Jim Graham
Jim Graham Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Colorful former Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, an openly gay member who was known as a tireless advocate for the LGBT community and the poor, died Sunday after a recent illness at the age of 71, the D.C. Council confirms.

Graham, who was executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic for 15 years during the early years of the AIDS crisis, served on the D.C. Council from 1999 to 2015, leaving after being unseated in 2014 by Brianne Nadeau following a corruption scandal.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says Graham’s service was wide and deep. “Jim and I joined the Council in the same year,” he says in a statement. “We were classmates. Jim had a strong commitment to the District that predated his election to the Council. His work at Whitman-Walker Clinic in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was widely and highly regarded.

“On the Council, Jim worked especially hard on issues like homelessness, juvenile justice, diversity, and public transportation. The District thanks him for his long public service and many accomplishments. He left our city a better place.”

As the Blade reported last week, Graham’s death at George Washington University Hospital came less than two weeks after he notified friends and colleagues that he had suffered from a month-long illness known as C-Diff, a bacterial infection of the intestines that had him in and out of the hospital for several weeks. As of last week, the paper reported, he was in rehab trying to recover from the condition.

Graham had his foibles, not the least of which was the way he wielded power, particularly toward the end of his career. Exhibit A would be his insistence that a lottery subcontractor would have to give up a transportation-related contract in order to gain his support. 

But he never lost his sense of purpose where it counted most, and that was in standing up for the city’s least fortunate residents. His oversight of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, at a time of feckless leadership and scandalous activity inside a flailing agency, showed courage and conviction. He may not have succeeded in forcing a change of leadership, but at-risk youth had an advocate in the Wilson Building who did not turn away from problems that came on his oversight radar. He was principled in that regard, and compassionate.

“I offer my deepest condolences to the friends and family of Councilmember Graham,” Councilmember Nadeau says in a statement. “It was no secret that we did not always see eye to eye, but there was no question as to his deep love for the people of Ward 1. As a Councilmember, he leaves a legacy of fierce advocacy on behalf of District residents. As the director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, his tireless work fighting for LGBTQ rights and to end HIV/AIDS was pioneering and touched lives across the District and around the country.”

Bryan Weaver, a former ANC commissioner in Adams Morgan who lost a council challenge to Graham in 2010, says he may have disagreed with the councilmember about policy and machine politics but that Graham “was unparalleled in his understanding of his constituents and their needs.”

“Most people think of poverty only being hungry, naked, and homeless. Jim understood … that being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”

Weaver recalls Graham’s Christmas parties for the elderly and children in need, which “made forgotten people feel special and alive at a low point in their lives. It wasn’t just about their bellies being full. It was empowerment.”

He also “found ex-gang bangers work, helped small business people navigate the DCRA, and fought doggedly for tenants rights The only thing he asked in return was to remember him in the next election cycle.”

Kathy Patterson, the current D.C. auditor who served three terms as Ward 3 councilmember, recalls Graham as “a breath of fresh air” who questioned everything. 

“And he questioned the Council’s own budget,” she says. “He was smart and well-informed. One of his first issues had to do with the power of the Catholic Church, and he was relentless in pushing for health insurance broadly defined, and not limited by religious belief. We worked together on police department issues and protecting individual rights. The record will show he gave me a tough time in my confirmation hearing for this job, but then voted for the resolution. He was one of a kind and I know will be missed.”

Councilmember Elissa Silverman notes that he clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and says in a statement that she “admired his advocacy on behalf of some of our most vulnerable residents, fighting for poor and working families in our city on issues such as TANF. He was also a fierce defender of the needs of Ward 1 and his constituents.”

She adds, “I had a special appreciation for him as a colorful and dramatic figure in our city when I authored the Loose Lips for Washington City Paper.” 

And Ward 7 Councilmember and former Mayor Vince Gray says in a statement that he will miss his “friend” and former colleague.

Jim was hardworking, brilliant, unique, always fascinating, and a very skilled, thoughtful legislator. Our city is better because of Jim Graham’s efforts. I will miss him.”