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Light filtering through the front door’s frosted glass window welcomes tonight’s visitors into one of the District’s tidy 19th-century mansions. Once home of the Toutorsky Academy of Music, the four-story villa is now owned by a gay contractor who bought it for just under $1 million eight years ago, adorned it with fine antiques and paintings, and now offers it as a free venue for charity galas. At dusk, the glow from fluted glass fixtures illumines the faces of about 100 men and a handful of women in their 20s and 30s who huddle for a few minutes in the cavernous foyer.
In the mansion’s dining room, a few of the event’s hosts appear preoccupied as they straighten trays of fruit and cheese laid out on a 15-foot, carved-walnut conference table once owned by a New York City railroad magnate. About 30 of these men—a group of friends and their work colleagues who call themselves Team Big Wheel—helped organize tonight’s wine tasting and fundraiser. The team members have urged the guests to contribute to the AIDS Ride, a 350-mile bicycle marathon that yields $1.1 million each year for the Whitman-Walker clinic, Washington’s premier HIV/AIDS treatment and advocacy center. The team has donated some of the food and wine in an effort to encourage the guests to open their pockets, too. (This evening, Team Big Wheel will collect $1,500 in pledges.)
When Jim Graham, Whitman-Walker’s executive director, strolls in a few minutes later, he looks a mite haggard. The tiniest wisp has strayed from his usually neat cap of sandy hair. His neck bulges uncomfortably above his neat button-down collar and bow tie. Normally, Graham is scrupulously punctual and fastidious in both dress and manner. But since March, when he announced his bid for
the Ward 1 D.C. Council race against incumbent Frank Smith Jr., he has learned to tolerate his own tardiness. His ambitions for office have compelled him to squeeze campaign-planning sessions
and appearances into his already dense work days, prompting the tiniest crinkles in his otherwise
The Toutorsky crowd represents the kind of well-heeled men and women who have helped finance Whitman-Walker’s growth from a tiny gay and lesbian health center to a massive planned community that provides for AIDS patients’ every need. Liberal voters in the AIDS community form the corpus of Graham’s supporters in the council race. Nationally, the group represents a hugely important force in politics—they helped to elect Bill Clinton and strong-arm the federal government into funneling billions into AIDS research, housing, and treatment. The question of whether they can help Graham capture the most parochial of all political aims, a city council seat, will find an answer in this fall’s Democratic primary.
Graham holds out his 14-year Whitman-Walker stewardship as an example of his prospective leadership on the council. In that time, Graham has developed a reputation as a tough, detail-oriented director who exercises oversight on even the most insignificant decisions made by his underlings. The result is an internationally renowned cluster of AIDS clinics throughout urban and suburban D.C. that attracts millions in both federal and city funding. Now Graham promises to use his experience in delivering multiple services to a diverse, chronically needy population to remake crippled D.C. functions like public health care and trash removal. “I have something to contribute into making this a better city government: my skills and experiences in problem solving, service delivery, and in caring about particularly disadvantaged people,” declares Graham during an interview following the fundraiser. “What a councilmember does is, with dogged persistence—the kind of persistence I’ve applied to the AIDS crisis—lean on people, lean on systems and make them better.”
But while Graham has certainly been able to nourish an image of himself as the most significant and effective player in D.C.’s AIDS empire, many frustrated former Whitman-Walker executives assert that he has merely capitalized on and taken credit for the good works of an engaged gay community. Moreover, his critics say, Graham’s inability to relinquish control over even tiny decisions has alienated a host of potentially successful AIDS advocates. Many now form the core of Graham’s political opposition and have publicly endorsed other candidates.
Even Graham’s most loyal supporters see his council bid as a quest to build an empire even more vast and high-profile than the clinics. “He wants to be involved with something bigger than Whitman-Walker,” explains Jeff Travers, a Graham acolyte and the clinic’s development director.
But Graham watchers—allies and critics alike—caution that success in the council chambers requires a different kind of influence than the type he has exercised for most of his career: decision making by consensus, not by the dictates of a solitary boss. On the council, Graham would have a single vote, and his management would be limited to a small budget and a handful of employees. To broker improvements in government services, he would have to win the support of his fellow elected leaders, as well as persuading the city’s racially sensitive civil servants to adopt his reform efforts. He would not be able simply to issue edicts, the way a boss at a private agency can. “I think that the challenges of the District go far beyond anything that Jim Graham has ever really participated in,” says Jim Harvey, a former Whitman-Walker deputy administrator who has endorsed Frank Smith.
The practical challenges of obtaining office in the District and accomplishing something once he is there are at great remove from the Toutorsky event, however, where Graham moves easily among the gay moneyed elite. The September primary will go a long way toward determining whether he can be equally convincing outside the confines of gay and AIDS politics.
Graham stops a young woman who is admiring the Toutorsky furnishings in an attempt to blend the distinct worlds. “Do you live in Ward 1? Are you a Democrat?” he asks. “My name is Jim Graham. I’m running for change.”
Graham decided to campaign as a reformer a little over a year ago when he relocated to Ward 1, the most densely populated and diverse region of the city. The wealthy reaches of Kalorama Road, on the ward’s southwestern frontier, meld into Mount Pleasant’s middle-class quarters and on to Columbia Heights, where homeowners live elbow to elbow with tenants in subsidized rental units.
Young professionals, black and white, many of them gay, have begun to purchase and restore historic homes in a region extending north from U Street. The opening of the Metro station on U Street and a blossoming of clubs, restaurants, and fast-food establishments along U and 14th Streets have revived a corridor burnt out during the 1968 riots and abandoned to entropy for nearly two decades. Throughout the ward, Hispanic, Asian, and African immigrants invest in small enterprises or juggle double work schedules. The ward has the city’s largest Hispanic population, but a slight majority—51 percent—of its inhabitants are black.
Although many locals have made strides toward prosperity, a large number still remain impoverished and homeless. Median income among Ward 1 households is $26,798, or 13 percent below the $30,797 median among all District households. Clubs on U Street and in Adams Morgan attract few daytime visitors. Rats roam alleys, and drug dealers haunt street corners. Abandoned, boarded homes mar many blocks.
For 16 years, the Democratic incumbent, Frank Smith Jr., has represented the ward on a council that watched as District revenues seeped into a swelling pool of waste and mismanagement. The council, which approves city budgets, allowed expenditures to outpace revenues by nearly $500 million during the 1980s, as Mayor Marion Barry built a vast army of city employees willing to use their votes to help keep themselves or their relatives in power.
Smith has been closely allied with Barry’s administration, and the two men boast the same civil rights credentials, as former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He has benefited politically from Barry’s patronage machine and over the years has approved many of the swelling budgets and payrolls. Nevertheless, as the new head of the council’s revenue and finance committee, Smith is now trying to capitalize on the fact that the city budget has finally crossed into the black and registered millions in surplus—a feat engineered mostly by former Chief Financial Officer Tony Williams.
The incumbent also claims partial credit for the visible improvements along the U Street corridor. But Smith’s role in the area’s economic recovery is disputed by many Ward 1 political observers, who credit entrepreneurs, not government, for the economic revival.
Graham believes Smith’s association with the inflated Barry administrations render him vulnerable. Graham also asserts that the mayor’s exit from politics and the entrance of Williams into the mayoral race will help him by attracting more educated, mostly white, voters to the polls.
The clinic executive has also tried to assemble a campaign organization that reflects the ward’s diversity of ethnicity and sexual orientation in an effort to burnish his image as the man for all people—not just for white gays. His co-chairs are Stanley Allen, a black Democratic congressional aide, and Pat Patrick, the white past president of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association. Other members include Terry Lynch, the executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, who unsuccessfully ran for an at-large council seat in 1990; architect Geoffry Griffiths, a board member of the Development Corp. of Columbia Heights; and Rob Hodgson, a political consultant who is also working on Harold Brazil’s campaign. Former Ward 1 Chairman Peter Schott represents gay voters on the team, and entrepreneur Max Salas represents the Hispanic contingent.
The group meets on a Saturday in early May at Avignone Frères, an Adams Morgan restaurant that has added Latin food items to its menu as more Hispanics have moved into the neighborhood. Graham has chosen the venue carefully—the eatery also has become the trendy place to be seen by the ward’s political operatives—and both he and his companions interrupt the meeting from time to time to schmooze with neighborhood activists. (The incumbent Smith also uses the restaurant as a place to strategize with his political allies.)
Lynch, a man who works in a nexus of politics and religion, notes that Graham has many of the qualities of liberal politicians city voters have endorsed year after year: The candidate discovered politics during the anti-war protests of the ’60s. He was a top aide for Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), one of the more liberal members of Congress. He has lobbied on the Hill for the rights of AIDS patients and IV drug users. Because Graham is a recovering alcoholic, Lynch also sees him as a role model for the hundreds who wander glassy-eyed through the ward’s burnt-out corridors hustling for money to feed their addictions. Graham has promised to work toward boosting substance abuse treatment funding.
Lynch also believes that Graham’s brand of benevolent authoritarian leadership reflects the desires of many activists, who are frustrated with what they consider an unresponsive city government and with their local link to that body, Councilmember Smith.
“Jim has clearly proven that he can build an organization that can provide services,” Lynch will say after the conference ends. “Frank Smith cannot. He can’t cut down the dead trees in my block or keep the alleys clean. Jim has gone from zero in the AIDS organization to build a multi-million-dollar organization that provides food, treatment, housing. That tells me why he would be better as a councilman.”
But Graham’s success in local politics will depend on his ability to woo voters—poor and wealthy; black, Hispanic, and white—untouched by his clinic’s influence and his own pretensions to power. The circle gathered at the table today acknowledges that Smith has proven himself an efficient vote-gatherer among the most diverse groups. He has defeated all challengers in successive elections. Several other, less prominent Ward 1 residents also have opened campaign accounts to run for the seat on the Democratic ticket: Baruti Jahi, a Howard University student pursuing a doctorate in political science, Lenwood Johnson, a former Smith staffer, and Todd Mosley, the head of a charity he created for Ward 1 youths, have registered on the Democratic ticket. Scott McLarty has filed as a candidate on behalf of the Green Party, and Nik Eames will represent the Umoja Party in the November election.
Graham’s advisors don’t even discuss these newcomers to the political arena, believing Smith their main target. To surmount the years of loyalty Smith has built up, Graham focuses his efforts on disillusioned black and newly registered white, Hispanic, and gay voters. In their plans, his advisors divide the ward into regions dominated by particular races or ethnicities. To lure black voters, Patrick, a real estate broker, proposes opening Graham’s office at Georgia Avenue and Otis Streets, in the predominantly black neighborhoods on the ward’s eastern regions. Graham sees other advantages: “An office in the west will impress people in the east.”
Schott considers Graham’s move to Georgia Avenue a necessity: “He has to show he’s not afraid to go over there.”
Salas, a political novice, counters that the Hispanic business community would be more impressed with a campaign centered in Adams Morgan, on the west side of 16th Street NW, which basically separates the predominantly black Ward 1 neighborhoods from the more diverse neighborhoods on the ward’s west side. But the veterans at the table know better, and they veto his proposals. “Smith didn’t get a single vote west of 16th Street,” Lynch tells his colleagues. “We’re going to get
the west vote.”
The advisors also try to map out Graham’s campaign expenditures. By March 10, the close of the last official reporting period, Graham had raised $63,300, and he expects that figure to reach $110,000 by the end of June. (By June 2nd, he had raised $93,000.) Money won’t be a big problem, but if Graham wants to reach out to the majority population in the ward, the group believes he must hire a black campaign manager. So far, Graham hasn’t been able to find anyone he can trust. In March, he parted ways with Jocelyn Woodard, an experienced national campaign organizer whom Graham met during the 1997 AIDS Ride. Neither will comment on the split, but Woodard, a Chicago native, admits that she doesn’t know much about D.C. For his part, Graham complains that he’s had trouble finding a “qualified” black person to replace Woodard—a claim he returns to whenever he’s questioned about his relationship with D.C.’s predominantly black communities.
Later, during one of his own conferences at Avignone Frères, Smith will cite Graham’s campaign troubles as an indication of a giant hole in Graham’s candidacy. “He’s spent his whole life advocating for the most privileged people in the world: white men,” Smith insists. “You can never find any indication in the past that Jim is concerned about the trash in the alley. There’s no indication that he gives a damn about the whole myriad of problems that affect Ward 1 voters.”
Smith also objects to Graham’s promoting himself as a political reformer, pointing out that Graham has held fundraisers in his home for both Barry and former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, as well as a host of council members. In addition, Councilmember Carol Schwartz has remained on Whitman-Walker’s board of directors for nearly a decade, and Councilmember Sandy Allen has served on the community advisory board for Whitman-Walker’s Anacostia clinic, the Max Robinson Center. Graham also headed the health-care committees for both Barry’s and Kelly’s transition teams and is now on the board of directors for the Public Benefits Corp., which runs D.C. General Hospital and a string of publicly financed clinics. “If you believe the story of my being Barry’s friend, you have to believe that Jim’s an insider, too,” observes Smith. “He built his empire under the Barry administration. He built it and profited substantially under the Barry administration. He was an insider: He was so good at it [that] when everything else was being cut in the funding crisis, the funding for Whitman-Walker continued to go up.”
Graham, 52, became Whitman-Walker’s top administrator in 1984, as HIV was taking root in the gay community. That year, the clinic’s staff opened the city’s first medical program devoted solely to the treatment of AIDS. During his tenure, Whitman-Walker has expanded to keep pace with the epidemic’s avaricious growth, and today the clinic boasts an international reputation for its 22 service departments on four campuses in urban and suburban D.C. Graham claims he has raised $75 million in private funds to support the center’s mission, by himself.
“Whitman-Walker has assumed a major burden of caring for the community of HIV patients,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Under Jim Graham’s leadership and his energy, the Whitman-Walker Clinic has clearly emerged as the national model of how it should be done: They provide health-care services, counseling, education, and prevention, and they do it very, very well.”
Under Graham’s leadership, Whitman-Walker created the District’s first AIDS housing programs and dental-care clinics. Its ophthalmology center has prevented AIDS-related blindness among many of its 1,800 patients. Graham and the clinic staff have also lobbied in Congress for key legislation to assist AIDS patients and their families.
The clinic so closely echoes Graham’s own values and preoccupations that much of its $11 million real estate portfolio reflects his penchant for turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts furniture and design. The $1.2 million Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, built in 1992, features solid oak doors and wainscotting and faux stained-glass light fixtures—all replicas of early-20th-century housing motifs.
But while building his empire, Graham has weathered constant criticism, much of it from the legions of former employees and volunteers who have fled the chaos and misery of the clinic’s daily contest with death. The critics fault Graham for his opulent lifestyle: He currently earns $140,000, plus a $10,000 performance bonus, and owns a tony Ontario co-op in Adams Morgan. His 1997 Saab convertible is valued at $32,000. Twice, the Washington Post has featured his collection of turn-of-the-century antiques in its Home pages.
“After a while, it became obvious to me there was a lot of ego involved,” says Dr. Henry “Rusty” Wray, who ran the clinic’s dental program from 1988 to 1994. “I got the feeling I was working for the clients and he was working for himself.”
Graham points out that his six-figure income is not out of line with that of any charity director responsible for a multi-million-dollar agency. Whitman-Walker has doubled its budget in the last half-decade, from $10.2 million in fiscal 1993 to $20.5 million in fiscal 1997. But his argument is a bit circular, given that his salary and the clinic’s fortunes have risen hand in hand. The clinic’s spectacular expansion parallels no similar increase in new AIDS cases; in fact, the disease has reached a plateau in the area. “AIDS cases in the District of Columbia have leveled off during the period of 1995-1996,” says the Administration for HIV/AIDS 1998 report HIV/AIDS Trends in the District of Columbia. (The report cautions against comparing annual AIDS statistics across the decade because of 1993 changes in federal definitions of the disease.)
Opponents also question why Whitman-Walker has enjoyed an almost exclusive dominion over local and federal government funds—from 1984 to 1992, the clinic was one of the only private providers of AIDS services and consumed nearly all of the federal AIDS funding for the city. From fiscal year 1990 to fiscal year 1997, the D.C. government subsidized the clinic’s employee health insurance premiums to the tune of $1 million a year—an odd gratuity in the time of the city’s own financial crisis.
Graham’s presidency of the National Alliance of People With AIDS (NAPWA), along with the clinic’s donation of $50,000 to the organization, also is criticized as an example of the overarching power Graham wields in the AIDS community. Wayne Turner of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP believes that NAPWA should be an independent advocacy organization for AIDS patients, unfettered by Graham’s influence. NAPWA’s executive director Cornell Baker, who is also a Whitman-Walker board member, disagrees. He offers nothing but accolades for Graham and the clinic, and at the same time insists that NAPWA is an autonomous advocate for clinic clients and others across the nation.
Baker, who is black, also praises the clinic for its treatment of minorities, both within the ranks of the staff and within the community. But the clinic and Graham have a history of difficult and complicated relationships with blacks.
Jim Harvey, the clinic’s past deputy administrator, and Ernest Hopkins, a former D.C. advocate for minority AIDS services, blame Graham for failing to use public dollars early on to help create smaller, grass-roots clinics, particularly among minority communities. Instead, Graham led the staff in multiplying Whitman-Walker’s own departments.
“I think the clinic is very good about reaching out and bringing [African-American] people to the table who are high-profile, and letting people know that they are at the table,” says Harvey. “[But] they could be far more effective and gain the respect of the broader community if they would share the resources, if they would teach others what they had learned and be a supportive institution in building the community.”
In the early ’90s, Harvey and a group of other black workers frustrated by what they considered poor treatment of minorities within the clinic created a rival AIDS organization. IMPACT-DC was meant to advocate for black patients—but its founders never could establish a stable organization.
In 1992, after leaving the clinic, Harvey (who had resigned from Whitman-Walker to run for a council seat) led a demonstration in front of the District’s Health and Human Services office, demanding that more AIDS money be devoted to black-run community organizations, according to writer Elinor Burkett in The Gravest Show on Earth, an investigation of AIDS activism. Harvey and Burkett assert that the clinic’s dominance prevented other, smaller organizations from gaining any expertise in AIDS care delivery. At that time, Burkett reports, only 20 percent of the District’s federal HIV/AIDS dollars were dispensed to minority-run charities.
Marion Barry, then a councilmember, took advantage of the imbroglio and lambasted the city’s “disproportionate” distribution of AIDS spoils. By that time, Mayor Kelly had already cajoled Graham into opening the Max Robinson Center in Anacostia. Graham himself searched for the little available commercial space in the neighborhood. In the end, he accommodated Kelly, built a showpiece clinic, and invited Councilwoman Sandy Allen to join the branch’s community advisory board.
But AIDS has never been particularly prevalent in Anacostia. Historically, Ward 8 has ranked low in the numbers of AIDS sufferers—in 1995 (the latest year for which figures are available), it was sixth among the eight wards in the number of AIDS deaths. It has always been important politically, however—a Barry stronghold and an important region for Kelly, as well. Though Graham says AIDS statistics are unreliable, he acknowledges that the disease has not been the scourge east of the river that it has been in Wards 1 and 2, for example. Still, he insists that one day it will be, because IV drug use in the neighborhood is increasing.
Opening a clinic near Anacostia’s main street failed to stave off other criticisms as well. Graham’s hand-picked director was soon found to have falsified his qualifications and was dismissed. To his critics, the directorship problem epitomized his relationship with the black community. Had Graham been sincere in his desire to serve blacks, they argue, he would have hired the best person available in the first place. “This is something [Graham and others] thought they could do—put some black face over there to run Max Robinson and expect people to respond favorably, despite the fact that Whitman-Walker is a white-run institution,” Harvey complains.
Eventually, Graham promoted an experienced administrator, Barbara Chinn, to direct the Max Robinson Center, which currently serves 700 patients. But Graham views Max Robinson as a financial albatross. “Nobody was writing us a check to build it,” Graham asserts. “They just said, ‘You find the money; you create the financing.’ Today it’s a largely subsidized endeavor. We subsidize it.”
Graham boasts he’s the only clinic director anywhere in America to open such a clinic in a black, urban neighborhood. He points out that under his leadership the clinic sponsored the first-ever AIDS forum designed for people of color.
But whenever Graham mentions race, his throat tightens. His terse voice turns to a bark. “If we don’t support black community based-organizations, we’re accused of hogging the money,” he says. “If we do support them, they are our vassals.”
Whitman-Walker’s recent beneficence also could be considered pragmatic. Since 1992 federal and local AIDS funds have been more widely distributed to a whole roster of community organizations. The competing groups are encouraged to share resources, and generosity wins points when grants are handed out. Still, Whitman-Walker receives $1.7 million in federal treatment funds—the largest amount granted to a single private D.C. agency. The vast majority of its clients are black gay men.
“Whitman-Walker is probably one of the best examples of a multi-million-dollar industry that has grown out of this disease,” concludes Harvey, who now runs a Chicago public health clinic. “That’s a two-edged sword. Some wonderful people have emerged through this struggle; on the other hand, it’s an industry that, like any other, unfortunately gets lost in issues around dollars and cents, and you lose touch with the human factor.”
On the third floor of Whitman-Walker’s headquarters at 14th and S Streets NW, a photograph shows the clinic director rapt in an apparently intimate conversation with Elizabeth Taylor, one of the key funders and celebrity spokespeople of the AIDS-care cotillion.
A similar photograph hangs just inside Graham’s office. His smiling countenance also graces many of the hundreds of images displayed on his office wall, which show him embracing patients who have since died or schmoozing with the wealthy and powerful donors who helped Graham and the volunteers and staffers create and operate Whitman-Walker. Replicas of Arts and Crafts furniture he keeps in his office mirror the authentic turn-of-the-century pieces he keeps in his apartment. Together, the photos and the furniture amplify the sense that Graham’s life and dreams are so intimately tied to the clinic that he blurs the boundaries. “My name is on every piece of direct mail that leaves the office,” he observes as he briskly prepares for a board meeting. “We have tens of thousands of [donors and volunteers] who think that Jim Graham is doing a great job.”
Two of Graham’s most loyal staff members, Development Director Jeff Travers and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Dan White, say the director’s self-praise is partly valid. Only recently has Graham learned to let others make significant decisions, they say. (During three hours of interviews, Graham credits only one other person with any innovations or achievements at the clinic.) “Jim is pretty much responsible for building Whitman-Walker,” says White. White has remained loyal to Graham despite the fact that Graham and the board of directors effectively demoted him—after he worked 60 hours a week for five years, setting up and maintaining the clinic’s financial system.
During the early days of AIDS, Graham flew to San Francisco to review treatment models that would eventually lead to the clinic’s “buddy” system—the pairing of patients with volunteers to take care of their needs. He went back to the West Coast to evaluate housing programs and, on his return, supervised the construction of the clinic’s first home for AIDS patients and their families.
He dived into legal advocacy work for patients while at the same time trying to run the organization—the center was so small that he had to play a critical role in day-to-day operations. Rich Moonblatt, an advertising executive who served on the Whitman-Walker board of directors from 1985 to 1991, recalls “holding clients’ hands” while Graham prepared their wills. The executive director even tried to attend as many funerals as he could. “I have a bow tie, which is black, which has little tiny white dots, and I’ve worn this tie to virtually every memorial service, right from the beginning,” he says, rubbing the wrinkles on his forehead and sighing. “I’ve never had that tie laundered.” He shakes his head, sighs, and leans down. “I wore it once—not at a memorial service—I spoke at World AIDS Day several years ago. I began to describe the bow tie and what it means to me, and I collapsed, emotionally.”
By 1987 the staff had swelled to 40 and the corps of volunteers to 750, but Graham continued to interview every prospective employee. Fifty percent plus one of the board of directors, by clinic rules, must be elected by the volunteers, a group that looks to Graham for leadership. Department supervisors report that he managed to control even minor decisions made by his underlings and take credit for their successes. Graham himself attributes the success of the organization to his own preoccupation with the tiniest details. “If I didn’t micro-manage, Whitman-Walker wouldn’t exist,” he asserts.
But a half-dozen former and current employees and volunteers say that Graham’s penchant for control also destabilizes the organization by driving up the employee turnover rate. Two former directors report hearing Graham “scream” at people who did not meet expectations that were never defined or explained in the first place. Even two of Graham’s most enthusiastic supporters can recall high-volume tirades over trifles. Graham says these directors misunderstand him. “When it comes to people’s jobs and people’s reputations, I’m extraordinarily careful,” he avers. “Are there times I am emotional? [Yes.] But screaming? In the memorable past the number of people I’ve raised my voice to in a serious way I can count on one hand. There are times when I can be theatrical, but it’s just a tool in a toolbox I’ve used for that day.”
Graham’s ability to create a fair working environment also has been challenged by former Whitman-Walker associates. According to Michelle Thompson, a union organizer, Graham maintained no standardized salary schedules, job evaluation processes, training programs, or disciplinary procedures, though the staff had swelled to nearly 200 by 1994 and the volunteers to 2,000. Employees in direct-service positions who had firsthand knowledge of a very complicated disease complained that they shared little in the decision making. Graham became the final arbiter, and staff could not predict which way his decisions would fall. “It was kind of like you never knew what would happen,” recalls Thompson, a lawyer for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. Thompson worked for two years on a fellowship at Whitman-Walker before joining the union. “People were very scared and felt like they couldn’t say anything.”
Though Graham denies that clinic employees feared for their jobs, he blames weak deputy administrators for failing to create an internal management apparatus. Graham also says he never had time to put management systems in place, because he could trust only himself to make critical decisions, and he himself had to learn how to run a clinic by doing it.
Dinah Wiley, a former legal services director who still volunteers at the clinic, supports Graham’s assertion that the clinic was too busy to develop any sophisticated structure. She attributes the low morale and high turnover to employees’ helplessness in the face of what until two years ago was a sure killer. “We were serving new clients every month,” recalls Wiley, who left in 1995. “We were fielding three, four, five thousand telephone calls, with a small staff and a huge volunteer program. It was all we could do to keep up with it. We were always screaming for more staff and trying to raise money to expand—to have more staff, more people to supervise volunteers, and more ways to recruit volunteers.”
Staff members considered unionizing as early as 1991. Their efforts paid off in 1994 when union leaders approached Graham. He assured the organizers that he would not interfere and encouraged his employees to vote. Graham says this enthusiastic support of the union proves him a fair manager. But Thompson attributes his cooperation to a desire to save on costly litigation, not to enlightened management.
The union held its first election in December 1994, and by the following October, Graham had signed the first labor contract. The most recent management-union agreement, approved this past December, created a 35-hour workweek and an automatic annual pay increase ranging from 4 percent to 4 1/2 percent, with wages to be renegotiated in the year 2000.
The following year, the board recruited an experienced charity director to take over the center’s internal management. Rosemary O’Rourke, who had run a group of mental health clinics in Pennsylvania, began to institute the management systems Graham had eschewed. When they disagreed on major issues, upon O’Rourke’s insistence, she brought in a management consultant to settle matters. Three times, the pro bono consultant has had to mediate between the two. In this way, O’Rourke has demonstrated her determination to create internal structures. With Graham’s eventual support, O’Rourke introduced leadership training for managers and formed “work-life” committees to give the staff more influence over the clinic’s operations.
But despite the fact that Graham did not introduce any such systems during the first 12 years of his stewardship, he takes credit “with Rosemary’s help,” for their eventual institution. With O’Rourke now in charge of internal clinic operations, he no longer has to oversee every department.
Whitman-Walker is now at an important crossroads; Graham’s purview stands to be reduced even more. O’Rourke and Graham, with the board’s approval, have agreed to divide the clinic into two organizations in order to increase its access to federal funding. The clinic’s operations will be separate from its fund-raising arm. O’Rourke is positioned to direct the treatment branch, Graham to head up development. “I believe Jim still meets every single person who comes in new. He still likes to pay attention to detail,” reports Mary Coleman Spring, a Graham fan who left the clinic in 1995 after six years as human resources director. “I think it’s been a challenge for him to let go of that.”
Despite an overcast sky and chill wind, Graham joins about 50 youths at the playground behind Garnet-Patterson Middle School on a Saturday in early May. Attired in discount-store shirts and worn jeans, they aren’t the cadre of sophisticates with whom Graham normally associates. He seeks out the adults, who stand near the boxes of tulips and marigolds laid out for planting. The rest of the playground is dusty and unadorned. “I’m running for change,” he tells a white couple in their 30s. These professionals wear designer dungarees. The woman carries an infant in a Kelty baby backpack. “For change?” she echoes, “We need it.”
The kids and their adult chaperones pull over their heads white T-shirts that read: “Fifth Annual U Street Cleanup.” Graham dons one of his own red, white, and blue shirts, which advertise his promise to make “change for the better” and to fight to prevent and treat substance abuse. Three black men in their 30s escort Graham; he met them all during recent talks at treatment programs and homeless shelters, and now they are supporting his election bid. His friend carries Graham’s shirts. They await their orders from Graham. Shovels, rakes, hoes, and other gardening implements are bundled and lined up along the brick wall of a school outbuilding.
Graham already has begun to make inroads among residents near the school. One of his most ardent supporters, Paul Williams, a gay professional who owns a house near the U Street corridor, is holding a shovel when the candidate arrives. Williams represents the new generation of homeowners who consider their neighborhood an urban frontier, who are restless for improvements. But the Saturday cleanup affords Graham an opportunity to mingle with people of all genders, sexual orientations, age groups, and ethnic and racial backgrounds. His approach, so magical with his group of powerful gay clinic donors, wins no accolades from a black banker or the school’s black principal. They chat amiably with him, but they do not offer him anything resembling support. After a somewhat awkward silence, Graham sidles over to his buddies.
As the candidate walks away from the Garnet-Patterson principal, she remains on the field for a few moments overseeing the cleanup activities. It’s a busy workday for her: Some community members have dropped off clothes to donate to her students, and a teachers’ meeting is scheduled. Other candidates and elected leaders are supposed to stop by to lend their support for the cleanup. By midday, only Graham has picked up tools and joined in the work. But even that effort fails to impress the busy principal. “I’ve never seen Jim Graham before in my life,” she exclaims. “And if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”CP