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Why Did Bernie Sanders Cancel a High-Profile Meeting With AIDS Activists?

US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a campaign rally in Salem, Oregon, May 10, 2016. 
Sanders beat
US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a campaign rally in Salem, Oregon, May 10, 2016. Sanders beat rival Democrat Hillary Clinton in the West Virginia primary to bolster his argument for remaining in the race. / AFP / Rob Kerr (Photo credit should read ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)

The math may be nearly impossible in the pledged delegate count, but Bernie Sanders has said he is staying in the Democratic race to win the nomination for the presidency. He repeated it again after pulling out a big win in West Virginia's primary yesterday. He's even discussed going all the way to the convention and keeping the nomination contested, trying to get superdelegates to back him -- even though he and some progressive groups that backed him were, from the beginning of the primary race, hostile to the idea of superdelegates thwarting the will of the voters.

But if Sanders' intent on all of this is sincere, it's baffling that Sanders canceled an important meeting with AIDS activists of several prominent groups, individuals who'd spent money on last-minute expensive airfare and made travel plans for a highly-publicized meeting with the candidate on May 3. And it may be a big hint that Sanders and his campaign truly know it's over for them and have no intention of trying to win the nomination, let alone contesting it and winning over superdelegates.

The history of the meeting, ironically, goes back to Hillary Clinton's mind-boggling gaffe during Nancy Reagan's funeral in which she called the late first lady "a very effective, low-key advocate" for AIDS who "started a national conversation" about the issue.Nancy Reagan and her husband, the president, in actuality ignored the AIDS epidemic in the early years, bowing to religious conservatives, all of which has been documented for posterity. Clinton was quick to apologize on Twitter. Sanders took advantage of the strange comments, harshly criticizing Clinton in interviews, and then suddenly had a terrific HIV policy paper on his web site. Clinton offered a more lengthy, thoughtful apology, and laid out further prescriptions for dealing with the HIV epidemic in a piece on Medium.

Both candidates had given hardly any attention to HIV and AIDS and other issues affecting LGBT people during the campaign; partially this was because of moderators at debates rarely even raising the issues. As I wrote at the time, Nancy Reagan indeed finally started a conversation on AIDS -- 35 years later.

When prominent AIDS activist Peter Staley and others reached out to Clinton to discuss her policy prescriptions in a meeting with AIDS activists, taking advantage of the comments and looking to turn them into a positive, her campaign quickly agreed. Soon after, Staley announced, the Sanders campaign had agreed to a meeting as well.

The Clinton meeting is happening tomorrow. But the Sanders meeting was canceled two days before its May 3 date with a promise of rescheduling, and yet the campaign is not returning calls or emails to the activists. "They sent a 'need to reschedule' email last Sunday (for our Tuesday meeting), and then bizarrely stopped communications completely after that," Staley told the Washington Blade. "We've been emailing and calling every day since then, including warning them days ago about our intent to go public."

Charles King, CEO of the New York-based Housing Works, said the cancellation was "incredibly disappointing" and told the Blade:

I have been a supporter of Bernie Sanders, and was proud to vote for him in the New York primary. It is disheartening to see the 'revolutionary' candidate who claims to value grassroots organizing and visionary politics not make time in his schedule to meet with us.

The cancellation drew a backlash online and, as the controversy blew up on social media, Sanders, rather than addressing it in any way, simply tweeted a link to his AIDS policy position paper again. When asked for comment about the cancellation, Michael Briggs, Sanders campaign spokesman, reiterated to The Hill that Sanders has a great record on LGBT issues and AIDS, but no explanation for the cancellation of the meeting was given. (I reached out to Briggs for an interview with Sanders to discuss the issue on my radio program, but the campaign did not respond.)

With the California primary on June 7, this doesn't sound like someone who truly wants to win the nomination. There are large, politically-active LGBT communities in Los Angeles and in the Bay Area -- where Sanders has enjoyed a great deal of support -- and alienating this constituency at this point just seems like shooting himself in the foot, not just with the voters but with superdelegates representing all the diverse groups affected by HIV and AIDS. "The AIDS epidemic in Black America is a real and serious threat," said Phill Wilson, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. "I would suspect any candidate seeking the support and votes of Black Americans need to treat it as such."

It could simply be another example of the overall disorganization and arrogance of the Sanders campaign that many of us experienced throughout. The campaign turned away interviews with Sanders with much of the progressive media, including black radio as well as progressive radio (full disclosure: that includes my own program on SiriusXM Progress), choosing instead, again and again, the major news organizations and TV media that Sanders derides as being owned by nefarious corporations. One would think that he'd want to use outlets that energize grass roots support, particularly among constituencies in the base of the Democratic Party in which he has been lacking support and energy.

But there seems to be something else going on with regard to the cancellation of the meeting with the AIDS activists. The campaign was on top of the issue soon after Clinton's comments, after all, exploiting them to make gains with a politically-active constituency that could help in New York and the Northeast. It's an issue that has enormous potential to underscore the deep problems in America's health care system and why universal health care, Sanders' signature plan, is needed more than ever.

So to just cancel the meeting, and not even make a big effort at damage control, seems to be an admission that focusing on the issue, or any issue in a granular way that takes time and resources, is no longer important. When he's not insisted that he's still in this to win the nomination, Sanders has in recent weeks talked about looking to get as many delegates as possible heading into the convention, desiring an influence on shaping the party platform.

The cancellation of the meeting seems an indication, no matter what he and his campaign say, that Sanders knows the race is over and that he's lost. He should then admit that or allude to it in more overt ways and bring people together, rather than both keep his supporters believing he can win (while they attack his opponent, sometimes in destructive ways), and harming his own reputation by actions such as canceling this important meeting and offering no explanation.

Correction: An earlier version of this post quoted Ernest Hopkins of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation saying that the Sanders campaign asked that only Sanders supporters from the AIDS groups attend the meeting. Activist Peter Staley says that, in fact, this was a misunderstanding among the activists and was not something insisted upon by the campaign.