Editor's note, Nov. 4, 2016: Bob Poe lost the primary battle, so he won't be on the ballot this week. But, Poe—who was one of our 2016 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People—tellsl us that since his article ran in Plus magazine, "I've heard from people around the world who now have the courage to share their status and stories with family and friends."
When Bob Poe announced his candidacy to the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida’s 10th District last January, he hadn’t yet come out publically about his HIV status. From first glance, he seems like many other politicians: a good-looking, middle aged, successful white entrepreneur. Behind the suit, however, Poe is anything but your run of the mill politico.
He was “surprised and humbled” after being named to Plus magazine’s 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016, but his colleagues would say his success is anything but unexpected. Media consultant Joel Silberman, who has worked with many polilticians, says Poe is one of those “candidates that take my breath away with their courage.”
If he wins — and he has a real chance of doing so — by the time you read this, Poe will be the first out HIV-positive person elected to Congress. However historic that might be, he remains most passionate about representing the people in his Florida district and putting a face to those living with HIV.
“There hasn’t been a real trailblazer in this area at a political level,” Poe said in an interview after coming out publically on Facebook in June, shortly before the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. “I don’t know why, in the scheme of things, that God decided I would be HIV-positive. But I can tell you that I feel a responsibility — an obligation now — to share my experience.”
He was reminded of that obligation after meeting a young woman on the campaign trail. She was recently diagnosed and feared that her life was over.
“I just wanted to hug her and tell her that she wasn’t alone, that I’m HIV-positive and that I’m happy and healthy and she will be too,” he told Watermark Online. “But I couldn’t.”
That was the moment he knew it was time to come out publically, an experience he describes as liberating. “I’m proud that I was finally able to overcome the fear and shame of living with HIV that I’ve been unnecessarily carrying around for the last 18 years,” he tells Plus. “Sharing my status has been more liberating than I could have ever imagined. If I’m fortunate enough to be elected to Congress, I hope to help erase the stigma and 'other-ness’ that surrounds HIV and those of us living with it.”
Poe says he was first diagnosed in 1998, and the early years were especially hard. While he was chair of the state Democratic Party in 2000, Poe would tear the labels off his medicine bottles, shred them, and drive to a far off location to discard the empty bottles in a random dumpster, terrified someone would find out. He lived like this for years until one day he received clarity.
“I determined that I wouldn’t let it define or defeat me,” he says. “As a result, I’ve been able to achieve all my hopes and dreams.”
At 62 years old, with a daughter from a previous marriage and a new husband (he and Kenneth Brown married last year), Poe is all out of secrets. All that’s left is a bright future, one he hopes will lead him to the steps of Congress.
From the looks of it, this former head of Florida’s Democratic Party is not only breaking barriers, he’s wrecking the political establishment to bits.
The areas he is most focused on are economic empowerment, education and job training, criminal justice reform, and constituent services. Poe supports an increase in the minimum hourly wage to $15, based on lessons he learned from being a successful businessman.“Business people want their customers to be rich, so why would they want their employees to be poor?” he once asked.
His focus on job training addresses an economic climate change, which he says is being motivated by technology. He has also been working to transform a criminal justice system he believes disproportionately persecutes people of color. He’s even knocked on doors to find “people that have been disenfranchised [from] our economy and our entire society.”
Poe’s career began as a 12-year-old who once skipped work at his father’s convenience store and wandered into the Sarasota County Democratic Headquarters. That led to handing out leaflets in 1966, then to heading Florida’s Democratic Party in the 2000s. If he wins, it will have taken 50 years to get to Congress, but he believes there’s so much left to be done, and — just as he isn’t willing to be quiet about his HIV status — he’s not willing to wait another day to get down to business.
“There’s an old saying: ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.’ What we’ve got now is a group of career politicians and bureaucrats that can’t seem to get anything done.”
His edge in this race? “My message, my penchant for fearless hard work and, hopefully, a measure of good luck,” he says.