Among L.A. County leaders, the activist’s eye-catching, uncompromising advocacy draws admiration and criticism.
By Seema Mehta and Abby Sewell
January 4, 2014, 2:00 p.m.
Los Angeles County leaders once thought the world of Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
In a gilt-edged 1992 proclamation that still hangs behind Weinstein’s desk, officials declared him “a dynamic and inspirational leader” and “an unrelenting and tireless force in the struggle to stem the tide of HIV infection.”
In the years since, however, that relationship has come to resemble a dysfunctional marriage, tied together by finances and need, but strained by lawsuits, acrimony and accusations of improper spending. County leaders, now engaged in a furious legal and ballot-box battle with Weinstein, accuse him of spending his nonprofit’s funds on a “personal vendetta” against the county rather than on critical services for people living with HIV and AIDS.
“He’s out of control,” county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said recently.
Just last week, as Los Angeles counted down to the New Year, Weinstein and the organization he leads once again grabbed headlines. Gay marriage opponents called for a boycott of Pasadena’s iconic Tournament of Roses Parade because the foundation planned to have a gay couple wed on its float in front of millions of viewers. Critics decried the display, alternately, as inappropriate or having nothing to do with the group’s mission to stamp out HIV and AIDS, Weinstein countered that encouraging committed relationships in the gay community helps stem the virus’ spread.
The moment — controversial, ostentatious and eye-grabbing — was a distillation of Weinstein. His bruising style of advocacy was forged in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the then-young activist grew frustrated that elected leaders were paying scant attention to the thousands of people dying from the disease. Today, 30 years later, the trim, suit-clad 61-year-old travels the globe as leader of the largest private provider of AIDS services in the U.S. and, by some measures, the world.
He oversees a $750-million budget from the 21st floor of a Sunset Boulevard skyscraper, in a corner office with a panoramic view of the Hollywood sign. While the political response to AIDS has dramatically changed since that earlier era, and many other AIDS activists have toned down their rhetoric, Weinstein’s tactics remain hard-charging, persistent and, at times, polarizing.
Before the Rose Parade controversy, his group bankrolled a successful 2012 county ballot measure to require condom use in the adult film industry. And more recently it has moved to break the city of Los Angeles away from the county health agency’s jurisdiction, contending city residents don’t get a fair share of services. County and city officials have sued to block that ballot measure.
Supporters call Weinstein a “genius;” detractors label him a “dictator.” All agree that the hawkish-featured advocate remains uncompromising.
“To get anything done in government, you have to be single-minded, dedicated almost to the exclusion of everything else. Can you do that without rubbing anyone the wrong way? I suppose it’s theoretically possible,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who met Weinstein while living in West Hollywood and worked with him on AIDS-related issues. “Whether you like him or not — and I like him — he’s really been a positive force for change.”
Weinstein’s foundation holds $30 million in county contracts to provide HIV and AIDS services. But the county has repeatedly accused the group of overbilling — which he denies — and he has accused the county of improperly awarding contracts to other organizations and using the audits to retaliate for his complaints about how health services are delivered.
“We’re a black sheep, but we are part of the county family,” Weinstein said. “I don’t know of any other entities like us, a nonprofit that takes them on the way we do and that has the clout to get away with it.”
Since his teenage days in Brooklyn, Weinstein has been a rabble-rouser. At 13, he volunteered for anti-Vietnam War congressional candidate Mel Dubin in 1966. He was active in the civil-rights and fair-housing movements. He traveled to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Four years later, the long-haired high-school dropout moved to California, came out as gay and met Chris Brownlie, who would become a close friend and partner in activism.
Weinstein settled in Los Angeles for good in the early 1980s. He planned to pursue an architecture degree, but instead went into business making chocolate gold medals to coincide with the 1984 Olympics.
By then, AIDS was becoming a scourge among gay men. Elected officials were paying little attention; President Reagan did not publicly mention the disease’s name until 1985.
Weinstein recalled Brownlie dragging him to a community meeting that seemed like a Saturday Night Live skit: “I said ‘I cannot do this. It’s like too politically correct to be endured and nothing got done.’”
But as friends and neighbors began dying — at the time a person’s life expectancy after an AIDS diagnosis was measured in months, not years — he decided he had to engage.
“My activism at that point was really a way of channeling my grief, because people were dropping like flies,” he said.
Weinstein and Brownlie launched a campaign to defeat a 1986 ballot measure that would have allowed the quarantining of people with AIDS. Then their attention turned to providing the dying with a dignified death, and the AIDS Hospice Foundation was born. They led marches on the homes of officials, including county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich — who once suggested the solution to AIDS was for gay people to turn straight.
Brownlie was diagnosed with the virus in 1987. The following year — with $400,000 from the county — the foundation opened a 25-bed facility named after him in Elysian Park. Brownlie died less than a year later, with Weinstein at his bedside.
“It was one of those moments in life that changes you forever,” said Mary Adair, another close friend who was there.
With the advent of drugs that slowed the progression of AIDS, the foundation expanded to treatment. Its first medical clinic opened in 1990 — today there are more than 200 worldwide — and the AIDS Hospice Foundation became the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
The foundation currently provides services to 251,000 people in 14 states and 31 countries and operates a chain of 22 Out of the Closet thrift stores in California, Florida and Ohio. The majority of its revenue, however, comes from 34 pharmacies in 10 states that are staffed by pharmacists trained to work with people suffering from HIV and AIDS.
Throughout the expansion, conflicts with friends and foes were frequent. When the foundation opened the hospices, some in the gay community accused it of consigning AIDS patients to death. The foundation in 1990 picked a fight with AIDS Project Los Angeles — then the most successful AIDS-related nonprofit, favored by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor — over its annual AIDS Walk fundraiser, arguing that it soaked up contributions that might otherwise go to smaller organizations.
In 2000, when the foundation pushed a ballot measure in West Hollywood requiring bars to provide free condoms, posters appeared calling Weinstein, who is Jewish, a “Condom Nazi” and “an enemy of the gay community.”
West Hollywood City Councilman Jeffrey Prang, who opposed the measure, noted that the city already had a voluntary free-condom program. But that failed to meet Weinstein’s standard, resulting in a costly but unsuccessful campaign that “alienated people,” Prang said.
Weinstein now cites it as a battle he should have approached differently, because his group’s effort ended up “shedding more heat than light.”
“It was sort of a righteous thing, but the politics of it became more the issue than the policy,” he said.
In recent years, Weinstein’s group has disagreed with many in the AIDS community over Truvada, a drug that studies have shown could substantially reduce the risk of infection. Despite winning FDA approval in 2012, he argued, the drug had not been proven effective for prevention and could discourage condom use.
Dázon Dixon Diallo, chief executive of SisterLove Inc. in Atlanta, was incensed when Weinstein’s group sent out a press release opposing the treatment for women, without consulting women’s organizations focused on that exact issue.
“They are bullies,” she said. “And they have plenty of money to bully others with.”
The question of how Weinstein spends money is a constant among his critics, who say the organization spends too much on lawsuits, political activities and publicity maneuvers like the float at the Rose Parade. They say the funds would be better spent on direct services to patients. Foundation medical staff members launched a bid to unionize last year, concerned that care was taking a back seat to advocacy and public relations.
Weinstein, who expected to earn roughly $390,000 in 2013, says that both have been fundamental to the foundation since its inception, pointing to the mission statement printed on its business cards: “Cutting-edge medicine and advocacy, regardless of ability to pay.”
The $2-million campaign to make adult film actors wear condoms may be the issue that has most flustered local officials. They are still embroiled in a struggle over how to enforce it, and question the wisdom of spending so much money on an industry that has seen relatively few transmissions, instead of in communities where AIDS is growing most quickly, notably among gay and bisexual men of color.
Porn mogul Larry Flynt, who also opposed the condom mandate, said Weinstein had “played the press beautifully” on the issue.
“If the whole industry had to respond to his demands, the whole industry would just shut down. But that’s not going to happen,” Flynt said. “He’ll get his 60 minutes of fame, I guess.”
Weinstein maintains that protecting porn workers is the right thing to do. But he also concedes that the campaign is a public-relations windfall: “We got more publicity for safer sex and condoms than we ever could have gotten any other way.”
The organization also does extensive work in minority communities, he added, pointing to efforts from Baton Rouge, La., and Augusta, Ga., to Jamaica and Uganda.
Weinstein, who recently married his partner of 17 years, said he tries not to take the attacks personally.
“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance,” he said. “What’s happened over the decades is my confidence and the confidence of AHF has grown because we’ve been right.”
Friend and foe alike agree that Weinstein’s tactics are effective.
West Hollywood Councilman John Duran, who worked as an attorney for the Los Angeles chapter of the confrontational AIDS group ACT UP in the 1980s, recalled getting into screaming matches with Weinstein in the halls of the state Capitol over hospice regulations.
“Over the years, we’ve grown to respect one another, even when we don’t agree. His heart is always in the right place,” Duran said. “And on any political battle, I would rather be on the side of Michael Weinstein than the other side, because he’s relentless.”