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Mercurial AIDS activist Steve Michael, D.C.’s answer to the Unabomber, is running for president of the United States.
That’s the punch line.
But a growing number of people won’t find much humor in Michael’s candidacy, including President Bill Clinton, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Bob Ebel, the city’s gay establishment, the Washington Blade, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and landlords trying to collect rent and damages from their former tenant—just to name a few.
All of the above have been targets of Michael’s menacing tactics and tirades, outbursts that sometimes degenerate into shoving, punching, and beer-throwing. Local gay leaders denounce Michael, the head of ACT UP Washington, as “ineffective.” Opponents frequently use much less complimentary terms like “lowlife,” “bottom-feeder,” and “terrorist” when discussing their nemesis. But almost no one will slam Michael on the record for fear of retaliation.
“There is a species of AIDS terrorist somewhere near the bottom of the food chain that is to be found at the bottom of this epidemic,” observes a prominent gay leader, “and Steve Michael is to be found at the very bottom.”
“This is more than just somebody who is mildly eccentric. But people won’t speak up because they are genuinely afraid,” he says.
The aspiring president’s reputation for violence was reinforced June 22 when Michael was arrested for attacking a group of PETA demonstrators. Michael was charged with assaulting the activists as they picketed against meat-eaters outside Trumpets restaurant on Q Street NW. Michael said he confronted the animal rights protesters over an AIDS issue: PETA opposes animal tests in medical research, and scientists are using animals to investigate AIDS drugs. In an interview following his latest altercation, Michael dubbed the PETA demonstrators “spoiled brats who put the life of a lab rat above the lives of those with AIDS.”
The good news for Clinton—who’s no doubt quaking at the prospect of facing Michael in the New Hampshire primary—is that Michael couldn’t even collect the 25 signatures he needed last fall to place his name on the ballot for the Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) elections. The bad news for the president is that Michael is running in the Democratic primary primarily to hold Clinton accountable for the promise he made during the 1992 campaign to launch a Manhattan Project-style search for an AIDS cure. Clinton made that pledge after Michael and other gay activists dogged him around the country during that campaign, extracting promises on a number of gay issues.
To call Michael a long shot would amount to flattery—it’s roughly equivalent to saying Michael Jackson is a long shot to knock out Mike Tyson. It also gives the avid self-promoter the kind of publicity he constantly craves. Michael says he aims to win 300 delegates in the primaries and secure a spot onstage for himself during next year’s Democratic national convention in Chicago.
“If I get 300 delegates, then we’re there, and AIDS has 20 minutes on national television during prime time,” says Michael, who plans to announce his candidacy later this month.
Given Michael’s track record, President Clinton should worry less about losing convention delegates to the AIDS activist and more about having a suit ruined by a Michael assault. Clinton should consult with Rep. Gunderson. Last December, Michael doused Gunderson with beer at the Green Lantern gay bar. Gunderson, now described in the gay press as a “self-admitted” homosexual, has been the target of activists for the past five years for refusing to reveal his sexual preference and work actively in Congress on AIDS and other gay issues.
Michael denies that he is violent; he says he’s just angry at people who divert his attention and energy from the AIDS crisis. “I do not take kindly to people who stop our work and make us deal with things that don’t matter to me,” he says. “That’s what I get furious over; you’ve stolen my time.”
“If that seems violent, or sounds violent, fine,” he adds.
Councilmember Evans is another local politician who has incurred the wrath of Michael. When Evans failed to mention AIDS in his constituent newsletter last year, Michael launched a recall effort, but failed to collect enough signatures from Ward 2 voters to force a special election. A second attempt failed when the deadline for collecting signatures passed at the end of May, but Michael is threatening to try a third recall campaign.
But no one has angered Michael as much as Logan Circle ANC Commissioner Ebel, who succeeded in getting Michael’s business, the Thrift Shop, closed down last yearfor numerous trash and fire code violations. The firm, which had been located at 1337 14th St. NW, bought furniture, clothing, and other items from AIDS victims at little or no cost and resold them, ostensibly to raise money for AIDS programs. But LL could find no local AIDS organizations that received money from the shop or from the newspaper, Fag Boy News, that Michael says he publishes for the same purpose. Local gay leaders speculate that Michael and two or three friends, who account for most of the membership of ACT UP Washington, lived off the Thrift Shop’s proceeds. Michael claims that the enterprise, which he refers to as the AIDS Resource Center, was making a profit of several thousand dollars a month before it was shut down. But he bristles at the question of where the money went and refuses to answer.
“I’m an AIDS activist. I’m in the streets fighting for people with AIDS every day,” he replies irately.
After Ebel complained to city inspectors about the Thrift Shop’s messiness, Michael launched a campaign to recall the ANC commissioner, claiming that Ebel “planted” mattresses, furniture, and garbage behind the Thrift Shop because Ebel is “homophobic.” Ebel vehemently denies that charge.
Michael’s recall of Ebel fizzled—he didn’t collect enough signatures—and the activist then filed to run against the Logan Circle ANC commissioner in last fall’s elections. But he was forced to run as a write-in candidate because—guess what?—he failed to gather the 25 needed signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot. Michael campaigned vigorously, plastering Logan Circle and environs with posters proclaiming, “Ebel Is Evil.” He also aligned himself with Luther Place Memorial Church in the battle with Logan Circle residents, including Ebel, over the church’s controversial shelter for homeless women. The Rev. John Steinbruck of Luther Place, eager for allies, embraced Michael’s support in the community battle.
But Michael lost the election, and subsequently was evicted from his residence and his business on 14th Street for nonpayment of rents at both locations. After Michael’s departure, the landlords found their properties trashed. At one, cement was poured down the toilet. But neither landlord has taken Michael to court: They’re scared he might strike back. Michael filed for bankruptcy in 1994 to forestall his creditors.
“He’s a very angry, nasty, and, I think, sick, person,” offers a worried Logan Circle resident, “but we’re all very scared about retaliation.”
Michael is now carrying the banner for the Crew Club, a 24-hour hangout for gay men. The club, down the block from Michael’s former business, has been attacked in the gay and straight community as just another sex club where safe-sex practices are being ignored. But Michael defends it as “an important venue” for disseminating AIDS education and safe-sex information.
“That’s why it is under attack,” he claims.
This all seems like a dubious background from which to launch a national political campaign, but Michael vows to proceed, undaunted by all the “hits” he says he is taking for being an AIDS activist. Besides, he plans a few hits of his own against anyone who endorses Clinton’s AIDS policies.
“You don’t defend this president’s record on AIDS and not expect a hit from us,” he warns.
With Michael, that could mean anything from a tongue-lashing to a beer in the face to cement in the plumbing.
After outgoing D.C. Police Chief Fred Thomas rescued a Northeast woman from two pit bulls last week, government watchdog Marie Drissel sent the chief a floral arrangement in the shape of a dog. The arrangement was addressed to “Top Dog” from “D.C. Citizen Rottweiler,” and commended Thomas for a job well done. Drissel was named “D.C. Citizen Rottweiler” of the year June 20 by the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations for her loud bark and big bite on local matters….
Speaking of the federation, 75 people showed up for its June 20 annual banquet despite a bitter division within the organization that had threatened to cancel this year’s event (see “Loose Lips,” 6/23, for all the gory details). More than 60 of those in attendance paid for their dinners, said federation President Stephen Koczak, which means his organization did not lose money on the banquet as it has in past years. Banquet Chairman and federation Secretary Guy Gwynne had tried to cancel the event after his faction in the dispute failed to install its candidate as president at the federation’s June 8 meeting. When Koczak learned of the cancellation a week before the event, he immediately dismissed Gwynne as banquet chairman and reinstated the affair. The federation met on June 29 to try to resolve its internal conflict, but the meeting turned into a near riot….
Cora Masters Barry may be Lady MacBarry to LL, but D.C. government employees increasingly are using another name to refer to the District’s first lady—“Cobra Barry.” Government workers resent the way Lady MacBarry often acts as the city’s co-mayor by ordering them around, and they had hoped that her just-completed trip to Africa, the second in less than two months, would soften her up a bit. All LL can say is, don’t hold your breath….
Many supporters of the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL) are ecstatic that the organization has finally found a real preservationist to lead it. During the league’s June meeting, members elected architect Sally Berk as their president. Berk is known as an ardent defender of the city’s architectural heritage. DCPL’s board has long been dominated by developers and their allies, who have successfully minimized DCPL opposition to planned building. That developer dominance was evident in the league’s struggle over the proposed downtown sports arena. Seven league board members have professional or personal ties to that project, which explains why it took DCPL so long to come up with a position. In May, DCPL at last took a stand: The group opposes the arena’s current design because it requires altering the original plan for the District drawn by Pierre L’Enfant….
For those who believe that low self-esteem accounts for poor performance and underachievement by African-American students in public schools, check out the research papers presented by Howard University professor Serge Madhere at last weekend’s convention of the American Psychological Society in New York. Madhere and four of his graduate students, analyzing responses from a pool of 10,000 D.C. high schoolers, found that self-esteem was high among African-American adolescents, higher, in some cases, than among their white counterparts.