by Max Brantley
So far, Jason Tolbert is the vanguard, but I suspect the Republican Party will get wider coverage before long of an HIV/AIDS prevention grant that drew attention in a legislative committee last week.
It's likely to be a pity how this turns out. The issue will become controversial for the wrong reason — because it touches on sex and gay people — and not simply for what appear to be legitimate questions about how the program was administered.
The Arkansas Minority Health Commission gave $50,000 to a program to distribute condoms in a nightclub apparently patronized by many minority gay males. Nothing wrong with HIV/AIDS prevention, at least to me. I should add the program also included sending information by social networks and other means.
But auditors have questioned whether $7,000 went to unauthorized expenditures. The organization applying for the money had the same address as the club where the program operated. The money paid for the salaries of three people. It also paid to rent space from the club. More than half of the money was spent before a single condom was distributed. All of these things give off the odor of a sweetheart deal for someone with good political connections. It's fair game for inspection, particularly if the Republicans can keep sex out of it. Fat chance.
Tolbert's headline: "State Grant for Distributing Condoms at Gay Bar Stirs Controversy in Committee." Condoms and gay bar. Those words make Repub mouths water. They are not particularly relevant. The issue is how the money was spent.
The program is moving to the Health Department, where operational changes are apparently in the works. Meanwhile, Republicans are rubbing their hands about linking Gov. Mike Beebe and any other handy Democrat with the image of gay black men having sex. (I'd think Rep. John Burris, hot on the trail of this condom story, would be equally interested in calling public attention to someone signing his name to a $35,000 check without his authorization. But that, apparently, would violate the Republican's 11th Commandment. And, so far as I know, no gay black men are involved.)