One of two gay candidates running for a seat on the New York City Council in lower Manhattan said yesterday that he has tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS and would make that part of his campaign.
The announcement by Thomas K. Duane is believed to be the first time a candidate seeking elected office in the state, and perhaps the nation, has openly admitted being infected with the virus that causes AIDS. At a time when doctors, teachers and food workers have found it professionally ruinous to disclose their infection, Mr. Duane seems to be turning that stigma on its head.
If the coming elections for the expanded City Council are indeed an exercise in the politics of openness, then there is no better example than the three-person Democratic primary in the newly configured third district, which includes SoHo, Greenwich Village, Clinton and Chelsea and has the highest concentration of homosexuals in New York City.
There, Mr. Duane's main rival, Liz Abzug, 39 years old, the daughter of the former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, declared she was a lesbian shortly before entering the race. Victor Del Mastro, a dark horse candidate, is heterosexual, and Mr. Duane has now disclosed that he is infected with the virus that causes a fatal disease.
'Dear Neighbor' Letters
Mr. Duane, 37, who said he first learned that he had contracted the virus three years ago, explained, "It would be very compelling to have someone who is HIV-positive on the City Council -- just as having women, Hispanics and Asians represented is helpful to those communities."
Mr. Duane said he would hold a news conference today to announce his medical condition. Last night, Mr. Duane's campaign headquarters mailed out an explanatory letter to 40,000 district households addressed to "Dear Neighbor."
"In one sense, it's nobody's business that I've tested positive for the presence of HIV virus in my blood," the letter said. "But I am a candidate for public office and I believe in being candid." The letter also noted the candidate's position in favor of increasing money for AIDS research and for improving city health care. "That's what I believe, and have for a long time. Maybe I believe it a little more strongly because of my own circumstance."
Ms. Abzug said she did not know Mr. Duane was infected but said: "It's a per sonal matter. It is not a campaign issue." She added: " I have tremendous sensitivity to that. I know many people who are infected with HIV and lead happy, productive lives." Ms. Abzug said she "respected" Mr. Duane's decision. "If he felt he had to reveal that, that was his choice."
Ms. Abzug, who is on leave from her job at the State Urban Development Corporation, has not sought elected office before. Though she served on Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's Gay Rights Task Force, she was not widely known to be a lesbian before the campaign.
Deborah Glick, the only openly gay member of the State Assembly, who has endorsed Mr. Duane, said that many lesbian advocates were alienated by the fact that Ms. Abzug was not well-known in the lesbian community and had only recently disclosed her sexual preference. "The fact that someone with her high profile had never used it on behalf of the community grated one or two nutmegs in this community."
Mr. Duane, a longtime gay-rights advocate, served as the Manhattan community coordinator for City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman before the campaign. He ran unsuccessfully for the third district seat two years ago against Carol Greitzer, an incumbent.
At that time Mr. Duane accused his opponent of phoning people and urging them to vote against him because he was gay. An independent election monitoring group, called Conduct, judged Mr. Duane's complaint "unsubstantiated and unfounded." Mr. Duane said: "We made a mistake. We believe the phone calls were made, but we should not have made the accusation without proof."
Noting Public Tolerance
Mr. Duane said that he was not at that time psychologically ready to say publicly that he had the virus that causes AIDS. "I had not yet told my family or close friends about my condition two years ago. I'm not sure New Yorkers were ready."
Mr. Duane said that the public's understanding of the disease and its tolerance for those afflicted with it, had greatly increased since he last ran for office.
His mother, Winifred A. Duane, said the family supported Mr. Duane's decision to disclose his condition. "He's always been a very honest young man, and I'm sure that has a great deal to do with it," she said. "We've always supported Tom, and we know he will be top drawer in the City Council."
Mr. Duane said he was not under medication, and had not yet suffered any symptoms. "This is an opportunity to show that people who are HIV-positive can undertake very stressful work, including running for office." Mr. Duane said he rose at 6:30 A.M. and rarely went to bed before midnight, and lived on "stress and coffee -- a candidate's best friend."
Doctor Discusses Condition
He asked his personal doctor, Dr. N. Patrick Hennessey, to be available to answer questions from reporters. Dr. Hennessey said that Mr. Duane showed "no clinical manifestations of the disease," adding that there was "no significant compromise of the immune system." The doctor said he told his patient, "He could engage in anything he chooses to do."
Though Mr. Duane said he had consulted friends and family before making his decision to disclose his condition, some gay political leaders in the city were surprised by the news. Dick Dadey, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, a statewide gay Political Action Committee, which has endorsed Mr. Duane and given him a $25,000 contribution, was taken aback by the news. He confirmed it with Mr. Duane before commenting.
"I am proud of Tom's courage," he said."He is sharing a very personal aspect of his life with the voters." Mr. Dadey did not think Mr. Duane's disclosure could harm him politically in the third district. "It will carry no stigma whatsoever," he said. "This revelation will strengthen Tom's status within the community."
But John Magisano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, which has also endorsed Mr. Duane, said he could not predict how the revelation would be received. He too had been unaware of Mr. Duane's plans to disclose his condition. "It will help galvanize AIDS and health-care activists," he said, "but I do not know how it will play out with the rest of the voters -- it's hard to say, this has never happened before."