AARP has long been seen as the domain of the aged. But its new CEO says the group's central issue of health care reform makes it an advocate for every age group.
"This is an issue about the American dream," said Barry Rand, who takes over the 40-million-member AARP on April 6. "We either reinforce the American dream for all or we redefine it."
The more-inclusive approach being championed by Rand gained momentum under outgoing CEO Bill Novelli, whose "Divided We Fail" campaign brought together organizations ranging from labor unions to religious groups to fight for affordable health care for all ages, not just AARP's 50-and-up membership.
The 64-year-old Rand — AARP's first black leader — also sees the group's goal of increasing prosperity for all as an extension of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"They're all about the American dream and were we or they going to be included in the American dream, and we have the same issues now," he said.
Rand joins AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) after a life in corporate America. He joined Xerox Corp. as a salesman in 1968, rising to become an executive vice president overseeing 70,000 employees around the globe.
He was recognized for making the company's staff more diverse and was seen as a potential heir to its top job, but was passed over and left in 1999 to join car-rental company Avis Group Holdings Inc. as its CEO.
But Rand won't just be bringing business acumen to AARP's efforts on members' financial security, civic engagement and, most importantly, health care. He has had firsthand exposure through his father, who lived with him at his Stamford, Conn., home the last eight years of his life. Those years have given Rand experience with the end-of-life issues that are also a big part of the organization's advocacy.
"To have, in this case, my father choose where he wanted to stay shouldn't be a product of luck," he said. "This should be something that Americans have a choice."
Rand doesn't emphasize his race, but says his selection shows AARP is colorblind. However, he said the organization that signed him to a five-year, $575,000-a-year contract could still do a better job with its internal diversity.
Fernando Torres-Gil, who served as the top official on aging during Bill Clinton's first term and now heads UCLA's Center for Policy Research on Aging, said he liked Rand's approach.
"It's not just 'What do we do for old people,' it's 'What do we do for the elderly that benefits society?'" said Torres-Gil, who gathered with thousands of others this week in Las Vegas for the biggest annual conference on aging. "He clearly has all the right skills and background we need and that he happens to be an African-American is just a nice coincidence."
Rand takes his post with the nonpartisan organization as a registered Democrat and has contributed at least $11,050 to Democratic causes and candidates, including Barack Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. His predecessor, Novelli, contributed to candidates of both parties and worked as a public relations expert for Richard Nixon's re-election campaign.
"My job now, as opposed to when I was an individual, is to represent AARP, and I would not do that well if I didn't focus on nonpartisan and bipartisan policies," Rand said.
For now, Rand is getting acclimated to his new job, being briefed by AARP employees and readying for a listening tour with members around the country. Asked if people should know anything more about him, he offered this: "I'm a nice guy."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.