Political Notebook: State seeks new Office of AIDS director
by Matthew S. Bajko
The California Department of Public Health is looking for a new chief of the state Office of AIDS following the resignation of Oakland resident Dr. Michelle Roland, who left to take a job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Tanzania.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed the bisexual co-founder of ACT UP/San Francisco in 2007. Roland came onboard just as the state's health department underwent a massive reorganization and a recession began decimating state and federal funding.
Working within the administration, Roland advocated against funding cuts to the state's AIDS Drug Assistance Program. She was less successful in protecting her office's own budget, as first lawmakers and then Schwarzenegger, using his blue pencil veto power, cut $85 million in funding during the 2009-2010 budget cycle.
The hit to HIV prevention and testing funding has remained in place, as there is little money available in Sacramento to restore the budget cut. And AIDS advocates have made keeping the ADAP budget whole a top priority the last two years.
Roland, whose last day at work was September 23, told the Bay Area Reporter during an interview this month that, overall, she feels she was able to make "a significant impact" while working for the state.
Acknowledging that the halving of her office budget was devastating, and the inability to hire new people for vacant positions has been a strain, Roland nevertheless believes she is leaving the office in a strong position for her successor.
"I was able to hire the next generation of leaders there," said Roland, 49, who granted the B.A.R. an exclusive interview about her stepping down. "I was doing everything I could do to save ADAP. It has not been an easy feat."
Roland's departure has raised concerns for AIDS policy advocates. They commended her for having an open dialogue with HIV service providers even when delivering bad budgetary news.
"I definitely understand why she took the position with the CDC and what her goal is with that job. But I am concerned about what it means for the Office of AIDS," said Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's director of state and local affairs. " I think she was the chief in a really difficult period of time for HIV services in California. I think I really appreciated her willingness to continue to dialogue with the community, and oftentimes, that might have been delivering bad news."
Not everyone always agreed with Roland's positions, acknowledged Jeff Goodman, community co-chair of the AIDS office's California Planning Group. Nonetheless, Goodman praised her leadership skills and openness to hearing opposing views.
"I was truly struck with Michelle's commitment in her efforts to be a partner with the community and she was always available to me and to our group. No discussion was off limits no matter how uncomfortable it sometimes became," wrote Goodman, president of Santa Monica-based HIV community center Common Ground, in an email. "I think it is easy to get lost in the moment but when I step back and look at what Michelle oversaw in terms of the massive changes that have occurred to the Office of AIDS, its funding levels, and the changing demands of federal funders, you have to give her enormous credit for perseverance and having a steady vision that I truly feel was ahead of its time."
One success Roland points to is her refocusing of where HIV prevention dollars went prior to their elimination in 2009. She early on prioritized such things as HIV testing in medical settings, syringe access, and prevention with positives, which the CDC then adopted as funding priorities.
"We were at the cutting edge," she said.
Roland's new CDC position, as country director in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, marks her return to a continent she has loved since a teenager. In 1979 at the age of 16 she lived with an African family in Mombasa, Kenya as an exchange student.
In the 1980s she returned and spent 18 months traveling across Africa. Prior to taking the state job, Roland's research focused on HIV prevention after sexual assault in Kenya and in South Africa.
"I had to let go of that work to focus on the state, so this is a coming home of sorts for me," said Roland, who had been an associate clinical professor of medicine at the Department of Internal Medicine for UCSF.
She said her main challenge in Sacramento was navigating the bureaucracy and ensuring her voice was heard. During her four years in the job, Roland never once spoke directly to either Schwarzenegger or current Governor Jerry Brown.
At times she was not able speak publicly, which sent confusing signals, she said.
"Once the budget process started, people at the division level, we can't talk about it without being approved through the administration," she said. "I think the public doesn't understand it. It looks like an individual like me is withholding information and that wasn't the case. It was a big shocker to me."
Overall, Roland said she left the state "with no regrets." Despite the hardships the former AIDS activist faced, she said it didn't sour her view about working in a government position.
"Being at the state level was an amazing opportunity for me. Did it take a personal toll? It did," she said. "It was really hard work in a difficult political environment. Now I am going off into another politically hard job. There must be something energizing about it to make me do it."
The state is accepting applications for those seeking to take over the AIDS office through Friday, October 28. The interim class=st> chief is Dr. Karen Mark, an HIV doctor with stints in San Diego and Seattle who joined the AIDS office in 2010 as its chief of the Surveillance, Research, and Evaluation Branch. Mark, a UCSF graduate, lives with her partner of 12 years and their three children.
The next chief will face similar fiduciary constraints as Roland did and likely will be at the center of discussions on how health care reforms will impact people living with HIV and AIDS.
"As we move toward health care reform implementation, we are seeing more and more how important the relationship is between the state Office of AIDS and Medi-Cal," said Mulhern-Pearson. "It is critical to have a really strong leader in that position that can move us into health care reform smoothly and thoughtfully."
Goodman predicted the search for a replacement will be "challenging" and hopes that "politics and institutional interests are put aside and we find a true visionary during the important transition period for health care in general and for HIV specifically as care and prevention become more mainstream in our healthcare system."
Newsom endorses in contested Assembly race
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom waded into a contentious state Assembly race in the Los Angeles area this week, endorsing a straight legislator over her lesbian opponent.
The former mayor of San Francisco announced he was backing Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina Del Rey) in the 2012 race for the newly drawn 50th Assembly District that includes West Hollywood and Santa Monica. One of her main opponents is Torie Osborn, a former executive director of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.
"She is a tireless advocate for consumers and our environment, and is an exceptional legislator," stated Newsom. "Assemblymember Butler and I have been working together to grow jobs and make California an economic leader again."
Newsom joins fellow constitutional officers Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones in supporting Butler in what is expected to be one of the more contentious political races in 2012.
Like Newsom, Butler has been a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage and has helped push marriage equality through her seat on the board of Equality California Institute, the educational arm of the statewide LGBT lobbying organization. She has considerable support within the LGBT community for her re-election bid, including the LGBT Legislative Caucus and several gay West Hollywood City Council members.
But as the B.A.R. has reported, some LGBT leaders consider the new district a prime chance to elect another out person to the state Legislature. They are outraged with Butler's decision to move into the district and are just as exasperated with seeing LGBT officials and pro-gay lawmakers backing her campaign.
Last week, the national Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund threw its support behind Osborn, as noted in this week's online Political Notes column. Lesbian former state Senator Carole Migden has donated to Osborn's campaign, while one of her biggest backers is former partner Sheila Kuehl , also a former state senator.
Honda wants hearing on DOMA defense
Congressman Mike Honda (D-Campbell), the ranking member of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, has requested a hearing on the House Republican Leadership's decision to spend $1.5 million on defending the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in court.
Following the Obama administration's decision this spring that it would not defend Section 3 of the federal ban on same-sex marriage in federal lawsuits, the House hired the private law firm Bancroft PLLC to represent the government in such cases.
Initially, the firm was to be paid only $500,000. But that amount has now tripled, with Democrats slamming the GOP leadership for wasting taxpayer during such dire financial times.
"In a time of professed fiscal responsibility, it is unconscionable for the House Republican Leadership to continue to spend taxpayer money to protect discrimination, especially through a process that has, thus far, lacked any semblance of transparency," wrote Honda in his hearing request. "I ask that you immediately hold a hearing on this matter so that we can shine light on this irresponsible, backdoor use of taxpayer money."
Among the questions Honda raised are why the payout to the law firm continues to rise and how much GOP leaders intend to spend on defending the discriminatory law.
"We should not be handing over a blank check that will allow unlimited taxpayer dollars to be spent on the Republican leadership's political agenda," wrote Honda.
Honda sent his request Monday, October 17 to the subcommittee's chair, Florida Republican Congressman Ander Crenshaw . It is unlikely the GOP leader will grant his request to take up the matter.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 11 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column looks at the CA legislative candidates receiving early support from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.