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Cause and Effectiveness

AIDS Walk: Organizer Craig Miller has tapped his deep roots in activism to raise millions to fight HIV.

September 29, 1996|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was the kid in junior high who campaigned for liberal politicians, who worried about supersonic transport planes and collected signatures to halt the clubbing of baby seals.

More than two decades later, Craig Miller is still at it. And AIDS sufferers across the United States have come to appreciate his activist inclinations.

Miller's for-profit fund-raising organization--whose crown jewel, AIDS Walk Los Angeles, will hold its 12th annual event today--has helped raise more than $100 million to assist those with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"I knew that I wanted to do something meaningful about AIDS," Miller said. "And I knew how to organize."

AIDS Project Los Angeles, which buys groceries, finds housing and provides dozens of other services with the money raised, will honor Miller during today's opening ceremonies.

A tall, 37-year-old with a radio voice and made-for-TV slate-blue eyes, Miller, it seems, was destined to grapple with the disease.

He is the son of politically active parents--a former Los Angeles city administrator and a Canoga Park High School teacher opposed to the Vietnam War. Miller said he acquired his self-described progressive bent in the late 1960s and early 1970s while growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

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Although he is now known primarily as a fund-raiser, Miller honed his populist style and organizing skills while toiling just out of the eye of stormy California politics.

The lessons would serve him well when he began raising money for AIDS causes.

"He has the kind of relationships in the business, entertainment and political worlds that allow him to get this up and running smoothly," said James Loyce, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles. "You have to deal with the police. You have to deal with parking on city streets."

Miller began dealing with government agencies and issues on a regular basis in 1980. That year, he was lured home from a Northern California community college by a friend who had decided to run for the state Assembly. Then 21, he was quickly promoted to campaign manager.

He guided his candidate, an unknown with little money, to victory in a raucous, four-way primary before losing in the general election.

As a young, gay man, he said, he paid close attention to track the emerging horror then known as GRID, for Gay-Related Immunodeficiency. He said he could tell early on the costs of the disease were going to be very high. He also worried the federal government was doing little but watch as friends became sick and died.

In 1982, at age 23, he began working on the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills). In 1984, he became campaign manager. It was the first of six races that Miller would manage and win for Beilenson.

Beilenson, who is retiring from Congress this year, called Miller a "brilliant young strategist," adding, with a chuckle, "good enough to keep me elected."

"No one in America has organized more people to get involved in the fight against AIDS than Craig Miller," Beilenson said.

The same year he started managing Beilenson's campaigns, Miller began work on the first AIDS Walk. About 4,500 mostly gay and lesbian people showed up. By 1995, 22,000 people from every walk of life were participating, and raising $3.4 million.

Organizing AIDS Walk Los Angeles--or AIDS Walk San Francisco, or New York, or Denver or Atlanta, which Miller's outfit also does--is not unlike running a congressional campaign. And the walk's Hollywood Boulevard headquarters looks similar to the offices of a candidate on a budget. Miller, for instance, worked to keep overhead costs at 21.5% last year--a respectable figure contrasted with other large fund-raising efforts.

Hand-painted posters are stacked by the dozens against walls. Volunteers hunker down at phone banks. The boss' office is as cluttered as any other with boxes of brochures, and the phone calls are never-ending.

In the first year of the walk, with many still viewing AIDS as a gay disease, one of Miller's primary goals was to make heterosexual walkers feel comfortable. He enlisted former Mayor Tom Bradley as honorary chairman, and with the support of several corporations, went a long way toward popularizing the effort.

The recent news on the effectiveness of protease inhibitors in fighting AIDS has prompted a surge in interest in the walk, Miller said. He continues to sustain hope for a cure.

"In the early days of the AIDS Walk, we didn't think we'd be doing this for 12 years."

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