Los Angeles County leaders once thought the world of Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
In a gilt-edged 1992 proclamation that still hangs behind Weinstein's desk, officials declared him "a dynamic and inspirational leader" and "an unrelenting and tireless force in the struggle to stem the tide of HIV infection."
In the years since, however, that relationship has come to resemble a dysfunctional marriage, tied together by finances and need, but strained by lawsuits, acrimony and accusations of improper spending. County leaders, now engaged in a furious legal and ballot-box battle with Weinstein, accuse him of spending his nonprofit's funds on a "personal vendetta" against the county rather than on critical services for people living with HIV and AIDS.
"He's out of control," county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said recently.
Just last week, as Los Angeles counted down to the New Year, Weinstein and the organization he leads once again grabbed headlines. Gay marriage opponents called for a boycott of Pasadena's iconic Tournament of Roses Parade because the foundation planned to have a gay couple wed on its float in front of millions of viewers. Critics decried the display, alternately, as inappropriate or having nothing to do with the group's mission to stamp out HIV and AIDS, Weinstein countered that encouraging committed relationships in the gay community helps stem the virus' spread.
The moment — controversial, ostentatious and eye-grabbing — was a distillation of Weinstein. His bruising style of advocacy was forged in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the then-young activist grew frustrated that elected leaders were paying scant attention to the thousands of people dying from the disease. Today, 30 years later, the trim, suit-clad 61-year-old travels the globe as leader of the largest private provider of AIDS services in the U.S. and, by some measures, the world.
He oversees a $750-million budget from the 21st floor of a Sunset Boulevard skyscraper, in a corner office with a panoramic view of the Hollywood sign. While the political response to AIDS has dramatically changed since that earlier era, and many other AIDS activists have toned down their rhetoric, Weinstein's tactics remain hard-charging, persistent and, at times, polarizing.
Before the Rose Parade controversy, his group bankrolled a successful 2012 county ballot measure to require condom use in the adult film industry. And more recently it has moved to break the city of Los Angeles away from the county health agency's jurisdiction, contending city residents don't get a fair share of services. County and city officials have sued to block that ballot measure.
Supporters call Weinstein a "genius;" detractors label him a "dictator." All agree that the hawkish-featured advocate remains uncompromising.
"To get anything done in government, you have to be single-minded, dedicated almost to the exclusion of everything else. Can you do that without rubbing anyone the wrong way? I suppose it's theoretically possible," said former Gov. Gray Davis, who met Weinstein while living in West Hollywood and worked with him on AIDS-related issues. "Whether you like him or not — and I like him — he's really been a positive force for change."
Weinstein's foundation holds $30 million in county contracts to provide HIV and AIDS services. But the county has repeatedly accused the group of overbilling — which he denies — and he has accused the county of improperly awarding contracts to other organizations and using the audits to retaliate for his complaints about how health services are delivered.
"We're a black sheep, but we are part of the county family," Weinstein said. "I don't know of any other entities like us, a nonprofit that takes them on the way we do and that has the clout to get away with it."
Since his teenage days in Brooklyn, Weinstein has been a rabble-rouser. At 13, he volunteered for anti-Vietnam War congressional candidate Mel Dubin in 1966. He was active in the civil-rights and fair-housing movements. He traveled to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Four years later, the long-haired high-school dropout moved to California, came out as gay and met Chris Brownlie, who would become a close friend and partner in activism.
Weinstein settled in Los Angeles for good in the early 1980s. He planned to pursue an architecture degree, but instead went into business making chocolate gold medals to coincide with the 1984 Olympics.
By then, AIDS was becoming a scourge among gay men. Elected officials were paying little attention; President Reagan did not publicly mention the disease's name until 1985.
Weinstein recalled Brownlie dragging him to a community meeting that seemed like a Saturday Night Live skit: "I said 'I cannot do this. It's like too politically correct to be endured and nothing got done.'"
But as friends and neighbors began dying — at the time a person's life expectancy after an AIDS diagnosis was measured in months, not years — he decided he had to engage.
"My activism at that point was really a way of channeling my grief, because people were dropping like flies," he said.
Weinstein and Brownlie launched a campaign to defeat a 1986 ballot measure that would have allowed the quarantining of people with AIDS. Then their attention turned to providing the dying with a dignified death, and the AIDS Hospice Foundation was born. They led marches on the homes of officials, including county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich — who once suggested the solution to AIDS was for gay people to turn straight.