Activists Urge D.C. Mayor to Get Out Front on HIV Prevention

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

When thousands gather for the District's annual AIDS Walk on Saturday, it will present D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty with the chance to issue an AIDS prevention call to arms to a city in the grip of a deadly epidemic.

But if the past is any indication, AIDS activists say, Fenty (D) is unlikely to deliver an impassioned speech, get an HIV test in front of TV cameras or do anything else to make the issue his own.

"D.C. has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the nation, and it's important for residents of this city to hear directly from the mayor and not lower-level appointees," said Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, a gay-community newspaper. "And that's very much the perception and the frustration."

Many activists have nothing but praise for Fenty's AIDS policies. The mayor appointed an AIDS director whom they credit with steering the HIV/AIDS office out of incompetence. And he has funded much-needed programs, such as a needle exchange, that keep heroin addicts from being infected by dirty needles.

But the mayor appears to have little interest in becoming the public face of AIDS prevention, they complain, and has failed to use the power of his office as a bully pulpit to persuade District residents to get tested and practice safe sex.

"I don't see a strong prevention message," said George Kerr, co-chairman of DC Fights Back, an outspoken AIDS advocacy group. "His high priority is schools."

At a news conference in March where the mayor released a groundbreaking report on the District's HIV crisis, Fenty deflected questions "to my experts," Health Department Director Pierre Vigilance and HIV/AIDS Administration Director Shannon L. Hader. Three days later, Fenty did not mention AIDS in his annual State of the City speech, even though 3 percent of the city suffers from HIV infection.

His silence was rebuked by the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. "His public appearances and statements about the epidemic have fallen short of his enthusiasm for action inside government," D.C. Appleseed said in its annual report card on the city's approach to HIV/AIDS.

In an interview, Fenty said the omission was bad judgment. "I should have mentioned it," he said outside an HIV testing site in August. "That was my fault. I need to work harder. I need to do better as mayor to promote awareness of this disease."

But last week, Fenty did not attend the opening of an AIDS clinic in Northwest Washington, despite the presence of Hollywood actor Blair Underwood, members of Congress and representatives from the Obama administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The mayor also failed to send Vigilance or Hader to represent the city. (A city spokesman said District officials were not invited, but the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which opened the clinic, denied that. )

Fenty's approach contrasts with that of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, whose city is also plagued by one of the country's highest HIV infection rates.

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