Loudmouths

In the battle against AIDS, some people say shouting is more effective than talking. And if you don't agree, watch out!

Other former board members, former volunteers, and community activists who have had close contact with PWAC also say Hutchison extracts a high price. For example, Jon Cullipher, chairman of the Metro-Dade HIV Health Services Planning Council, sued Hutchison for libel this past October. Cullipher and Timothy Koontz, who served on the PWAC board for a year and a half, say they were defamed by statements contained in formal written complaints Hutchison submitted to the council last July.

Joel Rappaport, who once chaired the advocacy committee at PWAC, says the latter dispute strikes him as a waste of resources. "Tim Koontz is not perfect," he allows, "but to expend the time and energy attacking people with AIDS who have no vested interest and are trying to do some good -- that's insane. Who's the enemy? They're eating their own."

Current members of PWAC counter that having AIDS doesn't necessarily mean someone is beyond reproach, especially if that person is making questionable decisions about public monies. "I get so ticked off at some the injustices I see and some of the things people do," Hutchison says, referring to his vitriolic remarks at council meetings. "I got really ticked off at Tim Koontz and Jon Cullipher. In reality I love them, but I just can't agree with not standing up against the system. I can accept them as they are and I can love them, but please, don't stand in my way when I have a cause."

It wasn't so long ago that Hutchison himself was very much a part of the system. Born and reared in Tampa, he moved to Miami 30 years ago and started a successful trucking company. He lived quietly with his mother until she died fifteen years ago. "Even after all these years, I still miss my mother tremendously," Hutchison says. "My mother and I were best friends. I have a life-size portrait of her hanging in my living room. She's like an icon to me."

The daughter of an independent oil producer, Hutchison's mother paid for the education of nineteen underprivileged children and was one of the first large donors to Oral Roberts University, her son recalls. Hutchison says he was always inspired to root for the underdog, but it wasn't until he reluctantly became involved in AIDS activism that he began to act on his feelings.

Hutchison says both he and his partner, Gene Suarez, learned they were HIV positive in 1987. While Suarez began obsessively attending informational meetings and support groups, Hutchison withdrew. "I just felt, 'I'm going to stay home and I'm going to get ready to die. I'm going to watch Oprah, Phil, Sally.' And I did A for months and months. I stayed home and watched T.V. I slept. I cleaned out the closets. And a few months went by and I wasn't dead, and then a year went by and I was still breathing."

Hutchison eventually began accompanying Suarez to meetings. The first time he went to PWAC he wasn't impressed by what he saw. "It was this seedy little place with two cardboard boxes of files and unpaid bills that were just piled on the floor," he says, his nose wrinkling at the memory. "And I thought this is a coalition of people who are dying of AIDS, and it should amount to something."

He eased into activism, participating in committees to find new office space and gradually learning how federal funding for AIDS is allocated and spent in Dade County. Suarez became president of the PWAC board, and Hutchison found himself inexorably drawn into a vortex of local government meetings.

The more he learned, the angrier he became. According to both Suarez and Hutchison, the social service system that had sprung up around the needs of AIDS patients wasn't simply confusing, it was ineffective and corrupt. Providers were sitting on county and state boards doling out money to their own enterprises without considering the needs of the infected population or the requirements of the Sunshine Law.

When Suarez stepped down, Hutchison took his place and the organization soon began to reflect his personality. "Gene keeps telling me, 'Chuck, you're too strong,'" Hutchison concedes. "He says, 'That letter is too strong. That article is too strong.' I do not make weak statements, I do not write weak letters, and I do not write weak articles." Nor does he banish those who disagree with him. The only people who have been barred from PWAC's property, he says, are those suspected of theft.

Bob Ladner, president of Behavioral Science Research, which has conducted several studies of AIDS providers at the behest of the county, says Hutchison tends to be his own worst enemy. "I'm in the strange position of agreeing largely with what PWAC says and disagreeing with how they say it," Ladner explains. "Sometimes I think they foam at the mouth a little bit. They report what they see, they overstate their case, and they scream when they should speak. But underneath it all, they are pointing to real issues. Are they obnoxious? Without a doubt. Are they right? Generally, yes."

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