, visit http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/special-events/gala/2016.