Jim Graham, a gay attorney who won election to four terms on the D.C. City Council after serving for 15 years as executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic during the height of the AIDS epidemic, died Sunday, June 11 at George Washington University Hospital following complications associated with an intestinal infection. He was 71.
Graham’s passing came less than two weeks after he sent text messages to people he knew saying he had been in and out of the hospital for more than a month after being diagnosed with a bad case of C-Diff, a bacterial infection of the intestines that he said he contracted as a reaction to doctor prescribed antibiotics.
He said that although he had lost 25 pounds he was feeling better and would be transferred from G.W. Hospital to a rehabilitation center at Ingleside at Rock Creek retirement community to help in his recuperation.
But Christopher Watkins, who said he was Graham’s partner, told the Washington Blade that Graham’s condition worsened shortly after he was admitted to the rehab center and he was returned to G.W. Hospital on June 8, three days before he passed away.
Watkins said doctors told him Graham had suffered a cardiac-related complication that Watkins believes was triggered by the C-Diff infection.
LGBT activists who knew Graham say he played a key role in advancing the city’s fight against HIV/AIDS during the early years of the epidemic while serving as executive director of Whitman-Walker from 1984 to 1999.
Activists say he continued his advocacy for people with HIV/AIDS and became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights during his tenure on the City Council from 1999 to 2015, where he represented Ward 1 as a Democrat.
Graham, who was born in Scotland, grew up in the Detroit area after his parents immigrated to the U.S. He received an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and a law degree from the University Of Michigan School Of Law. He received an advanced law degree from Georgetown University.
His early career in the field of law included service as a law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren and later as a staff attorney for the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
Graham’s involvement with Whitman-Walker began in 1979, when he became a member of its board of directors. He was chosen as president of the board in 1981. He was named Whitman-Walker’s executive director in 1984.
With the AIDS epidemic hitting D.C. in full force at that time, Graham has said he and others at Whitman-Walker took steps to expand its operations and AIDS-related programs after determining that the federal government was not doing enough to respond to the epidemic.
Under his term as director, Whitman-Walker recruited more than 1,200 volunteers and expanded the staff to more than 250 full-time employees. In addition to its headquarters on 14th Street, N.W., Graham arranged for the opening of offices in Southeast D.C. and in suburban Maryland and Virginia.
In an interview with the Blade in December 2014, Graham told of how he personally provided legal advice to gay men dying of AIDS who had no financial resources and sometimes were shunned by their families.
“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 a death sentence in the ‘80s…without money in the bank, without insurance policies,” he said.
“The experience of going through life’s issues with people infected with HIV forged what I am about,” he said. “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.”
In what was considered an upset victory, Graham beat incumbent Council member Frank Smith in the 1998 Democratic primary for the Ward 1 Council seat. In the overwhelmingly Democratic ward, he easily won in the November general election, becoming the second openly gay member of the Council.
David Catania became the first out gay member of the Council in a special election in 1997.
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.
At the same time, Graham has been credited with pushing for economic development projects in his ward, especially in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, which has become one of the city’s major commercial and retail centers.
Among the bills Graham introduced and pushed through the Council or became a strong advocate for were the inclusion of transgender people as a protected class under the D.C. Human Rights Act; the enactment into law of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs; and funds for shelter beds for LGBT homeless youth.
Graham 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.
His problems began big time in September 2009 when his then chief of staff, Ted Loza, was arrested by the FBI for allegedly accepting a bribe in exchange for promising to push for a bill favorable to the taxi cab industry that was pending before a committee that Graham chaired.
Graham was never implicated in the scheme but negative publicity surrounding his chief of staff hurt him politically.
In a separate development, the city’s newly created Board of Ethics and Government Accountability in 2013 determined that Graham breached city ethics rules by asking a developer to withdraw its bid for a real estate project on land owned by Metro. The ethics board noted that Graham wanted another developer that had made contributions to Graham’s election campaigns in the past get the contract.
Graham insisted his motive was to benefit his ward by pushing for a developer he believed to be better qualified to win the contract. He called his actions a form of political horse trading, noting that he did not violate any law.
In the year leading up to his 2014 re-election campaign, Graham noted that the Washington Post published 27 separate editorials criticizing him over the ethics allegations.
Graham was defeated in the 2014 Democratic primary by political newcomer Brianne Nadeau, who aggressively raised the ethics allegations against Graham in her campaign.
Graham told the Blade he didn’t want to play the role of a victim, even though he believed the Post’s year-long campaign of attack editorials, which he considered unfair, were a strong factor in his defeat.
“But I really believe that with every door that closes another door opens,” he said. “I have the option of doing something different and I’ll be fine,” he said.
Much to the surprise of his former Council colleagues and many Ward 1 constituents, Graham announced in April 2015 that he had taken the position of special events director for The House, a nightclub on Georgia Avenue, N.W., that for more than 30 years featured nude female dancers.
In his new role, Graham said he would transform the adult nightclub every Sunday night into a male strip club catering to gay men. A short time later Graham said the interest by customers in male strippers on Sunday nights prompted the club’s owner to feature male strippers on Thursday nights as well.
At the time, Graham said he would also work part-time as a consultant for a non-profit organization called Clean and Sober, which is an alcohol and substance abuse recovery program. Throughout his political career Graham had been open about being a recovering alcoholic.
“I didn’t explore any full-time jobs with the government ultimately because I decided I didn’t want to be anywhere near the political vortex,” he told the Blade. “I’ve done that. End of story.”
Graham continued in his position at the nightclub until he became ill with the C-Diff intestinal infection in April. Customers and employees at the club as recently as last week expected Graham to return to work on Sunday and Thursday nights after recovering from his illness.
C-Diff is an abbreviation for a condition the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls Clostridium difficle, a bacterial infection in the intestines that it says can be triggered in older adults by antibiotics that hinder the body from fighting off C-Diff bacteria that are in the ambient environment.
Watkins, who said Graham had designated him as his next of kin, said he was in the process of making funeral arrangements that would include a memorial service. He said details of the arrangements would be announced shortly.