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Powerbroker for those without a voice

Before he took calls from Bono and counted Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as a friend, Tom Sheridan was a New York social worker getting his feet wet in Washington with a tough decision to make.

A nascent AIDS advocacy organization in the late ’80s asked Sheridan three times to start the first AIDS lobby in the United States. Sheridan, who at the time was not openly gay and feared the stigma associated with the job, repeatedly said no. He turned to his grandmother, a devout Catholic, for advice, expecting that she would reassure him of his decision.

He didn’t count on Mother Teresa.

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The famous humanitarian had recently opened an AIDS hospice in D.C., and Sheridan’s grandmother reminded him of this during their conversation. “If it is good enough for Mother Teresa, why wouldn’t it be good enough for you?” she said at the time.

Sheridan listened to his grandmother’s wisdom and took the job with the AIDS Action Council , representing a turning point in his career as a master coalition builder for social causes.

“There is a great passion he has about doing the right thing,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who met Sheridan more than 20 years ago during Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. “He wants to give a voice to people that do not have a voice. He is indefatigable.”

AIDS now is just part of Sheridan’s portfolio. Sheridan opened his own firm in 1991, after several years of what he calls the “best and worst job,” at the helm of the infamous AIDS lobby — a coalition of 140 organizations named NORA, short for National Organization Responding to AIDS . Sheridan to this day recalls the job as being “emotionally and physically draining.” By 1990, he was going to at least three funerals a week. He had come out, but felt he needed a break.

At 30, Sheridan quit the AIDS lobby and spent a month in Africa, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, a lifelong dream. When he returned, Sheridan — who was instrumental in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Ryan White CARE Act — decided that he would never again take on one single issue.

The Sheridan Group now has a varied portfolio including: the American Cancer Society ; the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association ; Oxfam ; and Bono’s Debt AIDS Trade Africa (DATA) organization, as well as the ONE campaign to end global poverty.  

Sheridan does not take naturally to stars. The first time Bono called him, Sheridan thought he was talking with American rocker Jon Bon Jovi. He asked the Irish legend why a singer from New Jersey would take such an interest in Africa.

Unfazed by Sheridan’s pop culture faux pas, Bono convinced him of his dedication to the cause. Bono reached Sheridan through Bobby Shriver. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Shriver’s uncle, recommended Sheridan for the endeavor. Kennedy had worked closely with Sheridan on the ADA legislation and other health-related issues.

“A lot of celebrities use Washington to distract from other things,” Sheridan, 47,  said in an interview at his office far from K Street. He calls the area NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) — his own “New York-ism” for the still up-and-coming neighborhood by the Washington Convention Center.

“The issue is not getting served, but the celebrity is served by the issue,” he added. “Bono was not looking to distract the public.”  

Bono, Sheridan said, comes to Washington several times a year without fanfare and walks the Capitol hallways armed with facts and concrete results of previous congressional funding or help.

“You can’t be an advocate for the world’s poorest people and not show a little humility,” Sheridan said of Bono, who more often than not travels to the Hill without a posse.

Sheridan is now working with singer Ricky Martin on another challenge: human trafficking and slavery, an issue less talked about, and without an actual advocacy organization behind it.

The Ricky Martin Foundation launched a campaign against human trafficking, but without Sheridan’s experience the effort may not easily attract political capital.

“We are doing for them what we did for the AIDS lobby: We are building a coalition,” Sheridan said.
Those who know Sheridan say that coalition-building is his forte.

“Tom is a tremendous strategist,” said Dan Smith with the American Cancer Society Foundation. “Tom is a master coalition builder; he has a wonderful gift in trying to find common interest in people.”

Sheridan’s rise to fame in the non-for-profit community could not have been more coincidental.

Sheridan started out as a social worker in New York with responsibility over a group home for mentally disabled adults. He quickly realized that not even zoning permits could be obtained without political astuteness and decided to go to Washington, the heart of politics.

He started with the National Association of Social Workers in his early 20s, where he was in charge of setting up a political action committee. He later joined the Mondale campaign for two years, earning $15 a day.

After Mondale’s defeat, Sheridan lobbied for the Child Welfare League . There, he learned about “border babies”: infants born to mothers with HIV who were dying, or who themselves had HIV. The New York foster care did not know how to manage these children at a time when everybody was “desperately afraid of the virus.”

Through Sheridan’s lobbying, Congress passed legislation to create specialized foster care programs and high incentives for foster parents willing to take these children. It was considered the first piece of legislation ever to deal with AIDS.

Sheridan downplays the significance — sticking with the strategy that got the law passed. Sheridan underplayed the AIDS issue at the time to get lawmakers to support it. Ultimately, he made the issue about hospitals and hospital support, he said. That was enough for the fledgling AIDS community. The rest is history.

“He brings a fighting spirit and a caring feeling to the people of the movement he is representing, in a more personal and committed [way] than in any other original lobbying or formal setting,” said Kim McCleary with the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Association.

McCleary describes Sheridan as an underdog, representing issues that may not have a chance of being heard. “It’s like the David-and-Goliath struggle,” she said. And like David, Sheridan always wins.