Candidates address AIDS policy
by Matthew S. Bajko
A majority of the leading candidates for San Francisco mayor would name a designated adviser on HIV and AIDS policy in their City Hall administration should they be elected next month.
And they would set aside up to 20 percent of units for people living with HIV and AIDS in new housing developments built in the Castro, the heart of the city's LGBT community. They would also see that recommendations from the city's Hepatitis C Task Force be put into place and look at how to hire HIV-positive people without jeopardizing their government assistance.
Those were some of the policy positions to be articulated at a mayoral forum this month on HIV and AIDS that a number of AIDS service providers and nonprofit groups hosted. It was the first time that many of the candidates had directly addressed questions about the devastating disease, as up until the forum the mayor's race had largely ignored the topic.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera, one of seven candidates to take part in the forum, offered an apology for not addressing AIDS policy sooner in the campaign.
"We were not looking at this as an issue. We probably should have brought it up earlier in the campaign," he said.
State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), the sole candidate to wear a red ribbon on his jacket lapel, acknowledged that growing up in San Francisco the issue of being gay or having HIV "was just absolutely foreign to me." But his time working at a community clinic in Santa Clara County and serving on the city's school board brought both issues home to him.
During his time in Sacramento Yee said he has fought to maintain funding for HIV programs.
"When I went to the state Legislature I said no, I will not vote for cuts into AIDS programs," said Yee.
Gay former Supervisor Bevan Dufty criticized the city's past three mayors for submitting budgets to the Board of Supervisors with cuts in AIDS services knowing the board would add the money back. He said doing so, nonetheless, forces service providers and patients to waste time lobbying at City Hall to restore the money.
"As mayor I will never submit a budget with cuts to HIV and AIDS services," said Dufty.
Herrera made a similar pledge.
"I want to echo Bevan on this. You will never see any cuts to HIV funding in my administration," he said.
Board President David Chiu pointed out that he sought to bring in nonprofits and community leaders this year early on in the budget-making process. It led to mayoral town halls in all 11 supervisorial districts on the budget and other city issues, he said.
"Like Bevan, I don't want to go there with this Kabuki theater where the mayor cuts and the board restores," said Chiu.
He pledged to first look for efficiencies within city departments and streamlining oversight procedures before asking nonprofits to make further cutbacks in staffing and services.
"It is pretty easy for folks to bash nonprofits by blaming nonprofits for the problems. Most nonprofit workers are the least valued, are the most underpaid and are doing the most important work in this city," he said. "There is hundreds of millions of dollars in city government that could be used to fund the social safety net for people with HIV and AIDS."
The candidates were less specific when it came to ideas on how to fund AIDS programs. Lesbian Green Party candidate Terry Baum said she wanted to explore imposing an income tax in San Francisco and would push to change state law barring such a revenue-generating scheme.
"We have to demand the wealthy of our country pay their fare share," said Baum.
Herrera expressed support for moving away from a payroll tax to a gross receipts tax and pushing for a parcel tax to pay for city parks.
"We can no longer have government we are unwilling to pay for," he said.
The October 19 forum drew 100 people to the auditorium at the state office building in the city's Civic Center area. As the Bay Area Reporter noted in an online story last week, interim Mayor Ed Lee skipped the event and instead showed up at an AIDS agency's fundraiser held a block away that night. (Supervisor John Avalos came to make introductory remarks but left soon after to attend two other events.)
Lee did submit answers to a questionnaire that organizers had sent out to the candidates. He wrote that he has worked "to protect HIV/AIDS services and funding" and pledged to do so if elected to a full term.
"I will continue to engage our communities and nonprofits to find ways to maintain and enhance services given the new economic realities we now face," stated Lee.
When asked if he would maintain $3.5 million in city funding for housing vouchers for HIV positive people, Lee was vague in his response, writing he would "continue to build on our city's safety net" and be "a strong ally for this cause."
He also was noncommittal when asked if he would hire an AIDS czar. Instead Lee wrote he would "commit senior level staff" from his office and the Department of Public Health and Human Services Agency to oversee programs for people living with HIV and AIDS.
Apart from the mayor's absence the other surprise was former Supervisor Tony Hall's decision to take part. Even one of the other candidates asked him what he was doing there, said Hall, who is considered the most conservative of the main candidates in the race.
Hall made a cringe-inducing mistake by using the term "sexual preference," which implies being gay is a choice, rather than sexual orientation. But he also disclosed he has lost four close friends and family members to AIDS. He not only pledged to protect AIDS services if elected mayor, he also voiced support for creating a safe injection site for intravenous drug users.
"As your mayor I will represent everyone regardless of race, creed, religion and sexual preference," said Hall.
Organizers plan to post the candidate questionnaires to the AIDS Housing Alliance's website at http://www.ahasf.org. A video recording of the two-hour forum will be posted at http://www.youtube.com/HIVStoryProject - p/u.