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December 24, 2004

AIDS ACTION JUMPS INTO BED WITH BUSH AND THE AIDS-PHOBIC REPUBLICANS

It's mind-boggling: Marsha Martin, the executive director of AIDS Action--the AIDS community's largest, most visible, and wealthiest Washington lobby, with a multi-million dollar budget--has jumped into bed with the Bush-Rove Republicans with both feet. In a perfectly scandalous act of betrayal of the AIDS community, Martin is one of a small committee sponsoring a pricey celebration of Bush's November victory, and that of the Republicans in Congress. And guess who gets the money from this orgy of felicitations to the GOP? A front group for Big Pharma that crusades against giving cheap, generic AIDS-fighting meds to the world's poorest victims of the AIDS pandemic.

The invitation, on which Martin's name prominently appears as part of a small "host committee", is to an expensive, upcoming January 20 event at Washington's J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks from the White House. The event is billed as a "Salute a Second Term: Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service--an Inaugural Dinner Invitation." And the invitation to this deluxe, black-tie banquet ($125 a plate, with "corporate sponsorships" going for $5000)  goes on to say, "You are cordially invited to join in celebrating the Presidential Inauguration and Republican electoral success."

This event, which as a member of the "host committee" Martin is helping to organize, is for the benefit of something called the Aids Responsibility Project (ARP). And just what, you may ask, is the ARP? As the Center for Media and Democracy has carefully documented, ARP is a pharmaceutical industry front group--it even boasts of its "partnership" with the Big Pharma lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), as well as with Pfizer and other drug multinationals. ARP's primary function has been to crusade against the manufacture and use of effective but generic AIDS-fighting drugs produced by Third World companies like India's Cipla (whose tripartite AIDS-fighting "cocktail" costs 20 times less than the U.S.-manufactured version). ARP wants thus to insure that only the infinitely more expensive AIDS meds manufactured by Big Pharma companies are used to prolong the lives of the HIV-infected.

As a result, Bush administration policies allow U.S. monies for Bush's phony Global AIDS Initiative to be used only for buying Big Pharma drugs--a task made even easier when Bush appointed to head his AIDS initiative someone with no experience with AIDS and none with diseases in developing countries: Randall L. Tobias, the former chairman of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. Tobias was chosen as Big Pharma's enforcer, to ensure that countries getting U.S. help can't themselves buy generic AIDS drugs at the lowest possible prices — meaning the Bush initiative's money won’t go nearly as far as it should.

ARP's founder and executive director, Abner Mason, is a Republican hack who had no previous AIDS experience when George Bush named him to the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, which Bush has stacked with opponents of science-based sex education and anti-condom crusaders. (Mason had previously worked for two Republican Massachusetts Governors -- Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift -- as chief policy adviser, and served them as the Massachusetts Undersecretary of Transportation, and as Deputy General Manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.)

During the the 15th International AIDS Conference, held in Bangkok in July 2004, Mason's ARP took out a full-page ad in the Bangkok Post which attacked generic AIDS drugs and lied about their effectiveness. This caused Asia Russell, of the AIDS-fighting group Health GAP Coalition, to say, "It is hard to gauge whether the global AIDS treatment community is more shocked to learn that a drug industry stooge is at the highest advisory level of AIDS policy in the United States, or to learn the lengths to which he and his paymasters would go to falsely undermine confidence in proven and effective treatment options."

AIDS Action bills itself as the "national voice" for the some 3200 AIDS service organizations (ASOs) around the country which make up its membership. Thus, it is in their name that Martin, as AIDS Action's executive director, is calling for a "celebration" of an administration that has promulgated regulations demanding that any ASO getting federal money teach that condoms don't work to prevent AIDS; perverted the use of tax-payer dollars intended to help fight AIDS by funneling them into political patronage for the Christian Right disguised as "faith-based initiatives"; gutted the Centers for Disease Control's AIDS work by censoring and banishing any educational material that recognizes sexual practices the Bushies don't like (homosexuality foremost among them); and, at the same time, Martin wishes us to hail a Republican Congress that has virtually flat-lined domestic AIDS spending. Moreover, Martin wants us to shout for joy at the GOP's "electoral success" which just elevated to the Senate a phalanx of anti-condom religious primitives-- like Coburn of Oklahoma (the AIDS community's number one enemy when he was in the House), DeMint of South Carolina, Burr of North Carolina, Vitter of Louisiana, and Martinez of Florida.

When Martin was named AIDS Action's executive director in February 2002, she told the Washington Blade that "We are going to be on AIDS what [the Human Rights Campaign] is on gay rights issues." But Martin exceeded even the Republican-endorsing HRC's collaborationist policies by her constant effusive praise for Bush's sorry record on AIDS. When Bush made an election-year campaign speech on AIDS in Philadelphia this past February--a speech whose phony hypocrisy I exposed for The Nation--Martin gushed to USA Today that Bush had given "unprecedented leadership" on AIDS. And she praised Bush's Global AIDS Initiative as "absolutely exceptional" to CNN, despite its tilt to the religious right's condom opponents. That compulsive ass-kissing doesn't strike most people in the AIDS community as conforming to the frightening reality they know all too well.

But Martin has now allied herself firmly with a Republican president and a Republican Congress who have been hurting the very community she claims to serve, and who have done everything possible to destroy science-based, life-saving HIV prevention methods. Moreover, she has done so as a shill for a banquet to benefit a lobbying group that wants to deny poor people with AIDS around the world cheap meds that can keep them alive.

Sean Strub, the founder of the award-winning magazine POZ (which serves the HIV-positive community) and one of the AIDS community's most respected activists, has just sent a letter to AIDS leaders in which he says of Martin's latest and most stomach-turning sellout, "Why don't we just dissolve AIDS Action, spend the money on cyanide pills, and speed the whole thing up? Martin is responsible for protecting the interests of people with AIDS--and yet she celebrates those who have supported Bush's campaign to control and criminalize us, to deny us treatment and care, to guarantee the further spread of the disease by teaching young people that condoms don't work. She might as well go to work for HRC for all the good she's doing us. We cannot let this stand."

So, Strub tells AIDS leaders in his e-mailed letter, "we must demand that AIDS Action board members, and the executive directors of the agencies that fund AIDS Action, fire Marsha Martin and find an executive director whose celebratory priorities are more appropriate to a constituency struggling to survive, to keep from becoming totally invisible, totally ignored, totally discarded."

Strub is, of course, right-- the kapo Martin should be fired. And there should a firestorm of outrage at her actions from the AIDS community to insure her eviction.

P.S. An 11:30 AM UPDATE:

Larry Kramer just sent me a copy of an e-mail he sent to a number of AIDS Action board members, AIDS leaders and HIV-positive writers. It is below--followed by my response to him:

FROM LARRY:
as one of the original founders of aids action council with the late paul popham, i raise these piercing questions: who is this marsha martin and why  is she doing and saying these really dumb and stupid things? is aids action turning into a second and equally as useless hrc, run by idiots who do not know the first thing about activism? why are board members, some of whom i know and respect so out to lunch in minding this once valuable store? what is it with this growing list of our once noble organiztions that they are appearing to go down the toilet? are they all being taken over silently by karl rove, like everything else in this country?

what is happening to us? i no longer know who we are, what our goals are, of if we even have goals anymore, or remotely similar goals. across the board, everywhere i look, we are self-destructing, that much is certain.

larry

My response:

My dear Larry--
I assume your questions below were largely rhetorical, for I can't believe you don't know perfectly well what AIDS Action's misdeeds and misjudgements are all about: money. Nothing has changed since three years ago, when Jamie Fox (who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee brilliantly) quit as AIDS Action's executive director after only a couple of weeks-- in disgust with the board and its domination by the Big 6 Divas of the ASOs, who have nothing but Ryan White Act $$$ signs in their eyes.....I wrote about Jamie's (and my) diagnosis of all this at the time in POZ --you can find it at http://www.poz.com/index.cfm?p=article&art_id=553, but here are a couple of relevant extracts from that column:

"I didn't seek the job -- the search committee came to me," Fox told POZ in an exclusive interview. "And, as an openly gay man, I was looking forward to putting my governmental experience to work on the AIDS crisis -- to giving something back." Fox had big plans to broaden the group's agenda beyond simply renewing Ryan White CARE Act funding (on which the 3,500 AIDS service organizations, or ASOs, that make up AIDS Action depend). He wanted the group to fight, too, for universal health care, for an effective national prevention campaign and for a response to the global AIDS crisis commensurate with our country's wealth.

His ideas immediately met resistance because, said Fox, "We've created a generation of AIDS execs who go from one organization to another, and some ASOs have become bloated, preoccupied with making sure their bureaucracies are well funded, rather than moving to the next level on how we battle the epidemic. Most ASO leaders do tremendous work," Fox continued, but some board members "are self-promoters. Like too many other nonprofits and movements, we've created a class of people who are mostly interested in preserving their revenue sources and status. For example, some of the largest ASOs mouth support for universal health care, but there's no real enthusiasm -- with universal health care, a lot of organizations would lose their bureaucracies."

Fox is hardly alone in identifying this problem -- openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) sarcastically talks about "AIDS, Inc." And Fox is particularly critical of the undue influence on AIDS Action's board (composed mostly of ASO execs) wielded by the major urban-based ASOs -- dubbed the "Big Six," or "Divas." This group provides fully a quarter of AIDS Action's $2.2 million annual budget. A champion fund-raiser, Fox corralled more than $84 million as director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last year, helping to achieve the new 50/50 Senate split. This, he says, made the Divas "wary of me": Fox had planned to diversify the group's funding sources, and the Divas feared losing control.

Expanding the AIDS agenda, Fox says, means understanding that "Ryan White funding can't last forever. It's a battle every five years, and we've been lucky to keep increasing it. But if we face an economic downturn, these programs will attract more scrutiny. We can't keep building bureaucracies with ever-increasing overheads and a narrow, self-preserving focus -- we'll give ammunition to the right wing," which is always looking for reasons to chop AIDS funds.... [end of excerpt]

So, you see, Larry dear, not much is different at AA today, except its gotten worse--the Republicans now have a hammer-lock on both Houses of Congress (which they didn't then) as well as the White House, so the AA crowd has deployed their collective tongue to the polishing of the Bushies' boots to try to beg, "Please, Sir, I Want Some More"...but these servile Dickensian moans for a few more grudgingly conceded Ryan White dollars won't get us much, because the only thing the Bush-Rove Republicans respect is strength. If AA had put more energy and money into organizing the AIDS vote, and into building coalitions with other communities (as I've endlessly argued) they might have had a bit of impact.....as it is, La Martin scurries to the W. House for photo ops with The Shrub and thinks that's progress.....

Jingle Balls, may Baby Jesus not crap on your head, and have a safe passage into 2005, xoxo Doug

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