Other Opinion, “O’Neill’s Approach: A Sense of The Common Man”

I remember Bill O’Neill. He was as people described him, an honest, ordinary man, a bartender from East Hampton who reminded me of my father — an auto mechanic who ran a gas station for many years.

Gov. O’Neill, who died Saturday, was well into his decade-long term of office when, in 1986, I went to work in the state Office of Policy and Management. My boss was Secretary Anthony V. Milano, who was budget chief and an O’Neill confidant. Among my projects was a public policy initiative on AIDS, an issue which at the time was still mired in stigma, fear and ignorance. We had drafted legislation to maintain the confidentiality of those who tested positive for HIV and the privacy of those coming into voluntary HIV testing sites. After working for months with those inside and outside government, we agreed on the bill, which was passed in 1989 by the General Assembly. We were confident that the governor would sign this historic legislation into law.

That was until I got a call from my boss. Tony needed me to come to the governor’s office to answer some questions about the AIDS bill. As this was the first time I had been invited into the governor’s presence, I was a bit intimidated, but mostly felt inadequate.

“Are you sure that I’m the one to talk to the governor?” I asked Tony. “Others can give him much better information.”

“No,” Tony said. “The governor needs to hear this from someone like you.”

So I went to see the governor later that day. He was sitting behind his desk when I was ushered into his office. Tony was there, along with the governor’s legal counsel. After I was introduced, the governor got right down to business. He had a question.

“What if someone comes into my bar and I serve him a drink. How am I suppose to know if he has AIDS or not?”

It was a good one. It struck right at the fear an ordinary fellow might have about AIDS, bringing the whole thing down to a guy in a bar who was worried about himself and his customers. It didn’t get more basic than that.

I looked at the governor and explained what I knew of our understanding of HIV at the time.

“No, sir. You wouldn’t know that this guy in your bar has AIDS and you don’t need to know that. What you do need to know is that if he does have the virus, he can only transmit it to you or your customers if you or they are in direct contact with his blood. So, if for some reason he starts to bleed and you have to call an ambulance, what you need to do and the paramedics will do when they arrive is to use ‘universal precautions.’ What that means is that now we have to treat everyone as if they might have the virus and take care, like use sterile gloves, so that we don’t come into contact with their blood.”

The governor looked at me, took in my explanation and that was it. Tony glanced at me like, “You did good!” and I left. I thought it was odd that the governor didn’t say anything to me and worried that I might have overstated the obvious, but in the end, the governor signed the bill. After that, our entire AIDS initiative was implemented except for one thing.

Tony told me about it at a meeting a short time later.

“The governor has signed off on everything except the needle exchange program. He doesn’t want to get into that.”

I thought to argue with Tony, telling him reasons why handing out clean needles to drug addicts so that they don’t get or spread the AIDS virus made sense to me. But then I remembered the governor asking me about the guy in his bar who might have AIDS.

I could imagine the governor explaining to his patrons, as I did to him, about the need to take precautions and to have policies for helping people with AIDS. But, like my father, the governor would not be comfortable with the idea of giving out needles to drug addicts. It would encourage them to continue their drug use and that was not what government should be about.

That’s the kind of guy Gov. O’Neill was and I respected that.

Susan M. Omilian is an attorney and former state employee who lives in West Hartford.

by Susan M. Omilian

Published in The Hartford Courant
November 28, 2007