We all have labels. They define how others see us, and also how we see ourselves. For Bob Poe, they include husband, father, gay man, politico, entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist, success. He’s now prepared to share one more: HIV-positive.
The addition is consequential. Poe is running for election to the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida’s 10th District. If successful, he would be the first openly HIV-positive person elected to Congress; a handsome, healthy, winning face of HIV to be reckoned with every time funding is threatened. He’s just the second HIV-positive person to run, and the first with a real chance of winning.
It seems hard to believe. HIV has been around for 35 years, infecting more than 1.8 million Americans—enough to populate the five largest cities in Florida. Those impacted come from all walks of life, including high profile arenas like entertainment and sports.
But not politics. Until now there have been only a handful of HIV-positive elected officials on any level, including fewer than a half-dozen state legislators. The rest filled municipal positions. Most were elected before disclosing their status.
Poe thinks that’s a problem. Fifty thousand Americans contract HIV each year. The infection rate in Florida is higher than it’s been since 2008, with gay men and African-Americans still hit hardest. And yet to a large extent, people have stopped talking about it.
“There hasn’t been a real trailblazer in this area at a political level,” Poe notes. “I don’t know why, in the scheme of things, that God decided I would be HIV-positive. But I can tell you that I feel a responsibility—an obligation now—to share my experience.”
That wasn’t the clear case back in January, when Poe first announced his candidacy in the 10th District.
“From the moment I began considering running for Congress, this was in my mind,” Poe says. “Could I finally come clean and be authentic?”
A voice told him to wait. He needed to get elected to be an agent of change. But a conscience-shattering encounter during a routine campaign stop suddenly made the political overwhelmingly personal.
An Eventful Life
Poe, 61, was first drawn to politics as a kid, hanging out at the local Democratic Party headquarters across from his father’s Sarasota convenience store. When the family moved to Orlando, Poe attended Evans High School and landed a job playing Tigger as part of the first character group assembled at Walt Disney World.
A few years later Poe went to work at radio station WKIS, where he rose to station manager. An unsuccessful run for state senate in 1980 was humbling, but he regrouped to help launch FM rock station WMMO and join the management team that brought the Magic to Orlando.
During the controversial 2000 presidential election, Poe was recruited to chair a Florida Democratic Party in disarray. He then founded a company that provides “reverse 911” communications systems for city and county governments. When Poe sold his share in 2011, he became a wealthy man. In 2012, Poe served as regional finance chair for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Two years later he chaired Charlie Crist’s unsuccessful run for governor as a Democrat.
Throughout an eventful life, Poe battled with his attraction to men. Happily married, and with daughter Virginia born in 1988, Poe had affairs that were often fueled by alcohol and drugs and always followed by remorse. He quit drinking in 1994. The remaining struggles didn’t end until Poe met his future husband, Ken Brown, in 2008.
But when he got sick with flu-like symptoms back in 1998, he knew it was possible he’d been exposed to HIV. He made an appointment to be tested, and like so many gay men in the 90s, nervously waited for the life-changing results.
A Dark Time
Thirty-five years ago this week—on June 5, 1981—the CDC’s Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report published the first report of five unusual cases of pneumonia among previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. Soon thereafter, similar cases were reported in New York City and San Francisco.
By the end of 1983 there were 3,000 reported cases of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the United States, mostly among gay men. Almost half were already dead. By 1998, the year Poe was tested, more than 300,000 Americans had been lost to AIDS.
“It’s one of those things you never forget,” Poe says of receiving his test results. “It hits you and you forget to breathe, then your mind goes blank and then you wish it would stay blank because you project the worst, particularly back in those days. And I had to go home and tell my wife—she’s the first person I told.”
Poe wasn’t active in the LGBT community back then, and he didn’t know where to go for guidance. His doctor directed him to the Hope and Help Center.
“It was the first time I met anyone I knew who had HIV like me,” Poe remembers. “It was difficult, because we spent most of our time just trying to stay calm. It was a very dark time.”
It was also a pivotal juncture for treatment of HIV. Introduced the year before, the antiretroviral medication AZT was bringing the relentless virus under some semblance of control. Improved versions produced even better results. But there was a debate about when to start treatment; immediately to prevent the virus from taking hold, or after symptoms appeared to discourage development of drug resistance. Poe’s doctor was proactive, starting him immediately on one pill twice a day and five pills three times a day. Within months Poe’s viral load was undetectable and his T-cell count was within normal ranges. With ever-improving medications, it’s been that way ever since.
“HIV is a completely and easily controllable disease,” says Dr. Edwin DeJesus, medical director at Orlando Immunology Center and Poe’s physician for the last 10 years. He spoke with Poe’s permission. “Bob takes one pill a day that prevents the HIV virus from replicating in his system. And because there’s no detectable virus, transmission to others is also unlikely.”
Poe experiences only one side-effect from his medication: vivid, Technicolor dreams.
“It’s like going to the movies every night,” he laughs. “I love it.”
But back in 1998, his two-pill regimen made him nauseous and gave him headaches and diarrhea. To a conflicted and guilt-ridden Poe, the side effects felt like deserved punishment.
“When I was chair of the state Democratic Party back in 2000, I would go so far as to tear the labels off of my medicine bottles, shred those labels, and then drive to an entirely different location to deposit the empty bottles in a dumpster,” Poe remembers. “I was terrified that someone would find out.”
In fact, HIV’s toll on Poe’s psyche proved far more disabling than any physical symptoms. HIV was just another nail in a compartmentalized, fear-based coffin.
“I lived that way for many, many years,” Poe says. “When I finally opened up about my substance abuse and my attraction to men, it was liberating. [HIV] is the one last thing I’ve been carrying around.”
But would the campaign for District 10 be the catalyst for self-disclosure?
A Big Decision
Because of his deep pockets, Poe isn’t tethered to lobbyists and other Washington insiders who raise money.
“I rely on donors, but I’m not dependent on them,” Poe says. “I have a tremendous amount of freedom, and it allows me to be totally and completely who I am. But I still had this weight on my shoulders. I knew I would have to deal with it, but when?”
Attorney John Morgan, a fellow Democratic power broker and close friend since their days in the character department at Disney, is one of a very few who have known Poe’s HIV status from the beginning.
“I was floored and scared when he told me,” Morgan says. “He came to me for support and ended up comforting me, telling me that his doctors had assured him he would have a long, healthy life.”
When consulted about his campaign, Morgan cautioned Poe that there would be pluses and minuses to early disclosure of his HIV status.
“There’s a segment of the African-American community that is less tolerant,” Morgan says. “But his election would also be historic. It would be a big deal that would likely result in national attention and support. And it would be catastrophic for opponents to attack someone facing this kind of challenge with the courage Bob has demonstrated.”
Poe was still uncertain just weeks ago, when he made a campaign stop in the African-American Parramore district of downtown Orlando. Poe exudes warmth and competence, so it’s no surprise that a woman approached him with a personal problem. Leaning in, she shared that she had recently tested positive for HIV, didn’t have health insurance, and didn’t know where to go or what to do. Poe offered resources and encouragement, but when she walked away he cringed at his cowardice. By the time he drove home, he knew what he had to do.
“I just wanted to hug her and tell her that she wasn’t alone, that I’m HIV and that I’m happy and healthy and she will be too. But I couldn’t,” Poe recalls, shaking his head. “I couldn’t in that moment. Afterwards it became clear to me. I have an obligation to do this if I’m going to be a public servant. There’s no one else in elective office, that I know of at least, with the same opportunity to talk about [HIV] from a personal perspective. My encounter with that woman, who was just looking for reassurance, took me over the edge.”
Infection Rates Up, Funding Down
There’s work to be done, especially in Florida, where the number of new HIV cases rose 23 percent between 2014 and 2015. More than three-quarters of new cases are among gay men. The infection rate of 35.8 per 100,000 is the highest it’s been since 2008. Contrast California, where new HIV cases decreased steadily in the same period.
“The primary reason [for Florida’s uptick in HIV] is that there is less affirmative effort around safer sex,” Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, told the Sun-Sentinel last year. “Funding for prevention has been flat or cut, and our overall prevention efforts are very muted, very half-hearted.”
“The focus is really prevention of positives,” says Dr. Marie-Jose Francois, executive director of the Center for Multicultural Wellness and Prevention located in Orlando’s Rock Lake neighborhood. The 20-year-old organization does community outreach, education, case management and HIV testing for underprivileged populations. Dr. Francois notes that Ryan White funding for case management has been steady, but money for community outreach and testing has dried up.
“It takes a constant presence to remind people that HIV/AIDS is still a huge public health issue,” Dr. Francois says. “People that are negative are practicing unsafe behavior and putting themselves at risk. And those who have it are unaware of the resources that are available.”
Poe believes that the shame with which he is all too familiar is preventing people from getting tested, and thus treated.
“We’ve got to rip the mask off this thing and begin talking about it in a sensible way,” he says. “This is a chronic condition that is more easily treated than diabetes. Our goal should be to eliminate AIDS as an epidemic by the year 2025. We are close to finding a vaccine or cure, but that’s going to require additional investment. It won’t happen if everybody is in the shadows.”
The 10th District
Poe will be an advocate for HIV prevention in Congress, but that’s not why he decided to run. His areas of focus include economic empowerment, education and job training, and criminal justice reform.
“In business, what I learned is that you can make money in good times and bad, but you can’t make money if your customers don’t have money,” Poe says. “Social ills fall disproportionately on the poor. Economic prosperity is the clearest pathway to social justice.”
Poe supports an increase in the minimum hourly wage to $15. “Business people want their customers to be rich, so why would they want their employees to be poor,” he says.
He’ll also push for job training to address an “economic climate change” fueled by technology. “My first job was pumping gas at the Pine Hills Gulf station on Colonial Drive,” he says. “There are no more gas station attendants. Technology is changing the job market even faster than we realize, and we have to get out ahead of it.”
And he will work to change a criminal justice system that he believes persecutes communities of color.
“I’m knocking on doors and finding people that have been disenfranchised from our economy and our entire society,” Poe says. “It’s causing huge, massive problems.”
His message should resonate in District 10, which was recently redrawn to favor Democrats—so much so that incumbent Republican Daniel Webster has fled to another district. But Poe must compete with two formidable opponents in the primary: State Senator Geraldine Thompson and former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings.
Morgan likes his friend’s chances.
“Val and Geraldine are great people, but they’ll appeal to the same voters,” he says. “Bob will also appeal to those voters, as well as the progressives in the district. And he’ll outwork and outspend everyone. What’s most significant is that Bob just needs to win a plurality of Democrats to make it to the general election. Voters should understand that, because it’s impossible for a Republican to win this district.”
Poe currently has thirty field organizers canvassing the district every day.
“Last Saturday we knocked on 989 doors and had a connection rate of 40 percent,” he says. “I’m very optimistic. I like where I am. I like the trajectory.”
With his very personal announcement, Poe has turned this into an historic election.
“If I get to Washington, I can help,” he says. “I can show millions of people that they can live their hopes and dreams, like I have. That’s exciting.”