Michael Weinstein Might Have Diagnosed What's Wrong With L.A. — But Can He Fix It?
Michael Weinstein is eager to cast his three campaigns as battles against evil institutions — prescription drug companies, pornographers and developers.
Michael Weinstein peers out the window of his corner office on the 21st floor. Hollywood is growing all around him. In every direction, there are construction cranes, dirt pits and street closures.
"It's just ungodly," he says.
Two blocks to the north, on the east side of Argyle, a construction pit consumes an entire city block. This will be a seven-story, 513-unit apartment building, with retail on the first floor. Another block to the north, a 16-story, 225-room hotel is going up. To the east, Weinstein can point to a half-dozen newly constructed buildings, shiny metallic things glittering in the afternoon sun.
"It's just going to be a collection of sore thumbs, this whole area," says Weinstein, who's doing his best to halt the encroaching concrete and steel.
But for Weinstein, the worst is yet to come. Last month, the L.A. City Council gave its stamp of approval to the Palladium Residences, a 30-story, 731-unit mixed-use development to be built around and on top of the historic Hollywood concert venue and its parking lot — right across the street from his office.
"It's one of the most dense things that's being proposed anywhere in the area," he says. "So yeah, I have a bird's-eye view of all the crap."
Weinstein has come to occupy a unique place in California politics. As the founder and president of an international, billion-dollar nonprofit, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, he is a CEO of sorts but also a health care provider, an advocate and an activist. Whereas in the past his portfolio of causes hewed closely to his foundation's core mission — HIV prevention and care — he is set to expand his sphere of influence to include urban planning, specifically stemming the tide of "mega-developments" that he believes afflicts Hollywood.
Along with the likes of Tom Steyer and Charles Munger Jr., Weinstein has become one of California's premier citizen legislators, individuals who go around legislators by taking their causes directly to voters. But unlike them, Weinstein isn't a billionaire and isn't spending his own money. He's using his nonprofit to fund and push for his chosen causes; he alone decides how AHF spends its money and what political stances it takes.
Steve Schulte, a former employee and former board member of AHF, uses the word "fascistic," almost nervously, when describing Weinstein. He recalls one meeting during which his then-boss informed AHF department heads that they were not to publicly disagree with the foundation's political views. "He went around the room and said, to each one, 'Will you promise not to speak against AHF?'"
"I hated the organization," Schulte says. "I loved the work they did. Michael has a sort of genius for the entrepreneurial work in AIDS care. But he is just a megalomaniac."
Under Weinstein's leadership, AHF has grown in the course of three decades from a single AIDS hospice in Elysian Park into a $1.3 billion organization serving more than 600,000 patients in 36 countries through numerous clinics, pharmacies and a chain of thrift stores. It is, as Weinstein likes to point out, the largest AIDS organization in the world.
It also advocates for legislation — often divisively. Weinstein has become the de facto spokesman for what you might call the "condoms first" approach to HIV prevention. He's angered many of his fellow AIDS activists by speaking out against PrEP, the first HIV-prevention pill that purports to be 99 percent effective if taken every day.
"He [subscribes] to the Larry Kramer view of why HIV killed all of his friends," longtime AIDS activist Peter Staley says. "And that is because gay men had too much nasty gay sex. And the only way we're going to save ourselves is to be ashamed of how we had sex in the past, and we need to wear condoms until the day we die."
Staley isn't alone. Weinstein's personal brand of activism has earned him many adversaries.
"As someone who has been involved in HIV and LGBT issues for 30-plus years, I cannot take away all the good things Michael has done through AHF," says longtime West Hollywood political consultant Steve Afriat, a lobbyist for the Palladium project. "He's helped a lot of people. It doesn't mean that the organization can become his personal treasury for his private causes. That's just wrong."
AHF is a nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)3. Its stated purpose, according to its articles of incorporation, is "the provision of hospice and health care services to AIDS, HIV and other patients, and engaging in related educational activities."
"The foundation appears to be acting beyond its authorized purposes," says Lloyd Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School. However, the only people who would have grounds to take action against AHF over such an alleged overreach would be the attorney general or one of AHF's board members.
Neither is likely to do so. The board members appear to be supportive of Weinstein's effort. Board chair Cynthia Davis told the Advocate in January that there was "general consensus" around Weinstein's most recent effort, the anti-development ballot initiative called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. (Davis didn't return our phone call.)
This year, AHF is funding campaigns for two statewide initiatives on the November ballot. One mandates the use of condoms in pornographic video production. The other aims to lower the price that state agencies pay for prescription drugs, by prohibiting them from paying more than the Veterans Administration does.
The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is expected to go on the local ballot in March 2017.
For Weinstein, all three causes reflect social justice issues. But others are left wondering what, exactly, city planning and skyscrapers have to do with AIDS prevention and treatment.
When Michael Weinstein moved to L.A. in 1972, LGBT activism centered around a man named Morris Kight, who'd founded the Stonewall Democratic Club, the Gay Community Center (now the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center), the Christopher Street West Gay Pride Parade (now simply L.A. Pride) and any number of other groups. The joke was that Kight had invented homosexuality.
"Morris took Michael under his wing," says Ryan Gierach, the editor of WeHo News and a longtime friend of both Weinstein and Kight. "Michael learned from the master. One of the lessons I think he learned best from Morris is that every issue really needs a good villain. Michael's got nuts of steel, so he knows how to find a villain and nurture the villain, so his fights are appropriately staged."
Indeed, Weinstein is eager to cast his three campaigns as battles against evil institutions — prescription drug companies, pornographers and developers.
"The common denominator in these three initiatives is greed," Weinstein says. "That's the thing that's wrecking the country — greed. The only way it's going to change is if people take a stand."
Weinstein, who makes nearly $400,000 a year, lives in a house up in the Hollywood Hills, on one of those winding streets high above the glittering buildings. He regularly sees deer, raccoons, even bobcat.
"People moved here for the L.A. lifestyle," Weinstein says. "And that's a lifestyle that I love. If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would live there."
The campaign over the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative promises to be a referendum on the soul of L.A., on what kind of a city it is and will become. How urban is Los Angeles? How urban should it be?
"L.A.'s urbanism is an odd hybrid," says L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. "There are certain pockets that are essentially suburban. That leads to a rather peculiar debate about density and whether a six-story apartment building can constitute out-of-control development."
Los Angeles, like most cities, has a general plan, which lays out in often excruciating detail what kinds of buildings can be built where, how big they can be, how close they can be to the street, how much parking they must have, and so on. L.A. being L.A., it also has 35 community plans, which are all supposed to be regularly updated.
Only they're not. All but two of the plans haven't been updated in a decade. The Harbor-Gateway and Chatsworth–Porter Ranch plans are more than 20 years old. The Hollywood plan was last updated in 1988.
Little matter — the plans aren't so much plans as they are an opening for negotiation.
It is common practice for local governments to make trades with developers. For instance, NBCUniversal, in exchange for a height exemption, built the city a bike path.
"It's deep within the culture of every city in the country," developer Mott Smith says. "City staffers feel that it is their job to extract benefits from development. And the only way [they can do that] is by having plans that are intended to change. So that's why we have this fucked-up system where plans say one thing and mean another."
It's a system that nearly everyone — except for the elected officials who control it — detests, and the backers of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative are sure to exploit that antipathy and mistrust. (The campaign is being run by former L.A. Weekly managing editor Jill Stewart.)
The initiative would place a two-year moratorium on any big development project that requires an exemption from the area's height requirements — i.e., most tall buildings — making an exception only for buildings that offer 100 percent affordable housing. It also would force the city to update its general plan and all 35 community plans, and then update them every five years. Going forward, it would force the city to take its general plan literally — no amendments for individual projects.
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The proposal is a watershed moment for Los Angeles, following decades that have seen new rail lines, busways and bike paths springing up everywhere. The wave of urbanism has sparked a backlash.
From his office, Weinstein can see, off in the distance, a half-built Target (activists successfully halted construction of it); a recently completed apartment building at Sunset and Gordon (it's now vacant, after activists successfully argued that the developer's building permits were invalid); and the site of the Hollywood Millennium Towers (which activists — and these are essentially all the same activists — have successfully halted, for the time being). When the City Council tried to update the Hollywood community plan to allow for taller buildings in 2013, the same activists successfully sued, getting the plan tossed out.
For the opposing camp of urbanizers — and that camp includes many environmentalists and poverty activists — the solution to L.A.'s woes is not to halt construction but to build more apartment buildings near transit stops.
Their reasoning: The cost of housing here is among the most expensive in the nation. The cause, many researchers agree, is a housing shortage. The amount of housing built in L.A. over the last few decades hasn't come close to keeping pace with demand.
One apparent flaw in the urbanizers' reasoning is that newer buildings tend to be more expensive to live in than older ones; the people that can afford them, therefore, own cars and hardly ever use public transportation.
Another issue with urbanization is displacement. While increasing the housing supply will, in theory, lower the price of housing in the region (or at least stop its inexorable rise), it most likely will make certain neighborhoods more expensive, pushing out lower-income residents who've lived there for generations.
There's a growing chorus, in the L.A. Times editorial pages among other places, that says Weinstein has correctly diagnosed a serious problem — but that his fix is wildly off-base.
"If the city was addressing the problem, we wouldn't have to be dealing with this [Neighborhood Integrity Initiative], which is clearly not the solution," says Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, an affordable-housing advocacy group that helped get L.A.'s rent-stabilization ordinance passed in 1978. "There are zoning changes that are needed to build affordable housing. [Weinstein] never reached out to get consensus, he just went ahead."
That's the old charge about Weinstein — he doesn't play well with others. His response: Hey, at least I've got people talking.
"No one, so far, has put up an argument that the process is not completely broken," Weinstein says. "So I think we should get some points for making that argument. Who's doing anything about it? Well, we're doing something about it."
The instinct to preserve Los Angeles as a car-centric, freeway-laden city, dominated by single-family homes, is a fundamentally conservative one. It is perhaps ironic, then, that Weinstein has come to champion that instinct, given his roots.
Born in Brooklyn, Weinstein took to activism at an early age, protesting the Vietnam war as a long-haired teenager, marching at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when he was 15, later joining two communist-leaning groups, the Spartacus League and the gay rights–affiliated Lavender and Red Union.
He studied architecture in college in New York and came out to California to get a master's degree from Cal Poly. A decade later, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the gay community. In 1986, arch-conservative Lyndon Larouche sponsored a ballot measure to add AIDS to the state's List of Communicable Diseases. Opponents said the move would have led to mass testing and the quarantining of people with HIV/AIDS. Weinstein's friends Chris Brownlie and Mary Adair "guilt-tripped" him into getting involved in the fight against LaRouche. Weinstein and Brownlie led a grass-roots campaign against the initiative, organizing a march from Silver Lake to LaRouche's headquarters in Atwater Village.
The march drew 4,000 people. Two months later, the measure was rejected by a 40-point margin. Shortly thereafter, Weinstein and others founded the AIDS Hospice Foundation.
"At that time, the average life expectancy was 13 months," Weinstein says. "People were dying in the hallways of the county hospital or on the streets. And we said, the least we can do is give people a dignified death. So we started building hospices."
Gierach recalls: "You'd see him on Santa Monica [Boulevard], hanging out in Boys Town, holding a coffee can and a clipboard, making notes about who gave and how much."
The first hospice, named for Brownlie (who had just been diagnosed with AIDS), was built on the campus of Barlow Hospital in Elysian Park, with the help of a $400,000 grant from the county. Brownlie died less than a year later.
By 1990, there had been some modest advances in the treatment of AIDS. Patients now were living two or three years and desperately needed medical care. So AHF became the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and started opening clinics.
"Those clinics were like MASH units," Weinstein remembers. "We used to open the door, and the walking wounded would walk in, and we'd patch them up. Twenty-five percent of them died every year in those clinics."
In 1993, Weinstein ran for Mike Woo's vacated City Council seat in Hollywood. Weinstein was furious when former school board president Jackie Goldberg, a fellow LGBT activist, decided to run for the same seat.
"He felt like it was his turn," Goldberg recalls. "I said, 'That's not how politics works, people don't get turns.'"
Weinstein finished a distant fourth in the primary with 1,641 votes. Goldberg finished first and in the June runoff narrowly defeated Tom LaBonge.
Goldberg says Weinstein "still is furious at me."
"I still defend him," she continues. "He's a very intense man, who takes action when he thinks he's justified, and he doesn't back off. That makes a lot of people angry, particularly elected officials. I remember some elected officials talked to me about him, saying, 'You always get burned by him.'"
Despite the fact that AHF gets tens of millions of dollars a year in contracts from L.A. County, Weinstein was embroiled in a decades-long feud with the County Board of Supervisors. AHF has sued the board numerous times. One of those lawsuits went so far as to challenge a grant given by the county to another local AIDS organization, Reach L.A., which focuses on HIV prevention in South L.A. The $100,000 grant was revoked.
"It became who has the bigger balls," Reach L.A. deputy director Greg Wilson told L.A. Weekly in 2014. "It was a personal thing that the county and AHF. It wasn't about the clients. They weren't considered." (Wilson declined to comment on this story, saying only that Reach L.A. and AHF have patched things up.)
Weinstein has publicly called for the removal of county public health department officials and at one point proposed a ballot measure to create a city health department, which would have circumvented the county, though that move was later dropped.
Speaking to the L.A. Times in 2014, then–County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called Weinstein a "thug" and said he had "used his nonprofit organization in a crass and bullying political way to get his way, which is to avoid being held accountable." (Yaroslavsky declined to comment.)
The county and AHF recently settled one of their lawsuits. The terms of the agreement have not been disclosed.
"We hope that this will usher in a new day," Weinstein says.
AHF tried to pass its first ballot measure in 2000, calling for all bars in the 2-square mile city of West Hollywood to hand out free condoms.
The proposal sharply divided the gay community. Posters began appearing in the bathrooms of restaurants and bars in West Hollywood reading: "Stay out of our bedrooms, AIDS Healthcare Foundation." They accused AHF of profiteering from the AIDS epidemic and called Weinstein himself "an enemy of the gay community" and a "Condom Nazi."
The measure was rejected, but Weinstein says, "From my vantage point, it was a success in terms of the consciousness it raised."
He also took away a key lesson: "It gave me sort of a taste of one of the issues within the gay male community, in terms of not wanting to be told what to do in any way, shape or form. In terms of prevention, I've been fighting that fight, and it's often a lonely one for decades."
Michael Weinstein protests in 2004 against Larry Flynt's no-condom policy in Hustler porn videos.
Giulio Marcocchi/Sipa Press/larryflynt.09/0407022011
If it has been a lonely fight, that's partly of Weinstein's own choosing. Or at least a function of his personality. Most groups and activists work together. They form partnerships or coalitions. AHF, because of its enormous revenue stream, has never had to do that. And Weinstein has never shown much interest in it. He's content to use his power not to build consensus but to stoke outrage.
"From the very beginning, he believed in being accretive and aggressive and proactive, sometimes more so than other folks felt was appropriate," says Phil Wilson, Chris Brownlie's former partner, who founded the Black AIDS Institute. "And I don't think that he necessarily concerns himself with what the conventional wisdom is."
That attitude has made Weinstein quite a few enemies.
"Michael Weinstein is a billion-dollar bully," says Eric Paul Leue, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a porn industry trade association. "He's not interested in talking to people. It's his opinion and his opinion only."
AHF's condom campaign eventually graduated to controversial billboards promoting condom usage and STD testing. Some can be quite funny — a recent one, parodying Bernie Sanders’ campaign slogan, reads “Feel the Burn?” before directing viewers to the website FreeSTDcheck.org. Others, however, have been perceived by some as shaming, even fear-mongering. One shows four silhouetted faces, each one with a word written on it: Tinder, chlamydia, Grindr, gonorrhea. Another shows two gay men in bed, one eyeing the other suspiciously, with the tagline, "Trust him?"
AHF's condom campaign eventually graduated to controversial billboards.
"I am consistently angered and confused and disgusted by his prevention campaigns, which seem to encourage a stigma against homosexuality," says Cleve Jones, a prominent AIDS activist, who came up with the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. "I don't know of anyone who agrees with him or claims to understand what his motivation is."
Although close to 80 percent AHF's revenue comes from its chain of pharmacies in the United States, Weinstein has frequently taken a combative stance against pharmaceutical companies, filing a number of lawsuits against them. Some have seemed reasonable, aimed at getting them to reduce drug prices. Others have seemed bizarre, almost quixotic.
For instance, AHF sued Pfizer in 2007 over its Viagra advertisements, alleging the company was promoting it as a party drug and was encouraging unsafe sex.
"He started taking anti-science positions — positions that didn't make any sense, but they were great press hooks, and garnered him a lot of attention," Peter Staley, founder of the Treatment Action Group, says of Weinstein. "It made AIDS activism look stupid."
But Weinstein's biggest offense, in the eyes of Staley, is his campaign against PrEP, a pill that, if taken every day, promises to prevent HIV infection. Weinstein made headlines in 2014 when he called PrEP a "party drug," arguing that gay men wouldn't take it every day as directed and would stop wearing condoms.
"In the world I live in, he has hurt the public health," says Staley. "He can say he's the largest AIDS organization in the world, and on a dollar-sign basis, he's right. He has created a massive pharmacy empire. But that doesn't make him an AIDS activist. AHF gets laughed out of international AIDS conferences now. He is completely ignored in Washington. And he is completely boxed out of everything the actual AIDS activist community does."
A group of 164 HIV/AIDS organizations and individuals have signed a letter endorsing the use of PrEP and condemning Weinstein for his claims about the drug. Still, Weinstein has not backed down from his position (although AHF doctors do sometimes prescribe PrEP).
"The fact that STD rates are skyrocketing and the fact that the CDC is only talking about PrEP and not talking about condoms at all means our position here has been largely vindicated," Weinstein says.
Weinstein's office, much like that of any corporate head or elected official, is cluttered with mementos: awards, photos of Weinstein, miniature versions of AHF billboards. Off in the corner hangs a framed poster advertising the march against Lyndon LaRouche; below it sits a ceramic plaque Weinstein's mother made for the Chris Brownlie AIDS Hospice. On the wall behind Weinstein's desk hangs an impressionistic painting of Brownlie.
On the edge of his desk sits a plaque: "Aut viam inveniam aut faciam." I shall either find a way or make one.
Yet behind Weinstein the headstrong activist lies Weinstein the astute realist. It was he who decided to move the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative to the March 2017 ballot, when the electorate will be much smaller, richer, whiter and older. And he recently abandoned an effort to remove the Confederate flag from the state flag of Mississippi, after it became clear there was no real base of support.
“You have to deal with the reality of where the consciousness is at any given time and place,” he says. "You can do your best to elevate it and do your best to create a movement or to involve yourself in a movement to change those things, but it’s not always the right time.”
Asked if he’s thought about running for public office again, he replies: "No, because I don’t want to tempt fate — I might win this time."
"I'm not a good politician,” he adds, rather proudly. "I'm not a back-slapper, I'm not a placater. Also, there's no way I could have a canvas of this magnitude as an elected official."
Corrections: A previous version of this story stated that L.A.’s rent-stabilization ordinance passed in 1973; it actually passed in 1978. It also quoted Cleve Jones as saying AHF’s prevention campaigns “encourage a stigma against homophobia.” Jones misspoke; he meant to say that they encourage a stigma against homosexuality. And it stated that AHF and Los Angeles County had settled all of their lawsuits; in fact, only one suit has been settled.
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