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Hamburg rallies round mayor after right-wing interior minister "outs" him

August 25, 2003

Ronald Schill (L) and Mayor Ole von Beust (R) in October 2001 (AFP) HAMBURG, Germany - Mayor Ole von Beust is being applauded throughout this stolid Hanseatic port city for summarily firing the city's top law enforcement official who threatened to "out" him.

The first-term mayor has only indirectly acknowledged his homosexuality, insisting it shouldn't matter. But his decisive handling of a right-wing populist who crossed a line has sent von Beust's popularity skyrocketing in this city known both for its tolerance and patrician airs.

Von Beust, of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, stunned the nation when he announced at a press conference Tuesday that Interior Minister Ronald Schill allegedly threatened to claim the mayor had given the post of justice minister to a romantic partner.

Schill, who also appeared at the press conference, denied making a threat, saying he only drew a comparison between conflict of interest allegations against Schill's deputy and the mayor's alleged mixing of public and private lives.

Von Beust's announcement that he was firing both Schill and his deputy sent some 2,000 revelers into the Altona neighborhood, largely inhabited by students and immigrants, with signs proclaiming: "Schill is gone," and "Ha, ha, ha." At his first public appearance after Schill's dismissal, elderly residents swarmed von Beust. Some even tried to hug him.

The gleeful reaction reflected many residents' discomfort at Schill's success in the 2001 elections. Capitalizing on security concerns raised by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks - and revelations that suicide pilots had been living in their midst - Schill ran a law-and-order campaign to capture 19.4 percent of the vote for a political party bearing his name.

The former judge, whose tough sentences earned him the moniker "Judge Merciless," squandered his political support with proposals criticized as superfluous, such as changing the color of police uniforms from green to blue. He also became the target of threats, with local media reports that he packed a gun to protect himself fueling his tough-guy image.

After this week's dramatic turn, a full 38 percent of residents said they would vote for von Beust if an election were held now - 12 percent than voted for him in the election, according to a poll of 1,000 voters by the Emnid Institute with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Schill's party, meanwhile, would win just 6 percent of the vote.

Von Beust, who ended the Social Democrats' 44-year hold on the Hamburg Rathaus, has avoided answering the question raised by Schill's antics -whether or not he is gay.

"I haven't done that because no one - not even a politician - is obligated to discuss his sexual life in public," Schill told the Hamburger Abendblatt in Friday's edition.

In the largely gay district of St. Georg, many wish von Beust would join the ranks of openly gay politicians like Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Green Party lawmaker Volker Beck.

"He should just find the courage and say, 'Yes, I am gay." Everyone knows he is. Nobody has a problem with it in Hamburg," said Andreas Franke, drinking white wine at an outdoor cafe.

Still, commentators said the Schill scandal was a clear victory for gays in Germany, demonstrating that being homosexual does not carry the taint of scandal.

"Whoever tries to blackmail or discriminate against gays makes himself an outsider in society," said Bremen political scientist Lothar Probst. -Sapa-AP

Related story
Man fined for gay-baiting of Berlin mayor



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