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In retrospect, it wasn't exactly a brilliant move for an AIDS charity to bring on arch-conservative Congressman J.D. Hayworth as its partner. Hayworth, after all, has repeatedly refused to sponsor legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2001, he voted to bar the District of Columbia...
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In retrospect, it wasn't exactly a brilliant move for an AIDS charity to bring on arch-conservative Congressman J.D. Hayworth as its partner.

Hayworth, after all, has repeatedly refused to sponsor legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2001, he voted to bar the District of Columbia from using local funds to create a domestic partner registry. On a scale of 0 to 100, the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay political organization, has scored him at exactly 0 -- for six consecutive years.

But last January, one of the Valley's largest AIDS service organizations, AIDS Project Arizona, decided Hayworth was their guy. The agency, better known as APAZ, announced the congressman would co-chair a year-long awareness campaign, "Wear With Care," designed to promote a resurgence of red-ribbon-wearing.

Sure, the official word is that AIDS isn't a gay disease. Remember Ryan White, that kid who got AIDS from a blood transfusion? And what about Magic Johnson?

Political correctness aside, however, gay men still account for most of this country's AIDS casualties. And the gay community has devoted significant resources to fighting the disease here, as in other places. Many local AIDS service organizations, including the agency that eventually became AIDS Project Arizona, were started by gay men.

So when APAZ announced that Hayworth would co-chair its new awareness campaign, Echo magazine, a local gay publication, called the selection "insensitive at best, but appalling to most."

And Hayworth hardly helped his cause by telling Echo that he'd committed to the campaign after meeting a guy who'd gotten AIDS from, yes, a blood transfusion. He wouldn't say whether he'd changed his stance on gay rights, though his subsequent vote for a constitutional ban on gay marriage makes it pretty clear that he had not. (His office didn't return calls for comment.)

Enlisting Hayworth's support, practically everyone agrees, was the beginning of the end for APAZ. The agency officially collapsed 10 months later, taking the AIDS community's biggest fund raiser with it.

The effect on the larger community -- nearly two dozen local nonprofit groups that serve an estimated 7,000 people with HIV or AIDS -- was devastating. Without APAZ, there were both more needs and less money to meet them.

But in the long run, hitting rock bottom may not have been entirely bad.

The AIDS service community in metropolitan Phoenix has long been plagued by infighting and dissension. So it's remarkable that, instead of going separate ways, 13 groups have joined up to host a new fund raiser this November.

Even more remarkable: They're doing it with a generosity of spirit that seemed hitherto unimaginable.

"I have never seen the community pull together like this," says Maclovia Zepeda, director of HIV/AIDS services for Chicanos por la Causa. "It's something different than anything that's ever happened before.

"It's amazing."

What happened last year was amazing in an entirely different way.

Like many AIDS-related agencies, APAZ relied heavily on federal grants, administered by Maricopa County. County audits in February and March found serious deficiencies in the agency's work, and the county withheld payment until they could be fixed.

Staffers fled. Board members quit.

Thanks to the controversy following Hayworth's selection, APAZ had only a crumbling base of community support to fall back on.

"The addition of Congressman Hayworth to the mix made a lot of people second-guess their involvement," says Matt Heil, who covered the story for Echo and is now an aide to Councilman Tom Simplot. "Even though AIDS is not a gay disease, gay people are still the main ones fighting it.

"And when a guy like that partners with someone like [APAZ], you're going to have a problem."

Desperate for money, APAZ turned to AIDS Walk.

For more than a decade, AIDS Walk was the premier AIDS fund raiser. It was hugely symbolic -- some years, more than 22,000 walkers made the trek down Central Avenue -- and highly profitable. Even in recent years, when receipts were falling, the walk earned more than $200,000, after expenses.

Throughout the 1990s, APAZ ran the AIDS Walk, took the biggest cut, and then doled out cash to other AIDS service agencies.

There were always complaints about how the money was divided. By 2000, they'd grown loud enough that APAZ agreed to spin off the Walk as its own 501(c)3. It still worked out of APAZ's office complex, but had its own board and executive director.

But APAZ controlled half that board, says Robert Dorfman, who was the Walk's director for two years. And so, when APAZ was reaching the height of its financial strain in April 2004, the Walk's board agreed to again merge with APAZ.

"At that point," recalls Dorfman, "I lost any control of the financials. I was completely impotent."

Dorfman quit in August. Two months later, APAZ closed its doors and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The collapse was so sudden that five file cabinets with confidential patient information ended up for sale at the agency's court-ordered auction of assets. It fell to Maricopa County to retrieve the files at the last minute, according to county records.

And, as APAZ board members admitted, rather than safeguarding the donations earmarked for the Walk, the agency had used the dough to make payroll one last time.

Gone completely was a $20,000 donation from godaddy.com, as well as many smaller contributions.

There would be no walk in 2004.

For smaller, volunteer-run groups like AGAPE Network, which provides food deliveries to AIDS patients, the loss hit especially hard. AGAPE usually got about $9,000 from the Walk, or 10 percent of its annual budget.

"That money kept us going throughout the year," says executive director Bonnie Heare.

Instead, last fall, AGAPE found itself getting requests from an additional 40 clients previously served by APAZ. With the walk gone, there was no extra money.

"We've managed to keep our heads above water, but it wasn't easy," Heare says.

And so when the AIDS service community started meeting this past winter to figure out how to replace the Walk, they were ready to do everything differently.

Instead of one agency running the show, APAZ-style, they formed a new organization. They named it Aunt Rita's Foundation, after a much-beloved local group that administered emergency grants to AIDS patients throughout the 1990s.

(Because the original Aunt Rita's group was all volunteer, it folded in 2001, says David Sostak, who was then a board member. "After so many years, we were just fried.")

For this fund raiser, there would be no walking under the hot Phoenix sun. They decided, instead, on dinner.

The idea: Volunteers can sign up to host a dinner at either their home or a restaurant on November 19. They invite their friends, and those friends make a donation. At night's end, everybody meets up at downtown's Bentley Projects for dessert.

They dubbed the event "Savor Life."

Starting from scratch has been hard. Board members started the paperwork in January, but didn't get official non-profit status from the IRS until July, Sostak says.

The event was originally scheduled for mid-September, but was abruptly postponed two months ago, thanks to a lack of corporate sponsors. One month after the announcement, the group's Web site, www.hostadinner.com, still touts the old date.

On the plus side, though, they've managed to eliminate the old alliances that dogged AIDS Walk. For their chairman, they've brought on 27-year-old Heil -- the same guy who penned most of the pieces in Echo last year excoriating APAZ.

Everybody swears they're really working together, this time. Four of the largest service agencies -- Shanti, TERROS, Body Positive, and Chicanos por la Causa -- have actually agreed to forgo profits from this year's event, donating their share to smaller, volunteer-dependent agencies, like AGAPE.

"We know that we're going to survive," says Cathy Torrez-Paddack, director of HIV services at TERROS. "But they might not. Some of them are hanging on by a shoestring."

It's a generous gesture, and perhaps the best sign that the inter-agency contentiousness that dogged AIDS Walk may finally be at an end.

"That tension between groups has always been a problem in the Valley," Sostak says. "No one has an answer of why it is that way. But now, there does seem to be a coming together of agencies. Thank God.

"So we've all come together, and we've agreed to do this."

One other thing: Congressman J.D. Hayworth is nowhere in sight.

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