Philip Pannell to make another run at elected office


Philip Pannell, long time political activist in Ward 8, confers with his campaign manager, Natalie Williams, at Pannell's home in Southeast Washington, DC on July 24, 2012. (Courtland Milloy/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Philip Pannell was weighing the pros and cons of another bruising run for a seat on the D.C. State Board of Education.

On one hand, a victory in November would make him the only openly gay black man on the board, if not the first. And his years as a grass-roots activist in the fight against AIDS would almost certainly come in handy. Health experts are predicting that nearly 60 percent of black gay men in the United States will be infected with HIV/AIDS by the time they turn 40.

If ever the city could use a preventive health education policy rooted in nitty-gritty reality, it’s now.

On the other hand, Pannell would be running against an incumbent who beat him in 2010 with backing from D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). And when it comes to fighting with gays and lesbians these days, Barry doesn’t hesitate to take off the gloves. He has described his opposition to same-sex marriage as a matter of “morality versus immorality.”

Still, Pannell was taken aback when the campaign Barry had helped to wage against him used a coded play on the immorality theme. “He’s not a family man,” was the mantra.

“It hurt, it really, really hurt,” said Pannell, who is 61. “What they were saying was, ‘He’s gay, not married, no children,’ so I must not care as much.”

On Monday, he finished tallying up the pros and cons and decided to put the hurt aside. He would toss his hat into the ring again. So he picked up some petitions from the D.C. elections office and began collecting the 200 signatures he needs to turn in by Aug. 8.

“You see white gay men on nearly every elected body in the city,” Pannell said. “But there are no role models for black gays. A lot of them are denied the right to be a whole person. The next thing you know, they are dealing with their internal oppression by drinking and drugging and engaging in risky sex.”

Pannell’s record of service dates back 1975, when he arrived here fresh out of Fordham University in New York with a bachelor of arts degree in political science.

He has been elected five times as president of the Ward 8 Democrats; he served as Ward 8 coordinator for Mayor Anthony Williams and as a member of the Region III/IV Mental Health Center. He currently serves as president of Congress Heights Community Association. He’s a member of the Friends of the Anacostia Public Library and a member of the East of the River Community Court advisory board.

“Part of the problem I’m going to address is the lack of awareness among young black gays about the pain and suffering caused by AIDS,” Pannell said. “I have lost more than 200 friends to this disease since the 1980s. But the young folks are only paying attention to the medical success stories. The public service advertisements on the bus stops only portray healthy, vibrant-looking people talking about, ‘Yes, I’m HIV[-positive] but I’m doing great thanks to such and such drug.’ People think that it is okay to engage in unprotected sex because there’s a cocktail that will cure them if they get infected.”

On the other hand, none of these credentials or good intentions have been enough to earn a victory in his last three bids for elective office. He ran for D.C. “shadow senator” twice and for the state school board seat against the Barry-backed Trayon White Sr., a community activist who was 23 years old at the time.

That worries his friends.

“Phil will not accept that no matter how qualified he is, his constituents in Ward 8 will never grant him that education seat,” said Michael Sainte-Andress, an actorwho has known Pannell for 30 years. “To them, he’s just a (gay man). For Phil to accept that, he would have to accept a certain loss of grace from the very people he has worked so hard to help. He thinks they are forgiving. But he’s only setting himself up for another great disappointment and a kind of psychological torment that I’m not sure he can survive.”

Pannell brushed off the talk with a laugh.

“I know my limits — physical, mental and emotional,” Pannell said. “The time is right for me to do this.”

On the other hand, only time will tell.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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