Meet Michael Weinstein, the controversial Californian behind a bold plan to limit drug prices in Ohio.
The ads are everywhere, filling social media feeds and TV airwaves with reasons for voters to reject in November a proposal that would limit drug prices in Ohio. Often, the clips mention the “California health care CEO” behind Issue 2, also known as the Ohio Drug Price Relief Act, which would require state-run programs to pay no more for medicine than the discounted rate paid by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. One ad even includes an image of the man in question, Michael Weinstein, with the famous Hollywood sign in the background. The not-too-subtle dig emphasizes his differences from the everyday Ohioans he and his opponents in the pharmaceutical industry are courting in this no-holds-barred ballot campaign that seems destined to become the most expensive in state history. So who is this man of the moment in Ohio politics? Here's a primer.
The World's Largest AIDS Organization
In 1989, Weinstein, a longtime Los Angeles gay-rights activist, co-founded a hospice for HIV patients that eventually evolved into the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, now the world's largest AIDS organization. AHF generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue, mostly from a chain of AIDS-focused pharmacies, including one in the Short North that's paired with an Out of the Closet thrift store.
Heel or Humanitarian?
Weinstein's opponents say he's a dangerous ideologue. “If you look at all the things that he funds, he always wants to stick it to the man,” says Dale Butland, spokesman for the group opposing the prescription-drug initiative. “He wants to poke his finger in the eye of the establishment: LA government, big business, drug companies, whoever the boogieman of the moment happens to be.” But Weinstein's supporters credit him with altruistic motives, pointing to the financial lifeline he provided a struggling Cleveland AIDS task force and his dedication to fighting AIDS in Africa. “He really is an international humanitarian,” says Dennis Willard, spokesman for the group backing Issue 2.
Condoms and Confederates
In a 2012 dispute with the city of Columbus, Weinstein accused a city official of anti-gay bias for saying AHF's plan to build the Short North pharmacy/thrift shop was creating concern in the community. “I thought, given the amount of gay people in the city, the red carpet would have been rolled out last year, and I am disappointed we are getting such resistance here,” he told the Dispatch back then. He's also been outspoken in the political arena, where he's led efforts to limit development in Los Angeles, require porn actors to wear condoms and remove confederate symbols from the Mississippi flag.
Clintonville residents may remember an odd High Street billboard that featured an image of an erupting volcano emblazoned with the phrase “Syphilis Explosion.” Turns out that memorable sign was part of an over-the-top AHF marketing campaign that aimed to discourage promiscuity while also driving traffic to Weinstein's pharmacies, according to a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Weinstein.
Bernie Sanders and his top Ohio surrogate, Nina Turner, the former Cleveland state senator, are among the progressives backing Weinstein's Ohio prescription drug proposal. But Weinstein also has hired two Ohio Republican heavyweights to help his effort: former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges and influential GOP consultant Rex Elsass. “Look, it's unusual for me to be involved in any issue that Bernie Sanders is endorsing,” Borges acknowledges.