Keep your eye out for the results of the mayoral race in the city of Hudson this Tuesday (Nov. 5). What was already a competitive race between the Republican incumbent mayor, William Hallenbeck, and his Democratic opponent, Victor Mendolia, has now become a highly publicized affair that has opened up a dialogue that goes beyond the usual talking points of the campaign trail.
Mendolia has been HIV positive for about 27 years and is currently on full disability—facts that he has not kept secret. Should it matter?
Donna Vancavage, director of marketing and development for the Aids Council of Northeastern New York, doesn’t think so. “It is discriminatory in that there are reasons, there are laws in place to keep people from being discriminated against. The fact that someone is HIV positive is a moot point. It doesn’t matter. If the person [who is] running had been treated for cancer, would that affect his or her ability to do the job?”
How far do those laws go to protect someone’s privacy? “On any job application for employment, you legally can’t be asked if you have HIV. It should have never been an issue that came up,” Vancavage said.
But it did come up in Hudson about a week ago. Mendolia posted on his website that he had received an e-mail from an employee at a senior home, where Hallenbeck had a speaking engagement. The email said: “Just wanted to let you know that Hallenbeck has told a Schuyler Court resident that you have AIDS. The residents at Providence Hall told me he was here last night to speak and told them also that you have AIDS and that you are on disability.”
The email continued: “He also told them since he was a police officer years ago, that he got lots of information on you and that they would be shocked if they knew what you did.”
“I don’t have AIDS,” said Mendolia. “In the past year my HIV viral load has become undetectable.”
Hallenbeck maintained that he was only answering the questions that people presented to him and that people frequently wanted to know about Mendolia.
“He has made this his campaign issue and in some ways his main platform,” said Hallenbeck. In an interview with WAMC, Hallenbeck said: “Mr. Mendolia’s social media conduct is apprehensible.”
“I wish we weren’t focusing on this issue, but I knew that people may have questions and that I would talk about it,” said Mendolia.
This wasn’t his ideal path to public office, he said. It was while he served as chair of the Hudson Democratic Committee that he said he experienced a lot of the behind-the-scenes work of politics, and when there was no challenger to Hallenbeck, he decided to step forward.
“The opportunity presented itself,” he said. “My health has improved, and it seemed like the right time to do it, I wanted to step up and do it.” Mendolia has published a list of initiatives he’d like to see implemented, such as developing the waterfront and addressing the commerical district, which is thriving, but has little room to expand without further development.
“We have an infrastructure that can handle more,” he said. “We used to have a population of 15,000, now it’s 6,500. The property tax burden is high, it’s unsustainable and we have to turn that around.”
He invited Hallenbeck to participate in a debate, which Hallenbeck declined. Mendolia also held a moderated town-hall-style meeting, and invited Hallenbeck, who again declined to participate.
But that doesn’t mean that the conversation stopped.
“Some residents have asked the question of not what his disability is but that he’s on full disability,” said Hallenbeck. “If you’re on full disability how could you run for mayor, with how demanding it is? If the doctor says he’s capable of working, why is he on full disability? Maybe if that’s the case people should know they can run for public office on disability.”
Mendolia said that he is on what Social Security disability calls the “Ticket to Work” program. “It’s a pathway to going back to work,” he said. “Even when you’re on disability you can be working, if you’re not making more that $500 a month. There are incentives to work, and encouragement that you go back to work—and that’s what I plan on doing.”
He said that overall the campaign is going well. “I have a real shot. The registration here is 3-to-1 Democrat. Last election, [Hallenbeck] only won by 53 votes. I’m going to keep working as hard as possible between now and Tuesday.”