Lasting Impressions: Community Activism & Political Ego
I was admittedly totally jazzed. When the announcement about the community meeting which Todd Stroger had called passed across my desk, I found myself e-mailing to the PR contact given in the announcement, requesting an interview with President Stroger. Within a matter of minutes, I got a call confirming that the interview would take place at the Center on Halsted, where the meeting was happening. My first chance to interview a politician! “60 Minutes,” here I come!
I was interested because, like many Chicagoans who are tired of hearing about nepotism and hiring scandals and infuriated by the highest sales tax in the nation that the Cook County Board, led by Mr. Stroger, had imposed upon us (now, thankfully, repealed), I had, up until I saw him speaking passionately on Fox news, assumed that Todd Stroger was just another smarmy politician. But as I listened to him talk about the GeoVax HIV vaccine controversy, it was clear to me, as an energy worker, that this issue mattered to him. I wondered why..
My interest became more piqued as the week brought a visit from Mr. Stroger to the Sweet Holy Spirit church, where rhetoric about the racist decision of the CORE Center to withhold a potential cure for AIDS from the African American community most impacted by soaring infection rates whipped the congregation into a frenzy. The media covered the story from Stroger’s outspoken viewpoint, misinformation about the trial itself and CORE’s “pulling out” of an established agreement at the last minute (there never was such an agreement – CORE had agreed to review the GeoVax proposal and protocol, but they never agreed to run the trial) prevailed, while the CORE Center and the HIV/AIDS community appeared to be silent. Amy Wooten, of the Chicago Free Press, covered it for the gay media with a voice of reason and objectivity and those of us involved in the HIV/AIDS community received a fact sheet from the CORE Center and clarity from Jim Pickett of the AIDS Foundation. By the time the announcement of the meeting at the Center arrived on Friday, the issue of the Phase 1 trial was moot. The CORE Center had decided, based on strong opinions from medical experts, both internal and external, that they would not proceed with the trial, that the risk to their patients outweighed any possible benefit. And yet, this meeting was called.
I spent the weekend doing internet research on Mr. Stroger, searching for records of what he’s done since becoming Board President that has had an impact, good or bad, on the HIV community. I read about how his budget cuts (made before the sales tax increase) resulted in the closing of 16 of 26 community health clinics, mostly in poor, minority communities, many providing HIV testing; the 16% cut in funding for the CORE Center; the drastic staffing cuts at the hospital that bears his father’s name and upon which the economically disadvantaged, uninsured, and underinsured citizens of Cook County depend for their “health care.” On the other hand, he was endorsed by pro-choice groups over opponent Tony Peroica when he ran for the presidency of the Cook County Board. I found nothing that would explain what CORE Center’s Peter McLoyd would call his “sudden interest in the HIV/AIDS community.” I carefully considered the questions I wanted to ask him, I consulted colleagues and friends, and I went into the meeting trying to be as open-minded as possible.
It didn’t start out well. The crowd was bigger and perhaps more ready for conflict than most, and certainly Mr. Stroger, had expected. The atmosphere of contention was not quelled either by Representative Connie Howard’s pandering appeal nor her spokesman Lloyd Kelly’s equally discordant and incorrect remarks. The rumble of the crowd was increased by Stroger’s failure to appear until 45 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start. It was clear from the start that neither he nor his staff had done anything to prepare him for what he was about to face. As I sat there, tape recorder in my sweaty hand, listening to Mr. Stroger launch into a misguided explanation of how the county health system is structured – did he really think anyone would care? – I almost felt sorry for him. But I also felt proud of that crowd. I was proud to be a part of that group of engaged, informed, experienced, and active people living and/or working with HIV. I was proud (and thankful) to be sitting next to Jim Pickett as he insisted, without the help of a microphone, that Mr. Stroger hear that “It’s not about GeoVax! It’s a concern about a certain protocol as we understand it.” I have some doubt that any of Jim’s attempts to clarify the situation, or any of the information eloquently delivered by the CORE Center’s Dr. Toyin Adeyemi actually made it into Stroger's consciousness. But my pride grew. As my friend and former colleague Keith Green stood up and said, “As someone who’s been living with HIV for 15 years, I love the idea of the fact that there could be a therapeutic vaccine, I look forward to that day for the sake of my life, for the sake of my children’s lives, I look forward to that day. But I don’t look forward to taking advantage of or pushing research onto the most vulnerable members of our county and not really thinking about the effects of that and the effects that doing something like this would have on the reputation of the place that actually serves them,” I could not contain my whoop of pride. As TPAN’s new Executive Director, Bruce Weiss, took the microphone, I swallowed a lump of pride as he demonstrated, in fast-slung bullets, pulling no punches, “You’re identifying, it seems to me, a concern that the CORE Center’s leadership didn’t make a direct connection to you to communicate their decision – I don’t know anything about that, nor is it of any interest to me. That’s what I think people feel is the ‘politics’ part of it – that someone didn’t give you the respect you feel you deserve. This is an issue about people’s health and well-being and I hope that in the future, we won’t need come together in a large group like this to hear about a power struggle between people that didn’t this or that, but, instead, that, before ever making a decision or taking a position about any possible treatment option, vaccine or anything, that you would get informed about it and look to the experts on something that’s so vital to people’s health.” I was proud of my boss, Jeff Berry, as he, in his usual dignified, gentle way, implored Stroger to realize the importance of community input, but also of the danger of the harm all this publicity could do to research studies and trials, not only at CORE, but even the GeoVax preventative vaccine trial being conducted in Atlanta on HIV-negative people. I’ve never met him, but should Victor Jones ever walk the halls of TPAN, I hope I get to shake his hand for asking if Mr. Stroger would be willing to participate in that ongoing prevention trial. He didn’t get a real answer, but he kept trying until it was clear Stroger wasn’t going to give him one. Jeremy Todd, a client at CORE and a member of their CAB, bravely read a statement explaining, in vivid detail, what would happen to him if he were to stop taking his medications, as the participants in the trial would be asked to do.
So it was in that flush of pride that I sat down with President Stroger after following his entourage on a tour of the impressive Center. I expected him to be defensive, or at least cautious. I expected him to try to act nonchalant about the debacle he’d just emerged from. Instead, it felt like he was relieved and though the political armor stayed in place, there were some “human” moments. He admitted to being tired, to having to get used to being “beaten up” by the press. I was just about to allow myself a moment of compassion…well, ok, sympathy…but then I asked him what was the most important thing he’d learned from the meeting. Considering that there were more than enough “educational moments” about crucial information and miscommunication for him to choose from and he took some time to think about it, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather when he said that, for him, it was that there needed to be better communication between Dr. Weinstein and himself. It took everything I had to keep the neutral look on my face and keep from yelling into that echoey room, “WHAT?!?!?” I just smiled, wondering if it happens to all politicians – you run a campaign, you get elected, and suddenly it’s all about you, your agenda, your power, your ego. It hasn’t happened to Greg Harris or Jan Schakowsky or Heather Steans or Dick Durbin or even, despite some nay-saying opinions, Barack Obama. Maybe it’s just about CHICAGO politicians. I don’t know. I can’t say my opinion of Mr. Stroger was really changed in either direction. I wouldn’t say he was a jerk or an idiot or an evil man. Just tragically out of touch with a community whose votes he needs if he has a prayer of winning re-election (I wouldn’t take bets) and equally as tragically immersed in his own ego, which he may have inherited from his father, after all.
I won’t be sending the tape to “60 Minutes” – I’m no Morley Safer…yet.