From the District to Washington

If you work in politics and you don’t know A. Barry Rand, you’d better get to know him.

Rand took over in April as the CEO of AARP, the fearsome seniors’ lobby, replacing Bill Novelli, a familiar face in the halls of power.

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Now is a critical time for the organization, which is a major player in the healthcare debate, and while Rand is new to “official Washington,” he’s spent decades working in the highest echelon of corporate America and breaking barriers along the way.

“What is new is my participation in the process, but I don’t consider myself a sort of ‘baby-in-arms’ here,” said Rand, 64, during an interview at the AARP’s vast headquarters during his 30th day on the job last month.

“I don’t think I’m an unknown quantity, and I start with the fact that I represent a great organization that is influential and I think one of the reasons why people in general will reach out to me is that they know I’m a good guy,” Rand said with a laugh, “but, in fact, they do because I represent AARP.”

Dropping the name AARP on Capitol Hill is no small advantage. The nonpartisan organization may not endorse political candidates or make campaign contributions. But the group, which represents people 50 and older, commands the attention of its more than 40 million members —members who just happen to belong to the segment of the population that votes in droves.

President George W. Bush was on both ends of the group’s influence during his tenure. Bush and the congressional GOP scored a major coup when the AARP endorsed their legislation to create a prescription drug benefit for Medicare members in 2003, much to the chagrin of Democrats who tend to consider the AARP a tacit ally. But two years later, the AARP helped crush Bush’s plan to add private accounts to Social Security.

Rand is no stranger to the city. He is a third-generation Washingtonian who graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School and American University.

Though he doesn’t have the political background of most trade association leaders — he’s not a former congressman, Cabinet official or ex-Capitol Hill aide — he possesses an impressive résumé.

Rand worked his way up during 31 years at Xerox, going from sales representative to the company’s senior management ranks. He also earned an M.B.A. from Stanford.

But it was in 1999 when Rand made history by being named chairman and CEO of Avis, becoming the first African-American to run a Fortune 500 company.

Rand left Avis after Cendant acquired the company in 2001, then took over as chairman and CEO of the business-services firm Equitant in 2003 until IBM bought the company in 2005. He essentially retired after that, but he has been chairman of the board of trustees at Howard University since 2006.

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It was the opportunity to change history that led him home again. He took the job as AARP gears up to fight for one of the most elusive political victories in American politics: healthcare reform.

“We can’t survive with the cost of healthcare as we know it today,” Rand said. “No one can survive. This economy won’t survive. The competitiveness can’t survive. And everyone is impacted — that’s No. 1. And No. 2, we must do something now — now.”

While Rand acknowledges that he’s still getting up to speed on some details, he knows he’s backed up by one of Washington’s best policy and politics teams and probably the most active grassroots networks and voting blocs in America.

“I’m clear that this is not about Barry Rand. This is about Barry Rand and [the] leadership representing AARP,” he said. “AARP is well-known, its influence is well-known, its power base is well-known, and what the members think is well-known, and so we first reflect the membership,” he said.

That membership thinks the healthcare system is broken and needs to be fixed now, Rand said.

“AARP, as an example, is a third Republican, a third Democrat and a third independent, so their thoughts are diverse. But I’d say their acceptance level is universally: ‘We don’t like it and we won’t stand for it.’ ”

Rand sees himself as an agent of “social change.” Before he was the nation’s first black CEO at Avis, he helped turn Xerox into one of America’s most diverse big businesses, all the while helping to make that company more successful.

“I believe I’ve been involved in social change my whole life. I happen to have done it in a more difficult environment, which is the sort of corporate America environment. Results are measured slightly differently,” he explained.

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Being a voice for social change isn’t effective if you aren’t excelling at your job, Rand said. “Your voice will be heard better if you can achieve against those measures of performance,” he said.

Rand doesn’t believe he had to work harder than others to attain his goals: “My family taught me that you were obligated to push for social change and inclusion so you don’t consider it work. You consider it part of your life,” he said.

“I’ve described myself as a son of the ’60s. Even though we were focused on things that had slightly different names — civil rights, rights for the aged or rights for the poor and near-poor, women’s rights — the real issue, though, is that we were fighting for people who were excluded from the American Dream.

“Now, we’re fighting for the same thing. I believe that healthcare, and therefore the healthcare reform we’re involved in now, and financial security are fundamental to the American Dream.”

At the same time, Rand has another perspective on healthcare as a former executive, which means he can speak the language of business leaders. That includes the CEOs of the Business Roundtable, a partner with the AARP, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Service Employees International Union in Divided We Fail, a nonpartisan coalition pushing for health reform.

“I clearly understand that the cost of healthcare affects their competitiveness,” he said. Rand also knows what it’s like when a business is confronted with difficult choices about layoffs, benefit cuts and other “alternatives which no one likes.”

“I see it both from the employer who is struggling to avoid those alternatives that we talked about and I see it from those people, those Americans, who are suffering greatly because of the cost of the system and other failures of the system,” he said.