GMHC Public Advocate Forum focuses on HIV, Opioid Overdoses

Former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams spoke most directly to the concerns GMHC had in the public advocate forum the group hosted with the New School this week.
JOHN McCARTEN/ NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

The Gay Men’s Health Crisis had ambitions greater than performing a public service when it joined the New School in hosting a forum for the candidates in the February 26 special election for city public advocate. The group was looking for allies in the drive to end AIDS and reverse the epidemic of overdose deaths.

Each of the nine candidates who showed up Wednesday night were expected to answer the same question, giving the audience a chance to compare their knowledge and their programs. The quality of the answers ranged from the thoughtful to the appalling.

The grimmest answer came from a 10th person, Daniel Christmann, who isn’t a candidate but inveigled his way onto the stage of the New School Auditorium in Greenwich Village. He would place heroin users into “solitary,” making them go cold turkey to “cure” them. There is nothing unusual about this solution — heroin users are placed in this predicament in jails all over the US. The problem is that the approach has a long history of cruel failure. The deprivation produces obsessive thoughts about getting high one more time — often with fatal results. By the time these unfortunate individuals get access to drugs, they have lost their tolerance and going back to their old high doses can lead to accidental poisonings.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former City Council speaker, provided the answer GMHC was seeking — establish safer consumption sites where users can inject. If they go into a deep nod overdose, prevention workers can quickly restore normal breathing. As speaker, Mark-Viverito funded a study of safer consumption sites that demonstrated the program’s success in more than 100 cities in Canada, Europe, and Australia. This study persuaded Mayor Bill de Blasio, but the proposal for a one-year pilot project languishes in Albany.

To drive the message home, Grace Rauh, the NY1 reporter and moderator, asked each candidate if they supported safer consumption spaces and with varying degrees of enthusiasm they said yes. Mark-Viverto and Councilmember Jumaane Williams, without prompting, argued for these programs. Rafael Espinal, a councilmember from Bushwick, swallowed hard and simply answered “yes.” Attorney Dawn Smalls, who held a senior position at the Department of Health and Human Service during the Obama administration, said “only as a pilot program.”

The evening started with Rauh asking the candidates what they would do to end HIV infection, which continues to fall heaviest on black and brown men in New York even as the overall rate of new infections in the city is at an historic low. Theo Chino, a self-professed bitcoin businessman and socialist, shook things up by saying, “I don’t have it. I’m not gay, so I don’t live with it,” and added that safe sex and condoms would prevent its spread. Smalls quickly injected, “You don’t have to be gay to get AIDS.” Espinal could only shake his head in dismay at Chino’s comment, saying, “My district has the largest number of new cases.” He pinpointed stigma as the biggest obstacle.

Only Mark-Viverito and Williams spoke of PrEP and PEP, the medications that inoculate people from the HIV virus and are responsible for pushing the number of new cases to lower and lower levels. Williams also spoke of stigma. “We have people who hide who they are,” he said, and place our “sisters” at risk. He called for increased funding for PrEP and PEP.

Many of candidates focused on one specific program that they kept bringing up.

Columbia University Professor David Eisenbach, who specializes in LGBTQ history, called for stopping the real estate lobby. Nomiki Konst, who was a surrogate speaker for Bernie Sanders in 2016, spoke of the multiple benefits of adopting Medicare for All. Benjamin Yee, an activist with the Young Democrats, hopes to encourage civic awareness so that the public can better express its preferences to elected officials.

One notable absence from the event was out gay Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, who the same evening spoke to the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City just blocks away, coming away with the club’s endorsement.

The February 26 election is to replace Letitia James, who took office January 1 as state attorney general. On January 29, the City Board of Elections will announce which candidates have submitted the proper paperwork to be placed on the ballot. The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Election Day.

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