Tuesday, 22 July 2014

De Blasio appointments show he just may be for real

Our new mayor, Bill de Blasio, gets booed in Staten Island and has attracted the scorn of the Daily News for his intention to get rid of horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. His PR operation can be rickety; his statements aren’t always honed to poll-based precision to capture just the right calculated appeal to key constituencies. (Anthony Weiner would have been a genius at it.)

But when it comes to naming the right people for top jobs, de Blasio is looking like a truly progressive guy trying to get some work done rather than suck up to the already powerful. His schools chancellor, Carmen FariƱa, is a former teacher, not a tool of the privateers. His corporation counsel immediately reversed the city’s stubborn resistance to a settlement in the Central Park 5 case. At Human Resources, de Blasio named a public interest lawyer straight from Legal Aid.

One area I know intimately is the health department where de Blasio put my Columbia colleague, Mary Bassett, in the top spot. Bassett knows HIV from years working on the issue in Africa. She has now left many of us dumbfounded by naming Dr. Demetre Daskalakis to be her assistant commissioner for HIV prevention. This appointment is so disorientingly great I momentarily thought I was living in Finland.

Many of us know Demetre from his work in the nocturnal haunts that the city health department used to spend its energy shutting down. For years he has set up shop in the few remaining sex clubs and bath houses to offer HIV and STD testing right on site, a brilliant and winning strategy obvious to anyone but public health sex-proctors.

From the announcement:

After completing his training [Columbia, NYU, Harvard] and moving to New York City in 2005, Dr. Daskalakis established himself as a leader, innovator, and spokesperson for people living with HIV and gay and bisexual men. He pioneered programs that brought HIV testing, vaccination, and other vital medical care into bars, clubs, and bathhouses to reach men at risk of HIV and other infectious diseases. In 2013, he played a vital role in helping stop an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis among men who have sex with men, running community events that vaccinated over 2400 men, an estimated 10% of all men vaccinated in NYC as part of the outbreak response.

It’s breathtaking to think that someone who has spent years doing the patient work on the ground, rather than in any of the comfy desk jobs he could have had, will be in charge of formulating strategy. Deskalakis’s tenure at DoH could and should mean a radical new openness to try prevention approaches that actually work by taking into account the sex people are having rather than them the sex disease specialists think they should be having. We might actually have a chance to drive down new infections from the current figure of 3,000 a year (a goodly chunk of the 50,000 nationwide).

A friend recently predicted to me that De Blasio was heading for a single term, that the knives were out for him from the big power-players. His election may indeed have been a fluke that happened only because no one gave him a chance until the last minute and so couldn’t mobilize against him. But this brilliant appointment suggests that de Blasio and his team are interested in results more than their own careers. It’s refreshing, however long it lasts.

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