In 1996, Judith Billings had served seven years as Washington state school superintendent and was contemplating a run for Congress when an HIV diagnosis pushed her from politics. Now 64, she has her health back—and wants her job back, too. POZ found Billings on the road to the November Washington state election.
POZ: How do you feel?
Billings: I couldn’t be better. When I was diagnosed, I was below 200 T cells and had PCP. The meds turned everything around really fast. Now my T cells run between 800 and 1,000, and I haven’t had a detectable viral load.
P: Why politics now?
B: When I first ran for superintendent, 16 years ago, we wanted to expand and enrich the system to help every kid learn to the best of their ability. Over the last eight years, we’ve done just the opposite. We’ve gone back to a single high-stakes test that is the only measure of what kids can do. I taught junior high and high school for 13 years. Kids are really diverse. But now we’re reverting to the old assembly line. And no one else is stepping forward.
P: Your incumbent opponent, Terry Bergeson, likes the test.
B: It’s almost become an obsession of hers. Many teachers and parents are up in arms because they know that a one-size-fits-all test simply does not work. That’s why the Washington Education Association has endorsed me, even though she was president of their organization.
P: The superintendent position is nonpartisan, but I’m guessing that on Election Day, you won’t be worrying about only yourself.
B: Oh, man, you know it! Four more years of this administration will be devastating—economically, socially, ideologically. It seems that any way you look at it, it has been a disaster.
P: For HIV prevention as well?
B: Rather than cut prevention funding, we need to increase it. We don’t have a vaccine. And from everything researchers indicate, it’ll probably be another 10 years before we have any hope of having one. The one vaccine we have is prevention.
P: Do you have any regrets about abandoning your 1996 bid for congressional office?
B: At first, yes, but the national scene has become vindictive and rancorous, so it doesn’t disturb me that I didn’t have to deal with that. These past eight years have been marvelous for me: I sat on President Clinton’s HIV/AIDS Advisory Council and the Governor’s Council on AIDS; I’m on the boards of the National Association of People with AIDS and the National AIDS Fund. It isn’t like I’ve been sitting at home relaxing.
P: Still, it must have been hard to give up that dream.
B: My parents were getting older. In fact, both of them passed away in the past two years. They were worried that they would not see me as much as they wanted to, and they were concerned about my health.
P: Might a seat on Capitol Hill still be on the horizon?
B: I’d never say never. But right now, my key concern is what we’re doing with education in this state.