In a city of buttoned-down lobbyists and big-money campaigns, Steve Michael has waged his political wars with an $800 truck and a seedy one-room storefront that doubles as an apartment.
His style has been pickets and petitions, not power lunches. Loud, indignant, even offensive, he has routinely refused to follow Washington's rules of decorous negotiation. Still, in the last five years, he has won begrudging respect for his passionate advocacy on issues including AIDS funding, health care, the medical use of marijuana and the return of power to elected D.C. officials.
"He's the quintessential activist," said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large). "He always goes where he sees problems, and he follows through on them."
For the last four weeks, though, Michael has been not the rallier but the rallying point, as he battles severe complications from AIDS at Washington Hospital Center. Politicians and community leaders from across Washington and even from the White House have been saying prayers and sending words of encouragement, hoping he can beat back the disease and resume his work as a full-time thorn in their sides.
"He can be a real pain," said Donna Brazile, press secretary for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "He's a tenacious fighter. I know, because I've been on opposite sides from him at times, and I've been on the same side with him. Of course, I'd much rather have him with me than against me."
Michael, 42, and his partner, Wayne Turner, 33, moved to Washington from Seattle in 1993 after following President Clinton on the '92 campaign circuit and heckling him persistently over his record on funding for AIDS programs. As members of the militant group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), they came to the capital to keep pressuring the president to commit more federal resources to fighting the disease.
But once here, they found themselves incensed by the problems in local government. Michael started turning up at D.C. Council hearings, testifying on health care issues and troubles with the city bureaucracy. He and Turner staged sit-ins at financial control board meetings, calling it the "out-of-control board." When members of Congress began stripping power from locally elected officials, the two men stormed their offices in protest and got arrested on numerous occasions.
Michael's confrontational tactics at times have irritated and angered more established activist groups, who say his renegade, moralizing style can hurt more than it helps. D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D), one of Michael's competitors in last year's Ward 6 council race, said he was "extraordinarily unpleasant in an extremely ad hominem way."
But others say the city needs more people like him.
Anise Jenkins, who has lived in Washington more than 40 years, said Michael inspired her to become active in the community. In August, she heard on the radio that a North Carolina senator wanted to take away most of Mayor Marion Barry's powers. The announcer said some residents were planning a demonstration at the White House. "I went down there, and I saw three men standing on the fence. One was Steve Michael," Jenkins said. "I was just compelled. So I got up on the fence. He was just such a vibrant, physical force. Fearless."
She ended up going to jail -- "first time in my life that I've done anything like that" -- and has since become active in the Stand Up for Democracy movement, which is fighting for the restoration of home rule. She also has joined the battle against plans to put the city's new convention center in her Shaw neighborhood.
Jim Graham, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the city's largest provider of AIDS-related services, said Michael is one of those "vanguard people" whose methods can be distasteful but who effectively "clear the land, pointing out problems and bringing drama to bear. That, in turn, makes it easier for others who come in their wake."
In the last nine months, Michael has been working to put a measure on the D.C. ballot that would legalize the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana by people suffering from illnesses such as cancer, AIDS and glaucoma.
When the first petition drive fell short of the more than 17,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot, Michael started yet another drive.
Work on the marijuana measure -- known as Initiative 59 -- continued from Michael's hospital bedside until he was put on a respirator. Turner has officially taken over the drive and has vowed to continue should Michael not pull through.
"We've spent our whole lives together trying to get people to do something about AIDS, battling greed, fighting for democracy," Turner said. "The work will go on, even if we lose this warrior. Steve wouldn't have it any other way." CAPTION: Steve Michael, left, outside the White House in October, protested what he considered the big dollars needed to meet with the president and vice president. Now hospitalized with severe complications from AIDS, below, he is comforted by his partner, Wayne Turner.