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‘We had a good run’

Jim Graham reflects on 16 years as D.C. Council member

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Jim Graham, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Graham, gay news, Washington Blade

‘The experience of going through life’s issues with people infected with HIV forged what I am about,’ said Jim Graham, who leaves office Jan. 2 after 16 years on the Council. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The outer reception area of D.C. Council member Jim Graham’s office suite in the John A. Wilson Building, which serves as the District’s city hall, is packed with open boxes filled with papers and memorabilia accumulated during his 16 years in office.

As Graham, a Democrat and one of the Council’s two out gay members, prepares to leave office on Jan. 2 he reflected on his sometimes-controversial tenure as the Council’s Ward 1 representative in an interview with the Washington Blade.

“I’ve got two weeks and two days – 16 days left,” he said on Monday. “It’s 16 years, and then I kind of add to that the 15 years at Whitman-Walker. So it’s 31 years. And I think we had a good run.”

Graham was referring to the 15 years he served as executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the city’s preeminent private medical clinic serving people with HIV/AIDS now and in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

An attorney, Graham points out that he served three years prior to becoming Whitman-Walker’s executive director in the volunteer post of president of the clinic’s board from 1981 to 1984. He won election to his first of four terms on the Council in 1998.

“I want to be very clear about this point,” he told the Blade. “What has forged my political philosophy, if you will, has been the experience with Whitman-Walker Clinic working with people who were desperately poor facing what was then considered really a death sentence in the ‘80s, but facing a life-threatening disease for sure, without a network of support, without money in the bank, without insurance policies,” Graham said.

“The experience of going through life’s issues with people infected with HIV forged what I am about,” he continued. “So when I came on the Council I saw it as a continuation in terms of my work for those who were at greatest risk and most vulnerable.”

Graham’s reputation on the Council as a champion for progressive causes, including the rights of LGBT people, tenants and the needs of the diverse immigrant populations in the ward, made Graham highly popular among his constituents.

He won re-election by wide margins and was considered to have a safe seat on the Council until a series of developments beginning in 2009 triggered a flurry of negative press reports and accusations by critics that he had become mired in allegations of corruption.

The problems began in September 2009 when Graham’s then-chief of staff, Ted Loza, was arrested by the FBI for a bribe in an alleged scheme in which he promised to push for legislation favorable to the taxi cab industry that was pending before a committee that Graham chaired.

Graham was never implicated in the scheme but became the subject of an FBI investigation that Graham called unfair and unjustified and which, as Graham says, “came to nothing – absolutely nothing.”

In a separate development, the city’s newly created Board of Ethics and Government Accountability last year determined that Graham breached city ethics rules by asking a developer to withdraw its bid for a real estate project on land associated with Metro so that another developer that Graham said was better qualified to carry out the project could win the bid.

In exchange, Graham allegedly offered to support the original developer’s bid for a city lottery contract.

At the initiative of City Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), the Council voted to reprimand Graham for his actions concerning the two developers, calling them a breach of the Council’s ethics standards.

Graham again insisted he was never charged with breaking any law, taking any money, or benefiting in any way, saying his aim was to benefit Ward 1, where the development project was to take place, by ensuring that the contract went to the most qualified developer. He has called his actions a form of political horse trading rather than anything illegal or unethical.

But he acknowledged in his reflections this week that the combined effect of the Loza arrest and ethics allegations led to his defeat at the polls in the April 2014 Democratic primary in which political newcomer Brianne Nadeau defeated Graham. She went on to win the November general election and will be sworn in as Graham’s successor on Jan. 2.

Jim Graham, Brianne Nadeau, Ward 1, D.C. Council, gay news, Washington Blade

Outgoing Council member Jim Graham was ousted in the Democratic primary by newcomer Brianne Nadeau. (Washington Blade photo of Graham by Jeff Surprenant, Blade photo of Nadeau by Michael Key)

Graham said he has thought about irony in what seems like some similarities in his own campaign in 1998 in which he defeated then-incumbent Council member Frank Smith in the Democratic primary.

“There’s something to be said about that,” Graham said. “I’ve thought about that many times. And she ran a very hard campaign and I had run a very hard campaign against Smith,” he said.

“She used the ammunition that was given to her by the Washington Post and she used it to good advantage,” he said. “I have good feelings about Brianne Nadeau. I think she ran a skillful campaign, and there were parallels.”

Graham is also quick to point out how the Washington Post in his view played a key role in his defeat by, among other things, publishing 27 separate editorials critical of him over the ethics allegations.

“Twenty-seven – yes, 27 in under a year, which makes me a historical figure,” he said of being the target of a nationally known newspaper like the Post.

“But I really believe that with every door that closes another door opens,” he said. “I have been very comfortable with the ultimate result and very uncomfortable with the way in which it was done.”

Graham added, “I don’t want to be acting like a victim, even though I’ve been victimized through this. I have the option of doing something different. And I’ll be fine I hope. So that’s the end story to that.”

He declined to elaborate on his future plans.

In looking to his record on LGBT rights, Graham, among other things, points to his role as an advocate for the LGBT community both in legislation and private discussions with his fellow Council members.

The addition or protection for transgender people in the city’s Human Rights Act, the enactment into law of the Mayor’s Office of GLBT Affairs rather than leaving it as an option for a mayor to keep or disband, and funds for shelter beds for LGBT homeless youth are among some of his many pet projects on the Council, Graham said.

He said that against great odds and under strong opposition by some of his fellow Council members, he pushed through a bill that enabled some of the gay adult businesses displaced by the Washington Nationals stadium to relocate to other parts of the city.

He said he acknowledges that at least some of those who voted against him in the April primary were part of the city’s new residents who moved into Ward 1 due to the extensive revitalization and development projects, including upscale new condo buildings, that Graham says he played a key role in bringing about.

Political observers have said some of the new residents tend to be more conservative on issues of government spending and may have viewed Graham as being too liberal.

“I am a liberal,” he said. “I’m very liberal. I mean I’m very liberal in the sense that I care most about those who need government help at the greatest degree and I think there is a responsible role for government to play in all of that.”

A partial transcript of the Blade’s interview with Graham follows. (Dec. 16, 2014)

Blade: When does your term officially end?

Graham: I’ve got two weeks and two days – 16 days left. And it’s 16 years and then I kind of add to that the 15 years at Whitman-Walker. So it’s 31 years. And I think we had a good run.

 

Blade: When did you start at Whitman-Walker?

Graham: I became the director in 1984 – the full-time director in March 1984. But I became the president of Whitman-Walker on April Fool’s Day in 1981. But that was a volunteer position, but full-time from March of ’84 to December 2014 is more than 30 years – a long time.

 

Blade: Yes. Did you remain as executive director while you were a candidate for the Council seat?

Graham: Yes.

 

Blade: Did you continue as executive director at Whitman-Walker during your campaign for City Council?

Graham: Yes.

 

Blade: Was that in 1998?

Graham: 1998, that’s right. It seems like an eternity.

 

Blade: What do you see as the big changes that have happened in all those years?

Graham: Well Ward 1 has been transformed. And I think for the most part transformed for the better. It has neighborhoods that when I came into office were marked by chain linked fences, drug traffic, gang wars, which was the name of the game on U Street and certainly in Columbia Heights. That was what Columbia Heights was all about. Unless you had a reason to go there like going home you never went to Columbia Heights after dark – 14th and Irving.

And you look at it today and it’s obviously hugely different. U Street has become unbelievable. And a lot of people think U Street was the result of a lot of D.C. government actions. But it really wasn’t. It was Metro. Those were Metro parcels that were developed. And I was chairman of the Metro Real Estate Committee during that time.

So I think the revitalization of Ward 1 is certainly what I would count as one of my achievements – working with a lot of people. I don’t want to say I did it alone because obviously I didn’t. But I had critical input in all that.

And I want to be very clear about this point. What has forged my political philosophy, if you will, has been the experience with Whitman-Walker Clinic because working with people who were desperately poor facing what was then considered really a death sentence in the ‘80s, but facing a life-threatening disease for sure, without a network of support, without money in the bank, without insurance policies.

But the experience of going through life’s issues with people infected with HIV forged what I am about. So when I came on the Council I saw it as a continuation in terms of my work for those who were at greatest risk and most vulnerable. And it was a very natural alliance I had with Marion Barry in this regard. But I saw it as a continuum.

The Council gave me a different platform in order to do this. And I think ending with my chairmanship of the Human Services Committee and dealing with all of the issues of poverty in the District of Columbia was just fitting. It was a natural conclusion and continuation of what I had been doing. So I tend to view all of those kind of in the same trajectory if I can use that word. Others may see it differently but that’s the way I see it.

And of course I was privileged to have been elected and re-elected, re-elected, re-elected and then not re-elected by the people of Ward 1. And that’s a huge privilege. There are not too many people who have served 16 years as a Council member in D.C. And I’m very proud of the record that I have.

 

Blade: Concerning the outcome of the April Democratic primary in which your opponent Brianne Nadeau won, some have said that there was some irony in that she appeared to run the type of campaign that you ran back in 1998 when you beat incumbent Frank Smith. Is there anything to that?

Graham: There’s something to be said about that. I’ve thought about that many times. And she ran a very hard campaign and I had run a very hard campaign against Smith. She used the ammunition that was given to her by the Washington Post and she used it to good advantage. I have good feelings about Brianne Nadeau. I think she ran a skillful campaign, and there were parallels.

I ran across our direct mail pieces in 1998. They were very hard hitting.

 

Blade: Some may have lost track of how many Washington Post editorials came out against you.

Graham: Twenty-seven – yes, 27 in under a year, which makes me a historical figure. I don’t want to go on and on about this, but just to say that 27 editorials and I never had an opportunity to present my case [before the City Council]. I never had an opportunity to examine witnesses or present evidence – never. And so the Metro Board acted without a hearing. The Board of Ethics in Government, which had just been established and just come into existence, said they had no jurisdiction but we’ll give you our conclusions anyway – no hearing.

And then the Council – I begged Mendelson to propose a motion of censure rather than a reprimand for two reasons. Number one, most importantly if it had been a censure motion I would have been entitled to a hearing. And I had lawyers ready to act. And I could finally have had an opportunity to say look here’s my side of all this. But he said no, it would be too much of a distraction from the Council’s business and we need to get on with this and a reprimand would be enough. It’s a relatively minor matter.

Well I said it’s not going to be minor because I could spend the rest of my life trying to correct press reports that I was censured because nobody knows the difference between a censure and a reprimand. But the difference for me was there was no hearing. And so all of that happened without an opportunity for me to be heard in a formal way.

And so if anything that was alleged was true it would be a serious matter. But everything that was alleged along those lines was not true. And the one thing that was true was what everybody would say was minor at best. So the difference is if you could prove everything that was thrown out there – it was Graham wanted to substitute one developer or another developer. Graham wanted to have a campaign – all of this was balderdash. It wasn’t true. But if it were true then you would have a very serious matter.

But there was never any opportunity to refute it. So it all just got recycled over and over and over again. And of course Brianne Nadeau being the political person that she is and running in a political race she took advantage of all that. And so at every campaign stop it was Graham is corrupt. And as many times as I said how can I be corrupt without breaking any law, committing any crime or taking any money? How do you interpret that as corruption?

But, see, all of that is lost in the mist of history. Who cares? And I guess the Washington Post achieved what it wanted to achieve – to put me out of office. But I really believe that with every door that closes another door opens. I have been very comfortable with the ultimate result and very uncomfortable with the way in which it was done. But I don’t want to be acting like a victim, even though I’ve been victimized.

I’ve definitely been victimized but I don’t want to act like a victim through this. And I have the option of doing something different. And I’ll be fine I hope. So that’s the end story to that. But to say it was painful to have 27 editorials written against you and knowing they were going to appear on such and such a date and knowing what they were going say and they would be the worst possibly interpretation of anything that could ever happen – it was painful.

And very few people know that pain because how many people have had 27 editorials written against them by a major American newspaper? Even Mark Lee, with all his attacks on me — he didn’t use that number. And Jonetta Rose Barras didn’t use that number.

 

Blade: Some of the criticism appeared to be that you were too liberal.

Graham: I am liberal. I’m very liberal. I mean I’m very liberal in the sense that I care most about those who need government help at the greatest degree and I think there is a responsible role for government to play in all of that.

Mark Lee is just a very, very conservative business oriented columnist. And you have to understand that he is very pro bar. That’s the industry he comes from. And you always have to keep that in mind when you read what he has to say. But I’m just saying that kiddingly because even Jonetta Rose Barras didn’t write 27 columns negative about me.

But John Roe did.

 

Blade: Who is John Roe?

Graham: He was the voice at the Post editorial board…So then you have all of that happening. And then you have the massive effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to entrap me – massive effort. My phone was tapped for at least 90 days. I know that because I have the federal motions that were signed by the federal judges. My bank account was investigated. Everything about me was investigated. And they offered me a trip to Miami, which I rejected. They offered me – they gave me the painting. I’ll show you the painting – a full rights painting that they commissioned by an Ethiopian artist that was presented to me at a Christmas gala. We have the video. There are photos of this, and I was aghast when I saw this thing because who wants to be presented with a full-length portrait of themselves. But at the time I didn’t know it had been commissioned by the FBI.

And later on the artist contacted me. He’s Ethiopian and wanted my help because they stiffed him with 50 percent of the fee. They promised him $6,000. They only paid him $3,000. And he wanted to know if I can help him.  He didn’t know he was dealing with an FBI undercover agent. It just goes on and on and on.

 

Blade: Why did the FBI want to do that?

Graham: Well they had Teddy on the line and they wanted bigger game. They wanted bigger game. And so they thought they could get me too – but I had committed no crime. I had committed no – broken no law, taken no money. But they wanted to see what they can do to get me to do it. It’s called entrapment. It’s not legal entrapment under the current definitions.

I was offered as everyone knows $2,400 in cash which I rejected. And when I look back on that period of time and all of that I was completely in the dark. I was meeting these guys who were FBI agents and they were saying we want to invest in Ward 1. I said fine, what do you want to do? These mysterious meetings [that they invited me to attend] that I never quite understood – because they don’t need me to invest in Ward 1.

 

Blade: Were they posing as businessmen?

Graham: They were posing as investors. And that’s why they said they wanted me to come to Miami. I said why do you want me to come to Miami? They said because the investors are located there and it would be convenient for them. I said have them come to Washington if they’re so interested. Well we’ll take you out to dinner in a yacht.

This was a major nightmare that began in August 2009 and has lasted until this year. And some day the full story will be told, but the fact of the matter is – and meanwhile during all that while I was doing my job. I’m very proud of the fact that we have – I think we have the best constituent services on the Council. We’re known for our responsiveness. I’m known for my responsiveness. I was reading every email, responding to every email. Every phone call was dealt with effectively.

And then I had the chairmanship of the Human Services Committee and I was dealing with all the issues related to poverty. And we kept working. We were never deterred from that work. But at some point I learned that they were out to get me and I had to refocus and say what the hell is going on here?

 

Blade: When you say it all started in August 2009, was that when Teddy Loza, your former chief of staff, allegedly took a bribe?

Graham: That’s when Teddy told me he had been arrested and he had been detained actually at the Atlanta airport. And Teddy’s situation is an entirely separate matter that was also under close scrutiny because of what they did. The way it happened was this. Abdul Kamal was somebody we worked together with in the Ethiopian community. He offered a real bribe to the chairman of the Taxi Cab Commission. He offered the chairman of the Taxi Cab Commission $50,000. The chairman of the Taxi Cab Commission turned him into the FBI. At that point they said you’re guilty of a federal felony but can you help us with some other people. And he said what do you mean? Well he offered you could get Ted Loza? And he said maybe you could even get Jim Graham because we had lived together.

So first they got Teddy. They entrapped him. He took silly and stupid things like taking a $500 gift on Father’s Day. And then they came after me with these other things, meanwhile by tapping my phone and examining every part of my life and coming up with nothing – nothing. I mean am I indicted? Have they charged me with a crime? Has anybody ever suggested that I committed a crime? No.

So that’s the way it went. But I’m very proud of the fact that I continued to do my work. I was re-elected in 2010 after Teddy had been arrested – after Loza had been arrested. And that was a terrible moment I can assure you. But we continued to work. And I got 80 something percent of the vote in 2010. But then the editorials started in 2012 and 2013.

But I’m proud of my record because the fact of the matter is with all the investigations that they conducted they came up with nothing because there was nothing there. There was nothing there. And I don’t know how much money they spent trying to do all this. But the fact that I lost the election – gosh, somebody’s got 27 editorials against him by a national newspaper. Where there’s smoke there must be fire, right? But there wasn’t any fire. There was just smoke.

 

Blade: Did you sense that you still had support from your base supporters?

Graham: Well there were a lot of pragmatic things. You had the early April 1 primary and nobody knew it was Election Day. You had Vince Gray, who I expected to bring out the east side of the ward in voters. He didn’t because he had polls showing he would lose 60 percent of the vote from there. So he didn’t make any effort. So when the election came I said oh my God, there is no effort to bring these guys out. And I would have done it. But for good reason his campaign strategists said we’re not going to bring them out. We’re not going to make a special effort because we’ll lose that vote big time.

So there were all those pragmatic kinds of things going on. And my opponent was very good at what she did in carrying the message that I was corrupt.

…I ended up with strong support from African Americans and Latinos and Vietnamese and Asians and so forth. And it was the newcomer who is largely white and comparatively well off – comparatively well off – who voted against me.

But I don’t have any bitterness about this. Brianna reflects that constituency. She does. She reflects that constituency that voted for her and, you know, people like to feel that they’re represented by their own. Now she has a challenge in terms of communicating well with the so-called minorities in Ward 1. And I hope she is going to work hard at that in understanding their needs. She and I have had a very cordial relationship.

 

Blade: Since the election?

Graham: Since the final election. We didn’t have too much communication after the primary. I did congratulate her and I told her that if she won the final election I would do everything I could to help in the transition, and I have. I’ve been having these resolutions with various Ward 1 leaders. I invited her to the Council…I invited her to my Thanksgiving lunch for 500 seniors. She came for that – very cordial. She knows that I want to help her in any way. I want her to be a success.

 

Blade: Let’s talk a little about your role first as an openly gay candidate and then as an out gay Council member. When you first ran against Frank Smith did that surface at all?

Graham: It did. There were some very nasty materials put together on it, which were never really widely distributed but it did – the way it surfaced was people who had – and they were largely minorities, by the way – who had been helped by Whitman-Walker Clinic because of a child having AIDS or a brother having AIDS. And they very much appreciated the assistance they had gotten. See what I’m saying? And so it was a plus. It was a huge plus being associated with Whitman-Walker.

From the beginning I’ve ran as somebody who is white, gay, recovering addict and alcoholic and now clean and sober for 37 years.

 

Blade: You were open about that?

Graham: I was open about all of this. The Washington Post had done this 6,000-word profile on me in the magazine section in 1992. They had laid bare every aspect of my life. So I have been very straightforward about everything and there was nothing to cover up. It was all exposed.

And I think it says a lot about Ward 1. They were able to see the merits of my candidacy. I never had any problem being re-elected up until the last election.

 

Blade: During your years on the Council did your status as an openly gay Council member have any impact on your interaction with your colleagues?

Graham: I don’t think so. I think it was a neutral because this is a pretty enlightened crew here. It was a neutral. I don’t have any recollection of a blip along those lines.

 

Blade: No problems with your colleagues over that?

Graham: None.

 

Blade: Now some LGBT activists have expressed concern that there will be no out gay on the Council for the first time since 1997, when Council member David Catania won his seat in a special election.

Graham: I think that’s an important void because you’ve got these members here who are pretty enlightened and they’re anything but homophobic. They’re the exact opposite of that. But it always helps to have somebody at the table that has these issues in the forefront in their minds. And whatever the unique issue is if you have somebody at the table who is thinking about this issue he or she reminds his colleagues or her colleagues of the significance of this on every occasion. And when they’re not there – the difference between being presented with an issue and saying I’ll vote for that and having the issue raised at all. I think it’s going to be something we’ll miss. There are people who cater to the gay vote, which is good because they see it as a strong voting population, which it is. But it’s not the same as having somebody at the table.

Yet we’ve gone so far, haven’t we? I never, never imagined – never, never imagined – I imagined same-sex marriage, marriage equality. I imagined that. But I never imagined that there would come a day when a gay and lesbian person could go outside of the United States, marry somebody and bring them back under the immigration laws as a spouse. I remember talking to folks in the ‘90s who were working on this issue and I said oh, my God, this will be the last frontier. This will be the one thing that will never happen. Well it’s happened. It’s happened. And I think it’s a matter of time until the Supreme Court finally decides that it’s a violation of human rights and unlawful discrimination in so many different areas of gays being treated differently than anybody else. So it’s done. Maybe those frontiers have already been achieved. Maybe we’re by them…

Now are there gay people on the Council who are not saying they’re gay? Well that’s another matter, isn’t it? I don’t know how that will work out because there may be people in the future who are in that category and just not willing to admit it for political reasons.

The fact of the matter is there are a lot of people who won’t vote for a gay candidate. I don’t know to what extent that worked in Catania’s case in the recent election.

 

Blade: We’ve heard that may have hurt gay Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell in his races for a seat on the school board.

Graham: Word of mouth is very powerful in D.C. I’ve learned that. The word of mouth in political campaigns – what people say to each other and is passed on and passed on is a very important thing. So if you say the word of mouth on Catania was that he was difficult, over bearing, given to fits of anger – that was the word of mouth on Catania. I don’t think it played well.

 

Blade: Isn’t it hard to see how that played since we don’t have exit polls.

Graham: No, we don’t have exit polls.

 

Blade: The unions that supported Muriel Bowser for mayor brought up the issue of Catania’s temperament in mailings.

Graham: It was well communicated the personality issues…It’s hard to say just why people vote, but there is certainly homophobia. Homophobia is alive and well. And I’m sure it hurt Catania and I’m sure it hurt Pannell. But it never hurt me in any decisive way. Everybody knew who I was and they’ve elected me four times. That’s the same with Catania in the position he was in. Yet it’s hard to say because he never really had a majority of the vote.

 

Blade: Your referring to the at-large Council seat reserved for the non-majority party?

Graham: Yeah – it’s hard to describe, but he never really did have a majority vote of those who were voting?

 

Blade: When he ran for his Council seat?

Graham: Yes.

 

Blade: Do you feel he was also hurt because of voting trends in the city in that we’ve never had a white candidate win election to mayor since the home rule government began in 1974?

Graham: I think that’s likely to change in the next couple of elections because the city has so fundamentally changed. If you go to 14th and U, for example, 11th Street, for example; Sherman Avenue – streets that I know well – it’s just a different world. It’s a different world. I go to Georgia Avenue and I find white couple after white couple with baby strollers, gays holding hands that are white and mixed races. It’s another world.

 

Blade: Could that be a sign of gentrification, which some feel has harmed certain parts of the population in the city? Is Ward 1 encountering the brunt of gentrification?

Graham: I think it has. But we’ve done pretty well with big buildings. But we have major challenges ahead in terms of landlord tenant rights and so forth. And I was one of the champions in all of that. And I’m not going to be around for that. I know the D.C. Realtors put in about $70,000 to defeat me. So I hope that Council member Nadeau is able to resist playing to those donors. But increasingly we’re using buildings now because of the pressure from the real estate market.

…The more that rent control disappears and the more that other tenant related protections disappear will be the extent that affordable buildings disappear. This $100 million a year for affordable house [DC government program] is never going to make up for all of the buildings that are being lost. We have right now approximately 200,000 to 250,000 people who are in the District of Columbia in rent controlled apartments. It is huge. But that is slipping every single day. The numbers are going down every single day. In fact the number I’ve just given you is a year old. I don’t know what it is today.

And rent control is not as strong as it should be but it’s better than not having rent control, that’s for sure…

 

Blade: There’s an issue of the gay clubs. Another one in the city that is in your ward – MOVA – is closing at the end of the year.

Graham: They never really got off the ground.

 

Blade: The owner says it’s going to be taken over by one of the owners of Barcode, a popular straight bar located downtown.

Graham: I know him – Movahedi. He’s in Barcelona.

 

Blade: He announced on his Facebook page that MOVA will have a closing party on Jan. 3.

Graham: Is he coming?

Blade: He didn’t say in his message.

Graham: No, I don’t think he is. I spoke to him in Barcelona a few weeks ago and he’s a good friend because he had Halo. He was the second owner of Halo. And it did very well. But you know they had stairs at Halo and they have stairs at this other club. And the stairs killed them at this other club. Was it too long a staircase? But they ended up with a very small area downstairs.

 

Blade: They also had a protest filed against their license renewal by the ANC and nearby residents who said the roof deck was creating too much noise.

Graham: That could be. I didn’t know about that.

 

Blade: You were involved with some of when he chaired the Council committee overseeing liquor licenses, right?

Graham: I was chairman of that committee for eight years.

 

Blade: Now history seems to be repeating itself with the new soccer stadium, where it will likely displace a club that got displaced by the Washington Nationals Baseball stadium.

Graham: Ziegfeld’s/Secrets.

 

Blade: Right.

Graham: And they are going to have a hard time relocating.

 

Blade: Jack Evans has said the Council will try to help them relocate. But Could the Council do that?

Graham: Well they will have to ease up – I was the author as you remember of that new law on nude dancing. And the problem is we are under a lot of pressure to restrict the locations where it is so many feet from this, so many feet from that. So it virtually makes it impossible for a new club to be located anywhere in the west side of the city. Now on the east side of the city there are still locations in warehouse districts and so forth. But I know that Alan Carol who is the owner of Ziegfeld’s searched high and low before he found that. So there’s an irony that once again they’re facing this. But they’re not in the footprint of the stadium. So they’re going to be there until the owner of the building figures out if he wants a different use of the building.

 

Blade: The owner has said he will eventually sell to a developer and will offer Ziegfeld’s/Secrets the first right of refusal to buy the building.

Graham: I don’t know. But you know he’s got years left because the soccer stadium is not going to be built for years — I mean 2017 or 2018 before it’s opened. And so he’s got all that time and then of course he’s not in the path – he’s not in the footprint of the stadium.

 

Blade: The mayor’s office says they will not extend any use of eminent domain outside the footprint of the stadium, but there will likely be pressure from developers.

Graham: Yeah – there will be pressure to make money and etc., etc. And so this guy undoubtedly will say I can make more money doing something different here because there will be condos and all that stuff – the usual.

 

Blade: Did your bill allow two nude dance licenses per ward?

Graham: I don’t remember. It’s very strict. It was stricter than I wanted it to be because I would have made it far more liberal but there were such pressures, particularly from Ward 5, but also from people generally. The NIMPYism was very strong. So we didn’t get very far in terms of relaxing restrictions. In fact it’s much tougher.

 

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Top 10 Blade news stories by web traffic

COVID breakthroughs, Equality Act, and anti-trans attacks

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Elliot Page created excitement by posting his first photo in swim trunks back in May.

Each year our staff gathers in late December to review the highest trafficked stories of the year and there’s more than a little bit of competitive spirit as we review the results. Here are the top 10 stories by web traffic at  HYPERLINK “http://washingtonblade.com”washingtonblade.com for 2021.

#10: Mark Glaze, gun reform advocate, dies at 51

The sad, tragic story of Glaze’s death captivated readers in November. 

#9: COVID breakthrough infections strike summer tourists visiting Provincetown

This one went viral in July after a COVID outbreak was blamed on gay tourists.

#8: Thank you, Kordell Stewart, for thoughtful response to ‘the rumor’

This opinion piece thanked the former NFL quarterback for writing a personal essay addressing gay rumors. 

#7: Elliot Page tweets; trans bb’s first swim trunks #transjoy #transisbeautiful

The actor created excitement by posting his first photo in swim trunks back in May.

#6: Romney declares opposition to LGBTQ Equality Act

Mitt Romney disappointed activists with his announcement; the Equality Act passed the House but never saw a vote in the Senate.

#5: White House warns state legislatures that passing anti-trans bills is illegal

The year 2021 saw a disturbing trend of GOP-led legislatures attacking trans people.

#4: Lincoln Project’s avowed ignorance of Weaver texts undercut by leaked communications

The Lincoln Project’s leaders, amid a scandal of co-founder John Weaver soliciting sexual favors from young men, have asserted they were unaware of his indiscretions until the Blade obtained electronic communications that called that claim into question.

#3: FOX 5’s McCoy suspended over offensive Tweet

Blake McCoy tweeted that obese people shouldn’t get priority for the COVID vaccine. 

#2: Transgender USAF veteran trapped in Taliban takeover of Kabul

Among the Americans trapped in the suburban areas of Kabul under Taliban control was a transgender government contractor for the U.S. State Department and former U.S. Air Force Sergeant. She was later safely evacuated.

#1: Amid coup chaos, Trump quietly erases LGBTQ protections in adoption, health services

And our most popular story of 2021 was about the Trump administration nixing regulations barring federal grantees in the Department of Health & Human Services from discriminating against LGBTQ people, including in adoption services.

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CDC still falling short on LGBTQ data collection for COVID patients: expert

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COVID-19 vaccine, gay news, Washington Blade
The CDC is still not issuing guidance to states on LGBTQ data collection among COVID patients.

Despite requests since the start of the COVID pandemic for the U.S. government to enhance data collection for patients who are LGBTQ, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is still falling short on issuing nationwide guidance to states on the issue, a leading expert health on the issue told the Blade.

With a renewed focus on COVID infections reaching new heights just before the start of the holidays amid the emergence of Omicron, the absence of any LGBTQ data collection — now across both the Trump and Biden administrations — remains a sore point for health experts who say that information could be used for public outreach.

Sean Cahill, director of Health Policy Research at the Boston-based Fenway Institute, said Wednesday major federal entities and hospitals have been collecting data on whether patients identify as LGBTQ for years — such as the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, which has been collecting sexual orientation data since the 1990s — but the CDC hasn’t duplicated that effort for COVID even though the pandemic has been underway for two years.

“It’s not like this is a new idea,” Cahill said. “But for some reason, the pandemic hit, and all of a sudden, we realize how little systematic data we were collecting in our health system. And it’s a real problem because we’re two years into the pandemic almost, and we still don’t know how it’s affecting this vulnerable population that experiences health disparities in other areas.”

The Blade was among the first outlets to report on the lack of efforts by the states to collect data on whether a COVID patient identifies as LGBTQ, reporting in April 2020 on the absence of data even in places with influential LGBTQ communities. The CDC hasn’t responded to the Blade’s requests for nearly two years on why it doesn’t instruct states to collect this data, nor did it respond this week to a request for comment on this article.

Cahill, who has published articles in the American Journal of Public Health on the importance of LGBTQ data collection and reporting in COVID-19 testing, care, and vaccination — said he’s been making the case to the CDC to issue guidance to states on whether COVID patients identify as LGBTQ since June 2020.

Among those efforts, he said, were to include two comments he delivered to the Biden COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force in spring 2021, a letter a coalition of groups sent to the Association of State & Territorial Health Officers asking for states to collect and report SOGI in COVID in December 2020 as well as letters to HHS leadership and congressional leadership in spring and summer 2020 asking for them to take steps to encourage or require SOGI data collection in COVID.

Asked what CDC officials had to say in response when he brought this issue to their attention, Cahill said, “They listen, but they don’t really tell me anything.”

“We’ve been making that case, and to date, as of December 22, 2021, they have not issued guidance, they have not changed the case report form. I hope that they’re in the process of doing that, and maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised in January, and they’ll come up with something…I really hope that’s true, but right now they’re not doing anything to promote SOGI data collection and reporting in surveillance data.”

Cahill, in an email to the Blade after the initial publication of this article, clarified CDC has indicated guidance on LGBTQ data collection for COVID patients may come in the near future.

“HHS leaders told us this fall that CDC is working on an initiative to expand SOGI data collection,” Cahill said. “We are hopeful that we will see guidance early in 2022. Key people at CDC, including Director Walensky, understand the importance of SOGI data collection given their long history of working on HIV prevention.”

In other issues related to LGBTQ data collection, there has been a history of states resisting federal mandates. The Trump administration, for example, rescinded guidance calling on states to collect information on whether foster youth identified as LGBTQ after complaints from states on the Obama-era process, much to the consternation of LGBTQ advocates who said the data was helpful.

The White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force has at least recognized the potential for enhancing LGBTQ data collection efforts. Last month, it published an implementation plan, calling for “an equity-centered approach to data collection, including sufficient funding to collect data for groups that are often left out of data collection (e.g….LGBTQIA+ people).”

The plan also calls for “fund[ing] activities to improve data collection…including tracking COVID-19 related outcomes for people of color and other underserved populations,” and specifically calls for the collection of LGBTQ data.

The importance of collecting LGBTQ data, Cahill said, is based on its potential use in public outreach, including efforts to recognize disparities in health population and to create messaging for outreach, including for populations that may be reluctant to take the vaccine.

“If we see a disparity, we can say: Why is that?” Cahill said. “We could do focus groups of the population — try to understand and then what kind of messages would reassure you and make you feel comfortable getting a vaccine, and we could push those messages out through public education campaigns led by state local health departments led by the federal government.”

The LGBTQ data, Cahill said, could be broken down further to determine if racial and ethnic disparities exist within the LGBTQ population, or whether LGBTQ people are likely to suffer from the disease in certain regions, such as the South.

“We have data showing that lesbian or bisexual women, and transgender people are less likely to be in preventive regular routine care for their health,” Cahill said. “And so if that’s true, there’s a good chance that they’re less likely to know where to get a vaccine, to have a medical professional they trust to talk to about it today.”

Among the leaders who are supportive, Cahill said, is Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health and the first openly transgender person confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a presidential appointment. Cahill said he raised the issue with her along with other officials at the Department of Health & Human Services three times in the last year.

In her previous role as Pennsylvania secretary of health, Levine led the way and made her state the first in the nation to set up an LGBTQ data collection system for COVID patients.

“So she definitely gets it, and I know she’s supportive of it, but we really need the CDC to act,” Cahill said.

Although the federal government has remained intransigent in taking action, Cahill said the situation has improved among states and counted five states — California, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Nevada and Oregon — in addition to D.C. as among those that have elected to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity of COVID patients.

However, Cahill said even those data collection efforts are falling short because those jurisdictions have merely been public about collecting the data, but haven’t reported back anything yet.

“Only California has reported data publicly, and the data that they’re reporting is really just the completeness of the data,” Cahill said. “They’re not reporting the data itself…And they’re also just asking people who tests positive. So, if somebody says positive COVID in California, a contact tracer follows up with that individual and asks them a battery of questions, and among the questions that are asked are SOGI questions.”

As a result of these efforts, Cahill said, California has data on the LGBTQ status of COVID patients, but the data is overwhelmingly more complete for the gender identity of these patients rather than their sexual orientation. As of May 2021, California reported that they had sexual orientation data for 9.5 percent of individuals who had died from COVID and 16 percent of people who tested positive, but for gender identity, the data were 99.5 percent.

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Equality Act, contorted as a danger by anti-LGBTQ forces, is all but dead

No political willpower to force vote or reach a compromise

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Despite having President Biden in the White House and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, efforts to update federal civil rights laws to strengthen the prohibition on discrimination against LGBTQ people by passing the Equality Act are all but dead as opponents of the measure have contorted it beyond recognition.

Political willpower is lacking to find a compromise that would be acceptable to enough Republican senators to end a filibuster on the bill — a tall order in any event — nor is there the willpower to force a vote on the Equality Act as opponents stoke fears about transgender kids in sports and not even unanimity in the Democratic caucus in favor of the bill is present, stakeholders who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity said.

In fact, there are no imminent plans to hold a vote on the legislation even though Pride month is days away, which would be an opportune time for Congress to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQ community by holding a vote on the legislation.

If the Equality Act were to come up for a Senate vote in the next month, it would not have the support to pass. Continued assurances that bipartisan talks are continuing on the legislation have yielded no evidence of additional support, let alone the 10 Republicans needed to end a filibuster.

“I haven’t really heard an update either way, which is usually not good,” one Democratic insider said. “My understanding is that our side was entrenched in a no-compromise mindset and with [Sen. Joe] Manchin saying he didn’t like the bill, it doomed it this Congress. And the bullying of hundreds of trans athletes derailed our message and our arguments of why it was broadly needed.”

The only thing keeping the final nail from being hammered into the Equality Act’s coffin is the unwillingness of its supporters to admit defeat. Other stakeholders who spoke to the Blade continued to assert bipartisan talks are ongoing, strongly pushing back on any conclusion the legislation is dead.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Equality Act is “alive and well,” citing widespread public support he said includes “the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents and a growing number of communities across the country engaging and mobilizing every day in support of the legislation.”

“They understand the urgent need to pass this bill and stand up for LGBTQ people across our country,” David added. “As we engage with elected officials, we have confidence that Congress will listen to the voices of their constituents and continue fighting for the Equality Act through the lengthy legislative process.  We will also continue our unprecedented campaign to grow the already-high public support for a popular bill that will save lives and make our country fairer and more equal for all. We will not stop until the Equality Act is passed.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chief sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, also signaled through a spokesperson work continues on the legislation, refusing to give up on expectations the legislation would soon become law.

“Sen. Merkley and his staff are in active discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to try to get this done,” McLennan said. “We definitely see it as a key priority that we expect to become law.”

A spokesperson Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had promised to force a vote on the Equality Act in the Senate on the day the U.S. House approved it earlier this year, pointed to a March 25 “Dear Colleague” letter in which he identified the Equality Act as one of several bills he’d bring up for a vote.

Despite any assurances, the hold up on the bill is apparent. Although the U.S. House approved the legislation earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn’t even reported out the bill yet to the floor in the aftermath of the first-ever Senate hearing on the bill in March. A Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic aide, however, disputed that inaction as evidence the Equality Act is dead in its tracks: “Bipartisan efforts on a path forward are ongoing.”

Democrats are quick to blame Republicans for inaction on the Equality Act, but with Manchin withholding his support for the legislation they can’t even count on the entirety of their caucus to vote “yes” if it came to the floor. Progressives continue to advocate an end to the filibuster to advance legislation Biden has promised as part of his agenda, but even if they were to overcome headwinds and dismantle the institution needing 60 votes to advance legislation, the Equality Act would likely not have majority support to win approval in the Senate with a 50-50 party split.

The office of Manchin, who has previously said he couldn’t support the Equality Act over concerns about public schools having to implement the transgender protections applying to sports and bathrooms, hasn’t responded to multiple requests this year from the Blade on the legislation and didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.

Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who declined to co-sponsor the Equality Act this year after having signed onto the legislation in the previous Congress, insisted through a spokesperson talks are still happening across the aisle despite the appearances the legislation is dead.

“There continues to be bipartisan support for passing a law that protects the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Annie Clark, a Collins spokesperson. “The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations, and in its current form, it cannot pass. That’s why there are ongoing discussions among senators and stakeholders about a path forward.”

Let’s face it: Anti-LGBTQ forces have railroaded the debate by making the Equality Act about an end to women’s sports by allowing transgender athletes and danger to women in sex-segregated places like bathrooms and prisons. That doesn’t even get into resolving the issue on drawing the line between civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious freedom, which continues to be litigated in the courts as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected any day now to issue a ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia to determine if foster care agencies can reject same-sex couples over religious objections.

For transgender Americans, who continue to report discrimination and violence at high rates, the absence of the Equality Act may be most keenly felt.

Mara Keisling, outgoing executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, disputed any notion the Equality Act is dead and insisted the legislation is “very much alive.”

“We remain optimistic despite misinformation from the opposition,” Keisling said. “NCTE and our movement partners are still working fruitfully on the Equality Act with senators. In fact, we are gaining momentum with all the field organizing we’re doing, like phone banking constituents to call their senators. Legislating takes time. Nothing ever gets through Congress quickly. We expect to see a vote during this Congress, and we are hopeful we can win.”

But one Democratic source said calls to members of Congress against the Equality Act, apparently coordinated by groups like the Heritage Foundation, have has outnumbered calls in favor of it by a substantial margin, with a particular emphasis on Manchin.

No stories are present in the media about same-sex couples being kicked out of a restaurant for holding hands or transgender people for using the restroom consistent with their gender identity, which would be perfectly legal in 25 states thanks to the patchwork of civil rights laws throughout the United States and inadequate protections under federal law.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the American Unity Fund, which has bolstered the Republican-led Fairness for All Act as an alternative to the Equality Act, said he continues to believe the votes are present for a compromise form of the bill.

“I know for a fact there is a supermajority level of support in the Senate for a version of the Equality Act that is fully protective of both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom,” Deaton said. “There is interest on both sides of the aisle in getting something done this Congress.”

Deaton, however, didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry on what evidence exists of agreeing on this compromise.

Biden has already missed the goal he campaigned on in the 2020 election to sign the Equality Act into law within his first 100 days in office. Although Biden renewed his call to pass the legislation in his speech to Congress last month, as things stand now that appears to be a goal he won’t realize for the remainder of this Congress.

Nor has the Biden administration made the Equality Act an issue for top officials within the administration as it pushes for an infrastructure package as a top priority. One Democratic insider said Louisa Terrell, legislative affairs director for the White House, delegated work on the Equality Act to a deputy as opposed to handling it herself.

To be sure, Biden has demonstrated support for the LGBTQ community through executive action at an unprecedented rate, signing an executive order on day one ordering federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the fullest extent possible and dismantling former President Trump’s transgender military ban. Biden also made historic LGBTQ appointments with the confirmation of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health.

A White House spokesperson insisted Biden’s team across the board remains committed to the Equality Act, pointing to his remarks to Congress.

“President Biden has urged Congress to get the Equality Act to his desk so he can sign it into law and provide long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans, and he remains committed to seeing this legislation passed as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “The White House and its entire legislative team remains in ongoing and close coordination with organizations, leaders, members of Congress, including the Equality Caucus, and staff to ensure we are working across the aisle to push the Equality Act forward.”

But at least in the near-term, that progress will fall short of fulfilling the promise of updating federal civil rights law with the Equality Act, which will mean LGBTQ people won’t be able to rely on those protections when faced with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

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