There was romance in the air last October at a National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS reception in New York City. President and CEO Debra Fraser-Howze flirted with the evening’s honoree, White House AIDS czar Scott Evertz. “Seven months ago, I didn’t even know this woman,” Evertz said, beaming in Fraser-Howze’s embrace. “Now I just love her.” To thunderous laughter, Fraser-Howze shot back: “I think he’s kinda cute, but I know that Scott ain’t trying to date me.”

By now, it is common knowledge that Evertz is as openly gay as a light year is long. Last April, Dubya announced that the 39-year-old would become the first-ever homo honcho of the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), provoking muted applause from the gay community, sincere disapproval from the right and deep skepticism from AIDS organizations such as D.C.’s National Association of People With AIDS. None of this has stopped black AIDS advocates like Howze from courting him.

In 1998, Fraser-Howze and a handful of other African-American advocates coaxed the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus to address the epidemic in their midst -- no small feat. The caucus then pushed Clinton -- up to his cojones in the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- to announce the $156 million Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative. So far, the annually reauthorized fund, which grew to $350 million in 2001, has spawned and strengthened AIDS groups throughout the black community.

But the days of grits and gravy may soon end. Now, entering a conservative climate further chilled by terrorism, black advocates are exploring unconventional ways of influencing policy and funding in their favor -- including schmoozing with newfound friend Scott Evertz.

Formerly president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Wisconsin, Evertz kept a day job in that state as a fundraising exec before moving to Washington, D.C. But Sandra Singleton-McDonald, founder of Atlanta-based Outreach, Inc., is less concerned about Evertz’s résumé than her own bottom line: “He’s committed to ensuring that people of color are on the AIDS agenda,” she says. McDonald, who hosted Evertz at an on-site visit to her organization, boasts that his response to her invitation was more generous than any she ever got from a previous ONAP director, including fellow Atlantan Sandra Thurman, who held the top spot at neighboring AID Atlanta years before taking the ONAP job in 1997. Other black advocates notably echo McDonald’s sentiment. One, requesting anonymity, makes it plain: “If we had more support from Thurman early on, we probably wouldn’t have had to ask the Black Caucus for help to begin with.”

Or as McDonald, straining her Southern gentility, puts it: “We assumed that the Clinton administration knew the issues and would do the right things about them.” Such criticism certainly isn’t new. Clinton’s own Presidential Advisory Council on AIDS repeatedly called him to task -- for example, for failing to expand Medicaid or end the ban on needle exchange.

But there’s hardly a consensus among African Americans that the Bush administration will do any better. Activist Phill Wilson acknowledges that Evertz gave lip-service to prioritizing urban gay black men following last year’s CDC report showing that one in three, from age 23 to 29, already has HIV. But Wilson points out that Evertz has yet to announce a single new initiative to combat the problem. Evertz himself acknowledges the criticism. “I’ve heard some people say that I’m not visible enough in the African-American community,” he said in an exclusive interview with POZ.

Beltway insiders say that despite his efforts to improve that perception, Evertz still doesn’t have the confidence of the White House, whose commitment to AIDS strikes many as increasingly doubtful. Critics point to flat Ryan White funding -- announced the same day as Evertz’s appointment -- as proof. “If you’re not getting more money for AIDS programs and inflation is rising, we are going to have to cut staffs, entire programs or both,” says PWA Cornelius Baker, executive director of Whitman-Walker Clinic, who served in the first Bush White House.

If activists like Wilson are to be believed, Evertz is, wittingly or not, just part of Bush’s smoke-and-mirrors AIDS scheme, and black advocates are wasting their time with him. And perhaps most telling of all is Evertz’s own hint that his heart ain’t in it. “I didn’t ask for this job,” he told POZ. “I was considering a position with HHS working with Tommy Thompson. When HHS turned me down, they floated my name for this position. It sealed my fate.”

Czar or apparatchik? Either way, blacks still need to advance their mission on Capitol Hill. I guess nothing’s worse than failure but not trying.