Washington, D.C.--A presidential inaugural event expected to draw many gay Republicans is under fire from gay and AIDS community activists.
The $125-a-plate black tie dinner will be held on inauguration day, January 20, at the J.W. Marriott hotel, two blocks from the White House.
It was organized by GOP activist and former Log Cabin board member Abner Mason, who heads the AIDS Responsibility Project and chairs the International Committee of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS.
The controversy erupted when AIDS Action executive director Marsha Martin�s name appeared as a member of the host committee in an invitation e-mail sent on or near December 21.
AIDS Action primarily lobbies for its member AIDS service organizations� for funding under the Ryan White CARE Act.
Eight days later, AIDS Action Council and Foundation chairs Craig Thompson and Charles Henry sent a widely circulated e mail announcing that the organization is �withdrawing its participation from the event.�
The dinner is described by Mason as a �civic event, not a partisan event,� though all members of the host committee including former Log Cabin executive director Rich Tafel, Washington, D.C. Republican chair Bob Kabel, and Log Cabin D.C. president Brian Pruitt, are GOP activists--except Martin.
Martin served in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.
Having Martin on the host committee gave Mason the opportunity to make the event seem less partisan. It honors four Bush administration officials who work on AIDS issues.
�It�s an opportunity for a group or people involved in HIV work to have an event during inauguration week,� said Mason. �It�s an opportunity for people to recommit to U.S. leadership in the fight of HIV and a chance to insert HIV into the inauguration.�
However, the invitation says the event is a �salute to a second term� that will celebrate the �presidential inauguration and Republican electoral success.�
Log Cabin Republican political director Chris Barron said he and Log Cabin president Patrick Guerriero will attend the event with other Log Cabin staff.
AIDS activists learned of Martin�s involvement on the blog of political reporter and former Poz magazine columnist Doug Ireland.
Ireland wrote that the executive director of 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.�
OAC to withdraw from AIDS Action
Kevin Sullivan, who directs the Ohio AIDS Coalition in Columbus, said �there�s a whole lot of stink� around Martin�s involvement with the event.
�The whole thing smells of desperation on their part and shows what a non-player AIDS Action has become,� Sullivan said.
According to Sullivan, OAC will not renew its AIDS Action affiliate membership this year.
Ohio�s largest AIDS service organization, the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, let its membership in the group lapse in 2003. Director Earl Pike said he could see no benefit in renewing it.
Sullivan said most of OAC�s programs are grant-funded, so AIDS Action membership dues have to come out of what comes in from fundraisers.
�A drag queen has to work real hard to come up with the $500 that goes to AIDS Action,� said Sullivan, �and I�d be embarrassed to tell folks this is where the money is going.�
Other Ohio AIDS Action affiliate members are the AIDS Resource Center in Dayton, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care in Akron, the Columbus AIDS Task Force, and Planned Parenthood of Northwest Ohio.
Drug industry connections
Sullivan called the inaugural event �a big splash� put together by people �of dubious distinction.�
Mason�s AIDS Responsibility Project, of which Tafel and Kabel are both board members, is largely funded by the pharmaceutical industry and focuses most of its advocacy work on international issues.
The inaugural party is also sponsored by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Gilead who paid $5,000 each.
Ethics complaints have been filed against Mason by Genevieve Clavreul, also a member of the presidential AIDS council, alleging that Mason is trying to hide his drug industry connections.
Mason, who said Bush�s AIDS record has been �pretty good in the past,� authored and promoted a controversial resolution prohibiting funds from Bush�s $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to be used for low cost generic drugs in African and Caribbean countries--a move that pleases the industry and outrages AIDS activists.
Invitation is disputed
Martin now says she was not closely involved with the inaugural event.
�I was never on the host committee,� said Martin. �The invitation was an error.�
�I agreed to do outreach to let people know the event was occurring,� said Martin, adding that she is not attending it.
Martin forwarded to the Gay People�s Chronicle a December 29 e-mail to her from Mason saying, �The e-mailed invitation incorrectly implied that the dinner was a partisan event. It is not. The invitation has been corrected.�
Mason said he takes full responsibility for what he described as a mistake, and by extension, the criticism of AIDS Action and Martin.
However, a December 23 e-mail by Sarah Whitehead of AIDS Action contradicts both Martin and Mason.
�We accepted an invitation to serve as a host committee member for the event, which will specifically honor the second terms of Joe O�Neill and Carol Thompson,� wrote Whitehead.
Thompson is the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. O�Neill is the deputy global AIDS coordinator.
Whitehead continued, �We encourage all FAPP [Federal AIDS Policy Partnership] readers to reach out to these officials by attending the event and engaging them in a dialogue that recognizes our shared responsibility in changing the course of the epidemic.�
Withdrawing from the event has not quieted AIDS Action�s critics.
Sullivan is concerned that Martin is also accepting Bush�s �faith-based initiative,� which he said is �driving a wedge between the African-American and gay communities.�
Mason and Martin are both African-American. Mason is openly gay.
�Folks like AIDS Action and Marsha Martin are close to the edge of selling us out,� said Sullivan.
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