It was almost like the old days. Several hundred people traveling to a small town an hour and a half north of New York City to pay a personal call on Gov. George Pataki -- “Sunday in the Country with George” as ACT UP/New York called it. We descended on the sleepy burg and surrounded the governor’s house, chanting, “He’s mean, he’s wacky, he’s Governor Pataki.” We were there to demand that the state contribute more money to the federally-financed AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP).
Several months later, after more demos, a lot of grass-roots organizing of constituents around the state, persistent lobbying and some high-visibility advertising, the state agreed to kick in $8 million more to the program. The governor and his cronies didn’t push for it; they just agreed not to block it and it went through. Still not enough to help everyone who qualifies, but better than nothing. Those who worked on the issue give credit to the all-around strategy for the win.
On the other hand, we’ve begged and pleaded and argued and demonstrated for needle exchange for years, a crucial part of any national prevention strategy. But no matter how many studies prove its worth (and unanimously they do), no matter how many times the National Academy of Sciences endorses it, the politicians won’t budge.
There is nothing more tedious than the traditional argument about tactics: “Do you work on the inside or the outside? Do you negotiate or do you demand?” The answer, of course, is both. I talked to a dozen people working on these issues from every angle and they all agreed. Everyone knows you need a good cop-bad cop routine. And many of them play both roles at different times.
Bob Hattoy, famous as Clinton’s PWA, says, “I always think of myself as an outsider, even when I’m on Air Force One. My responsibility is to be an advocate for people with AIDS. About 80 percent of the time I’m in sync with the White House and then 20 percent is pretty serious battles, like whether the President should veto the Defense Department bill with Dornan’s HIV-exclusion amendment.”
Hattoy, when I asked what he thought of current lobbying efforts by the big groups (AIDS Action Council, the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign) in Washington, D.C., said they were OK, but that they hadn’t created “a sense of urgency” and hadn’t “put a personal face” on the epidemic enough. A little shocking to hear in l996.
Mario Cooper, former board chair of AIDS Action Council and manager of the l992 Democratic convention, is frustrated. “The gay and lesbian community has not been very apt at coordinating an inside-outside strategy. To play in Washington, you have to be smart and savvy, like the way Housing Works has established a relationship with Sen. Al D’Amato. They’ve done such a good job that they can keep staging confrontational demos while maintaining their relationships. We don’t just need mass demos; we need a savvy, media-heavy attack using all our activist tools. And the Washington AIDS lobby groups should affiliate with local grass-roots organizations more.”
Eric Sawyer, longtime ACT UP/New Yorker and a featured speaker at this year’s International AIDS Conference, is angry. Asked his opinion of the major lobby groups, Sawyer was direct: “A few players too often control the agenda and they are not interested in input from anyone else. Government officials return my phone calls faster. The major organizations are only interested in protecting their own turf, to the detriment of PWAs.” Sawyer also thinks professional treatment activists are often “dogmatic, unwilling to do outreach or talk to the community, incestuously dealing only with their friends. They think their ’expertise’ gives them enough credibility; they don’t need community involvement.”
Me? As an AIDS activist and educator, I’ve also spent some years trying to play all sides of the fence. Sometimes I work with government officials. Sometimes I get arrested for demonstrating during mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And then this year I’m running for Vice President of the United States on the independent AIDS Cure Party ticket (headed by the stunning Steve Michael). How else are AIDS issues going to be raised in the presidential campaign?
Michael, by the way, agrees with Cooper and Sawyer and everyone that we can and must have both an inside and an outside approach, but that we have to be smarter about all of it. In fact, I’ve been trying to figure out lately how we can be as clever as the Democrats, who are throwing the “Buttman” character at Bob Dole to annoy him about his tobacco industry ties. The vision slowly forming in my mind is of Michael Petrelis as, yes, “Buttman,” but he’s crusading for testing of the Reality condom for anal intercourse. What do you think, Petrelis? I bet Hattoy could get you into the White House.