Herbal Teas In Hot Water

Morris J. "Mo" Siegel, founder and chairman of Celestial Seasonings Inc., is the very model of the enlightened executive. A onetime hippie whose heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa, Siegel says: "We don't care if you're Buddhist or Baptist, straight or gay, we'll hire you as long as you want to make the world's best tea and draw pretty pictures."

That's not good enough for New York Boycott Colorado, a group that's urging a boycott of Celestial, based in Boulder, Colo. NYBC says it's calling for the boycott to retaliate for Siegel's refusal to take a high-profile stand against Colorado's Amendment 2. Approved by voters in November, Amendment 2 forbids Colorado cities from designating gays as an official minority group eligible for hiring quotas or set-aside contracts. Since the election, gay and lesbian groups have called for a boycott of the state and formed Denver-based Boycott Colorado Inc., which is not affiliated with the New York group. Since then, Denver alone has lost 27 scheduled and tentative conventions expected to bring in $26 million.

Although a boycott may make good sense as an expression of outrage, NYBC's campaign against Celestial is puzzling. It takes aim at a company that many Colorado gays regard as exemplary. And some of the boycott group's tactics, as described by Siegel, sound at least heavy-handed. Picking on Celestial, Siegel says, "is like shooting a missile at a Red Cross hospital."

The firing started, says Siegel, at a meeting he requested in New York City on Feb. 3 with NYBC founder Chip Duckett and other group members. One NYBC official, says Siegel, demanded that he and Celestial spend $100,000 or more on a campaign to repeal Amendment 2. "They said, 'You either pay, or we'll destroy you,' " says Siegel. He refused.

Since then, New York Newsday columnist Gabriel Rotello, who attended the NYBC meeting with Siegel, has written that the press created a tale of "extortion" out of whole cloth. Siegel, though, stands by his account: NYBC threatened economic retaliation if Celestial Seasonings didn't put up money to repeal Amendment 2. Rotello could not be reached to comment.

Duckett, a New York special-events promoter who operates NYBC out of his home, makes no bones about pressuring Celestial. "If it's their right to remain silent, it's our right to stop buying their product," he says. But he flatly denies any extortion attempt. Nonetheless, Colorado's U. S. Attorney, Michael J. Norton, is investigating Siegel's allegations.

SKI ELSEWHERE? NYBC, which is calling for a ban on all Colorado-made products, such as Samsonite luggage and Coors beer, is singling out Celestial for special treatment. There's no sign that NYBC plans actions at bars that sell Coors or at luggage stores that carry Samsonite, but the group does plan to picket New York grocery stores, demanding that they remove Red Zinger, Morning Thunder, and other Celestial teas from their shelves. "They will not take a position, which is conservative in light of who they are," explains Duckett.

Siegel admits he's worried--New York is, after all, his No. 1 market. "If they could panic the supermarkets, we could be in big trouble," he says. To head off the boycott, Celestial sales teams are calling on every major customer in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, gays and some conservative groups are trying to work out a compromise alternative to Amendment 2. The most likely to go to the voters is an initiative that would outlaw discrimination against homosexuals but would also prohibit granting them any special status.

The measure could be on the ballot as early as next fall. If voters approve it, the boycott of Colorado could be history. In the interim, Celestial Seasonings will have to weather a tempest in a teapot.

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