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

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009; B01

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.

To combat the disease, Dellums has had his face plastered on billboards promoting AIDS prevention and has been tested for HIV as TV cameras rolled. It's had an effect, Dellums said. "It's fascinating, because I've gone to a number of hip-hop events and [residents] say: 'Wow. It's really cool that the mayor got tested.' You're not preaching to them," he said. "You're right there with them. People need to know their elected officials are willing to undergo the risk to lead."

It's not clear whether Fenty has a personal stake in the AIDS issue. Asked whether he knows anyone who has HIV, or who succumbed to AIDS, the mayor said, "I'll have to check and get back to you on that."

The mayor, 39, grew up in Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood where gay men frequented coffeehouses and danced nearby at one of the nation's hottest black gay nightclubs, the ClubHouse. In 1988, the year Fenty graduated from high school, Max Robinson, the first black national TV news anchor, became the highest profile African American to die from AIDS-related causes. In the years since, every neighborhood in the city has been ravaged by HIV.

A few months after he took office, Fenty held a summit on AIDS and promised that it would be among his administration's top priorities. "We will show the kind of leadership, follow-through and engagement to make sure that we're making fast and steady progress on this crisis," he vowed at the April 2007 summit, according to an account in the Blade.

His spokeswoman said the mayor has made tremendous strides in fighting AIDS, pointing to the same 2009 D.C. Appleseed report card that questioned his message.

The report praised the mayor for overseeing increases in the number of people who have been tested for and received a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, a ramping up of needle exchange programs, and a major uptick in condom distribution and the number of youngsters screened for sexually transmitted diseases that raise the chances of HIV infection.

Phill Wilson, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute, said Fenty's policy on AIDS is what matters, not his public posture on the issue.

But Don Blanchon, executive director and chief executive of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which sponsors the AIDS Walk, said the mayor could use the event to win over even his harshest critics.

"I invite the mayor to come and get tested . . . at the AIDS Walk," he said. "He could use the power of his office to inform the public about the importance of routine testing and show by his actions that this is something D.C. citizens need to do. I view this as a bully pulpit issue: why it's so important to get tested."

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