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Ronald Dellums

A 'Loudmouth' Leaves Retirement for the Global War on AIDS

August 20, 2000|Susan Anderson | Susan Anderson has written for The Nation and LA Weekly

Poverty is now considered a major factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Lack of resources and education, as well as limited access to adequate health care among the world's population, are increasingly seen as contributors to the AIDS crisis. While the plague is a global one, nowhere has its horrors been more vivid than in Africa, as the recent International Conference on AIDS, held in Durban, South Africa, attested.

To increase public awareness and address the global nature of the crisis, President Bill Clinton, in March, appointed Ronald V. Dellums chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Since then, Dellums has used his new platform to push for massive, strategic AIDS funding around the world, especially in Africa. Dellums also helped Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa) win congressional approval of the Global AIDS and Tuberculosis Relief Act of 2000, which allocates $1.14 billion over the next two years to fight AIDS and funds a new World Bank AIDS trust. The bill was awaiting Clinton's signature. Dellums also led a "town hall" on AIDS for delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Dellums hails from a family whose name is synonymous with politics. His uncle, C.L. Dellums, was a Bay Area leader of the Pullman Porters union, an officer in the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and chairman of the California Fair Employment Practices Commission for 25 years.

From 1967 to 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, Dellums was a member of the Berkeley City Council. In 1970, he was elected to Congress, the first African American to represent the white-majority 9th District. Peace activists called him a "moral beacon," while one congressional colleague derided him as a "bomb thrower." President Richard M. Nixon put Dellums in the top 10 on his infamous enemies list. But by the time he retired from Congress in 1998, Dellums enjoyed a reputation for fairness and courtesy even among House conservatives.

Dellums says his "greatest legislative and personal achievement" was leading Congress in its override of President Ronald Reagan's veto of sanctions against apartheid South Africa in 1986, after a nearly 15-year campaign. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he helped defeat the MX mobile-missile system, curtailed production of the B-2 bomber and conducted his own hearings into the Reagan-era military buildup.

In addition to chairing the AIDS advisory council, Dellums is president of Healthcare International Management Company, which provides AIDS services to Africa, and board chairman of Constituency for Africa. He lives in Washington with his wife, Cynthia. Dellums was interviewed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.


Question: How did you get involved in the AIDS issue?

Answer: I was invited to become a member of the national board of AIDS Action. At the first meeting, I was introduced and asked to say a few words. I said, "I would like to apologize to everyone in this room. I spent 27 years in the Congress of the United States, 31 years in political office, and I'd like to think that with that level of experience, I understood the gravity of the problems with AIDS. But it wasn't until I left the continental limits of the United States and set foot in countries in Africa that I really came face to face with the magnitude of the disease. . . .

I really retired to walk away and do something else with my life. But I ran into this problem and said, "Hey, I have to try to do something about it." I felt that what was needed was a loudmouth activist to try to help make this country and the world uncomfortable with what's happening in Africa. I can't blame anybody else unless I'm willing to step out there and do my very, very best. And I'm hoping that the plate gets so crowded that I can quietly exit into my retirement, and I've done my job.

Q: How bad is it in Africa?

A: Between 11 million and 12 million Africans have died since the first case of AIDS was determined. Africans are dying at a rate of between 6,000 and 7,000 a day. It's estimated that over the next year, minimally, 2.3 million Africans are going to die. In the first 10 years of this new century, we are going to be looking at more than 23 million people dying, unless we do something very significant. Life expectancy all over Africa has dropped about 20 years. In Sierra Leone, life expectancy is 35 and falling. In Zimbabwe, it has dropped into the high 30s and falling. All over southern Africa, life expectancy has dropped into the 40s and falling.

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