Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) was in an Ethiopian refugee camp, standing at what he calls "the end of the Earth." An official was explaining the desolation; Leland was looking at it.
"I was asking him about this little girl who looked to be about 70 or 80 years old -- a skeleton of a person with a thin layer of brown skin draped on her, who had just a faint breath of life in her," says Leland, speaking slowly, with a sorrowful resonance. "While I was talking to him, she died. I can see her face right now. Every day I see her face."
The girl was 14.
Filled with hopelessness and impatient with the talk of statistics and plans, Leland walked away from the visiting congressional delegation. Then he ran into a child who spoke English and who wanted to know his name. "He started repeating 'Mickey, Mickey,' " recalls Leland. And in that instant, Leland found a way to "give them some good feelings about themselves." The U.S. congressman and the Ethiopian children chanted together. First, "Mickey, Mickey" for about 30 minutes. Then a kid yelled "Disco," and a new chant echoed around the barren camp.
By this point the entire delegation was watching the exchange of instant love. "Then I said 'I,' they said 'I,' I said 'love,' they said 'love,' and I said 'you' and they said 'you.' They were happy kids at that point," says Leland, 10 months and 7,000 miles away in a congressional dining room, recalling the moment he gained "an even larger heart."
In the past year, the 40-year-old four-term congressman from Houston has applied what his friends call his "humanity" to influential tasks as chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger and of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is holding its annual legislative weekend through Sunday. "I am now an activist on behalf of humanity everywhere, whether it is in Ethiopia . . . South Africa . . . Chile . . . in any part of the world where people are desperate and hungry for the freedoms and rights they serve as human beings," he says. "That is my community, that is my battleground."
But Leland's world is not limited to the 1980s wars on hunger. He also plunges into more politically risky business. He currently opposes the U.S. Conference of Bishops in their support of an antiabortion amendment to the proposed Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985; Leland, a practicing Roman Catholic, says the fight causes him "a terrible internal struggle." He is the member of Congress closest to Fidel Castro and has been an emissary of the State Department to the Cuban president; "While I disagree with his fundamental ideology . . . I respect him for his intellect," he says.
In the 1984 presidential primary, he supported former vice president Walter Mondale over the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a position that angered many black colleagues and ultimately cost him his post as chairman of the Democratic National Committee's black caucus; he says he "still has the scars." He has bicycled through Israel, sends Houston youngsters to a kibbutz and describes himself as a "staunch friend of Israel," but he says he is also for the self-determination of the Palestinians. He has tangled repeatedly with television executives over off-camera employment and the image of minorities in prime-time programming, and with the Federal Communications Commission over affirmative action policies in the industry. A full year before Diahann Carroll and Billy Dee Williams showed up on "Dynasty," he grilled ABC executives about why the show didn't have any black characters. Now he is livid with Williams for saying his recent roles weren't due to any pressure.
In the Washington places where criticism of a liberal politician like Leland naturally breeds, he appears to have ruffled few feathers. "We vote 100 percent different," says Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.), but "we are able to dialogue and I find it ironic that I am teaching him how to play basketball." Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), a conservative who voted against forming the Hunger Committee but later joined it, says, "We agree on the problems. We disagree on most of the solutions, but we do talk about those issues."
But some of his colorful retorts have angered Black Caucus colleagues. Earlier this year, for example, Roland Burris, an Illinois politician, was defeated in the black caucus of the DNC he ran for party vice chairman. Paul Kirk, the chairman of the DNC, then let the full DNC vote on the job and Burris won. "Burris let himself be used," says Leland, who says he supported Burris in the caucus but felt Burris should stand by the caucus' vote. In a press conference after the February vote, Leland used the analogy of the loyalty house slaves felt toward plantation masters. A reporter asked him what he was trying to say and Leland recalls saying, "The conventional term is Uncle Tom." "They are the ones who called him an Uncle Tom," he says. "I didn't . . . I opposed what Burris had done. And if the shoe fits wear it."
"I am not a conventional politician -- by no means," he says.
Leland grew up in a working class neighborhood of Houston. He says he learned his values from the sacrifices of his mother, a teacher who had put herself through school working as a short-order cook.
Health and hunger issues aren't new to him. As a pharmacy student at Texas Southern, Leland was attracted to the work of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a group of health professionals who established free health clinics, and the Black Panther Party, which was giving free breakfasts to school children and operating free clinics. He led a student group to invite Stokely Carmichael and other young civil rights leaders to campus. "They were expressing the anger and anguish of black people at that time. They were the ones who would step up and be bold enough to challenge the white establishment. I was impressed with that," says Leland.
Houston, which was not in the vanguard of civil rights and antiwar activities, was surprised at this emerging leader, who formed a group called The Black Community Action Team -- or The Black Cats.
His political influences -- which ranged from Malcolm X to writer Amiri Baraka to Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere -- along with his look at the time -- dashikis and a seven-inch Afro -- naturally led to his being labeled a radical. "I never considered myself to be radical because I fought for the rights of human beings," he says. In the years between college and politics, he helped establish three health clinics in Houston and then taught at Texas Southern for a year.
In 1972 Leland began to focus on establishment politics as a continuation of his activism and won his first race for the Texas House of Representatives. In Austin, he championed health issues, battling the pharmaceutical lobby by pushing for a generic substitution bill and for legislation to make it harder for kids to buy over-the-counter cough medicine, which they were using as a stimulant.
But his impact was broader than the issues he focused on. "He could legitimately have been called a focal point in changing attitudes toward minorities. He showed that minorities in Texas were a coming political force," says Rep. Ronald Coleman (D-Tex.), who shared a desk with Leland in Austin.
When former Texas representative Barbara Jordan announced she was retiring, Leland decided to go for the national arena. "The legislature had closed in on me." So the summer he had planned to spend on a kibbutz he ran for Congress instead, and at age 33 beat two more-established politicians.
In the 13 years Leland has been an elected politician, he has developed a reputation for coalition building. "There are people inside the House who are more effective. But Mickey just needs more time in a day. His strength is in building that network inside and out," says Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.). A close friend, Richardson talks about Leland's hyperactivity: "When we are both in town on Saturdays, we have gone to see three movies in a day to catch up with the way normal people live. One time we saw 'Rambo,' 'Missing in Action' and 'Back to the Future.' Mickey works and plays hard and he is effective both ways."
Leland started to advocate a caucus on world hunger when he joined Congress in 1979. At first he ran up against a stone wall. He was opposed by people who thought another select committee was crazy. And he was opposed by congressmen who thought he was infringing on their turf of foreign relations, agriculture and appropriations. He kept trying.
After four years, when even the horrors he described from a 1983 trip to Ethiopia didn't sway the sentiment, Leland, as he puts it, "went to the people." He rallied all the organizations that had hunger issues on their portfolio. Then he called in the celebrities, such as John Denver, Valerie Harper and Cliff Robertson. Then Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. lent his prestige. Finally Leland invited members who felt their turf was being threatened to be members of the caucus. Authorized in the spring of 1984, the committee in one year has provided the momentum and visibility that resulted in $800 million appropriated for famine relief.
In the range of telecommunications issues Leland has advocated, he has met greatest resistance on his push for stricter hiring percentages for minorities and women. "Two or three years ago, he wanted more stringent percentages of minorities and women for all jobs. Our position was that the commission's guidelines were adequate," explains John Summers, executive vice president, government relations for the National Association of Broadcasters. "But he is a good advocate for what he believes in. On an issue like that we understand where he is coming from."
But some groups feel Leland's work on the important House Energy and Commerce Committee hasn't gone far enough. "They have been jumping up and down about minority ownership and employment. But we work with these companies every day, we are always pressuring. His efforts could have been more effective if he worked with us on a regular basis," says Pluria Marshall, the president of the National Black Media Coalition.
Yet it is in lobbying for minority ownership that Leland has had his greatest success. Earlier this year when Capital Cities Communications annnounced it was buying the American Broadcasting Companies Inc., Leland initiated a meeting of Cap Cities executives and minority investors to discuss any acquisitions by minorities or women. As a result, a television station and two radio stations are minority-owned.
The Black Caucus, currently 20 Democratic members, has a role magnified beyond its numbers. It is regarded as representing a national constituency and acts as spokesman on a realm of topics touching minority America.
Traditionally, the Caucus has boxed vigorously with the White House, whether its residents were Democrats or Republicans, and more often than not the Caucus has found itself shadow-boxing.
That's true in the Leland regime. President Reagan hasn't met with the Caucus since 1981, but Leland met with him last December to discuss famine relief after the congressional trip to Ethiopia.
"He immediately upon our request diverted a ship that was going to India with food to Ethiopia. I was really happy -- for the first time proud -- that President Reagan was our president. He was far greater concerned than I had seen him on any issue dealing with human beings. That was a rare occasion, I might add," says Leland.
Otherwise, he says, the relationship between the Caucus and the White House is "very bad" -- then reconsiders and continues -- "It is not bad, it is not good, it is nonexistent." Not meeting with the Black Caucus, says Leland, "is past being just insensitive. It is an evil character who refuses to spend time with people who have a deep abiding concern about humanity when we are in severe jeopardy."
Each fall the Caucus sponsors a five-day round of panels, hearings, speeches and receptions. It's an unusual effort for a congressional body, and the events attract at least 10,000 people each year. "They come here to listen, they come here to help us develop agendas for the next year," says Leland.
Some find romance. At the Caucus weekend three years ago, Leland met Alison Walton, then 24 and a Georgetown University law student. Nine months later they were married. "Well, I wasn't about to marry an older woman," he says archly of the teasing that came because of the couple's age difference. Leland, who looks both impish and handsome, was considered quite a catch. He is broad-shouldered and muscular with just enough swagger to give his Giorgio Amani suits some personal flair. He has an expansive smile and his light green eyes have that "who-are-you-kidding" skepticism.
Right now, the anticipation of fatherhood for the first time early next year makes Leland come alive even more than global questions. "One of the happiest occasions of my life was getting married and the knowledge I am going to be a father. I have always wanted to be a father," says Leland, who used to memorize the names of all the children of his fellow members of the Texas legislature, worked in the Big Brother program with a teen-ager in the Shaw area of Washington, and is trying to get a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for David, the Houston youngster who spent most of his life living in a bubble.
His interest in young people seems constant. A few nights ago, outside Sen. Claiborne Pell's (D-R.I.) home, Leland struck up a conversation in Spanish -- which he has used on the House floor -- with a student parking cars. "When he said he was from Puerto Rico, Mickey said, 'Did you know Raul Julia is inside?' The student's eyes just lit up and Mickey took the guy back inside," recounts Alison Leland. "I turned to someone and jokingly said, 'This kid is probably coming over for dinner tomorrow night.' When he got in the car Mickey said, 'We are having dinner together on Sunday.' "