When Clyde Kunz, an average citizen, wrote to his state legislator, he may have anticipated a run-of-the-mill response.
What he got instead, from Republican Representative Tom Smith, who serves District 26 in northeast Phoenix and Paradise Valley, was a very remarkable letter.
Kunz himself had set a respectful, formal tone for the exchange. In his letter, he had urged his legislator to support AIDS education in Arizona schools and to oppose an attempt to repeal the informed consent law, which holds that doctors can't covertly test patients suspected of HIV infection. Kunz, who has served as a volunteer helper to people with AIDS, explained that education is a strong defense against the disease, and that the threat of doctor testing would keep many who are ill from seeking treatment.
Smith's answer was as hostile as the ravings of William F. Buckley, but not nearly as informed. He wrote to his constituent, in part:
"I have gathered a few facts about AIDS:
"Over 94 percent of the people who contract AIDS get it from homosexual activity or from drug use.
"AIDS is not one of the top ten diseases that result in the death of people in the U.S.
"If homosexuals and drug users cleaned up their lifestyle, there would be a significant decline in the spread of AIDS.
"If AIDS education impacts the educational budget, I would vote to eliminate AIDS education and use the money to reduce the class size in grades K-3.
"Sodomy is the most disastrous act negatively affecting the human body. To prevent AIDS, do not engage in homosexual activity or engage in the use of drugs.
"I support testing for AIDS. I feel that in a democracy like the United States, we have the right to make our own decisions, but we must accept the consequences for our decisions and not expect the government or anybody else to 'bail' us out."
Kunz, a grants writer, was rather taken aback by the onslaught from the politician who purports to represent him. "I wrote him that our only defense against AIDS is education, and he just lost it," Kunz marvels.
But perhaps Smith's tone isn't the most surprising thing: You have to wonder where he got his figures. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the government agency that's officially in charge of AIDS surveillance in the U.S., 14 percent--not 6 percent--of all those American adults who've contracted AIDS have obtained it from sources other than gay sex or drugs. (Fourteen percent translates to 35,031 actual cases of AIDS.) In addition, the 4,249 cases of AIDS in children were all contracted from other sources, usually at birth from an infected parent.
And in Arizona, HIV infection from "minority" sources is growing. Although the federal government gathers from the states only data about full-blown cases of AIDS, the state Department of Health Services also keeps track of HIV infection that's asymptomatic. Health officials generalize that today's asymptomatic HIV numbers will be AIDS statistics ten years from now, so it is particularly telling to compare the rate of contraction through heterosexual sex between the two groups. This rate represents only 2 percent (or 54 cases) of Arizona AIDS patients, but is 5 percent of those with asymptomatic HIV (133 cases). If it is true that the vast majority of AIDS patients are still either gay or bisexual or drug users, it's also true that heterosexual infection is on the rise. "I think there is a trend away from men who have sex with men being the largest group of those infected with HIV," says Kathy Huff, an epidemiologist in the DHS' Office of HIV/AIDS. "The percentage of infection among gay men is probably dropping, partly because a lot of gay men are already infected, but the biggest factor is education from the gay community and the community at large."
As for Smith's claim that AIDS doesn't rate among the top ten causes of death in the U.S., it would surprise the statistics division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services--part of the Centers for Disease Control. This agency ranks AIDS tenth, in fact. According to Betty Hudson, the department's statistician of mortality, the percentage of AIDS-related deaths has also been increasing significantly for all races: Between 1988 and 1990, it rose from 6.8 percent to more than 10 percent.
The discrepancies are enough to make a person curious about Representative Smith's sources of information--and about Representative Smith himself, a former Marine and school principal who was appointed to the statehouse in 1991, when the AzScam scandal sent legislators accused of taking bribes either scurrying for cover or into jail cells.
Among colleagues, Smith is sometimes regarded as unbendable. One story--perhaps apocryphal--has it that when he was principal of Ingleside Middle School, a sign above his door read, "My way is the only way." Insiders remember that he ran the school with such a stern hand that he was either loved or hated by parents. "If you sent your kids to school to learn how to behave, you thought he was great," says a political insider who asks not to be named. "But if you sent your kids to school to teach them how to think, that option was not available, and you disliked him intensely.
"I do believe that Tom cares about kids and believes there are problems with the basics of education today. And we certainly have to take care of those. But my feeling has always been that that is as far as he believes education should go."
A former colleague remembers that Smith was once the only member of the Scottsdale School Board who voted to retain corporal punishment. In this way and others, he was so out of synch with the more moderate majority view that it was generally acknowledged he would be passed over for the board presidency, according to this observer, who says, "It was really clear that nobody was going to vote for Tom." Smith has also rubbed local gay activists the wrong way. Mark Freeze, an attorney who lobbied at the legislature last year on behalf of a bill seeking the repeal of the state's sodomy statutes, remembers that Smith scolded his fellow legislators after they had passed the bill out of the House Judiciary Committee. "He said, 'How could Arizona do this when Arizona is supposed to be a Christian state?'" recounts Freeze. "Which I thought showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity to the framers of the American Constitution, who said there was no such thing as a Christian state." (Ultimately, the bill failed.)
These are some things that onlookers say about Smith. What does he have to say for himself?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
When asked about the sources from which he drew when composing his letter to Kunz, Smith explains, "I have gotten some pamphlets and information about AIDS." Who wrote these pamphlets?
"I do not have them here in my hand," he explains.
Can you get them?
"I don't know if I can," he says. "I don't know if I want to. . . . All I know is that I wrote the man [Kunz]; I told him my opinion."
But you didn't couch your statistics as opinions: You said you had gathered "facts." And much of your letter reads like a moralistic judgment.
"I am a moral individual," says Smith. "Do you object to my being a moral individual?"
I think AIDS is a health issue, not a moral issue.
"Well, then, that is your opinion. Tell me this: Do you think that AIDS is transmitted through homosexual activity?"
Tell me this: As an educator, have you perceived a need for AIDS education in schools?
"Probably not below the seventh or eighth grades. In the seventh or eighth grade, I think it is a parent's decision. I think it never should be mandatory."
Perhaps the most amazing fact of all about HIV is that in light of government projections that one out of every 250 persons in the U.S. is infected, the advisability of education and other prevention continues to be a controversy.