Daughter’s AIDS death crushed her spirit, but opportunity to serve ‘saved my life,’ Jacquie Sullivan says

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — For a quarter century now, the words “Ward 6” have been attached to her name like they are part of it. ​ Somehow, quiet, consistent Jacquie Sullivan has become the longest serving member of the Bakersfield City Council — six full terms and part of a seventh, a total of 25 years.​

Now, Sullivan has announced, she will step away at year’s end, content with her legacy of service — a legacy that includes a profoundly personal re-direction that most of her constituents might not know.​

Sullivan, who gave her very first interview as an elected official to this reporter 25 years ago, sat down on the same cool patio last week to take stock of things.

Thirty years ago Sullivan was a hard working Bakersfield realtor, the married mother of three girls and a boy — and an active, card-carrying member of Kern County’s thriving Republican Party.​

Things changed when a pending council vacancy created a need within the local Republican apparatus for a candidate — someone faithful to party ideals who was willing to do the work to get elected — and willing afterward to learn on the job.​

Among the possible candidates the GOP Central Committee contacted was Sullivan, who promptly put the idea out of her mind.​ She had other things to think about — things like her daughter Joyce Boden.​

“She was one of the first young women to get infected with AIDS,” Sullivan said. “It’s just so bizarre, you know. (Her sister) Julie won a trip for two to Hawaii, and of course took Joyce, and Joyce was infected on that trip. Both were invited to an after party party and Joyce was a game for everything. And Julie (eventually) went back to the room, (but) Joyce went and spent the night (at the party).

“And I can remember what the first time I heard about AIDS. I thought it was the virus that’s showing up in San Francisco among the gay community.”

Joyce’s death in 1993 was devastating, and it plunged Sullivan into a deep depression.​ It didn’t occur to her at first that public service might give her a different focus. That is, not until Kevin McCarthy, then the top aide to Congressman Bill Thomas, made a follow-up call urging her to reconsider.​

“This was God’s gift to me, because it really, really saved my life,” she said. “Because I wasn’t going anyplace.”

Sullivan joined a City Council that already had three women, giving Bakersfield its first, last and only female city council majority. with Irma Carson, Pat Demond, Pat Smith and Sullivan occupying four of the seven seats.

Among the doors that public service opened to her was the door to activism — an unusual sort of activism for an older, reserved, conservative woman. Sullivan became an outspoken advocate for AIDS treatment and understanding.​

“I was just determined to have had (Joyce’s) life and her passing, and the reason for (her life) stand for something — do some good. And we used it for awareness and education,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s AIDS activism created some unlikely alliances — none perhaps more so than with Audrey Chavez, founder of the Bakersfield AIDS Project. Chavez’s brother Ricky had died of AIDS, and that tragic shared story created a sort of sisterhood.​

“We were brought together through AIDS, through losing two beautiful individuals to this virus,” Chavez said. “During a time that nobody wanted to deal with HIV — nobody. I don’t even think it was called HIV during that time period. There was a major amount of stigma involved. And so Jackie and I and her mom and family met through one of our first fundraisers for Bakersfield AIDS Project. And we really developed a connection, I think.”

With her footing on more solid ground, Sullivan turned to another cause — that of spreading the national motto onto the daises of cities and counties across the United States.​ Affixing the words “In God We Trust” to city council chambers across America proved, and continues to prove, controversial.

Some say it violates the constitutionally mandated principal of the separation of church and state. Some say it is exclusionary. Whose God? Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, whose campaign motto was “Unity in the Community,” felt it promoted disunity and publicly opposed it, Sullivan said.​

But today, thanks to the efforts of Sullivan’s foundation, the words “In God We Trust” are in the chambers of more than 700 U/.S. cities and counties — more than 200 of them in California.​

​Sullivan will serve until the new ward 6 council member is sworn in in December but even at 80 she is not looking for any rocking chairs. She intends to keep pushing the motto “In God We Trust” into every corner of the country.​

Once upon a time, some might have seen AIDS activism as an awkward fit with religious activism. But as we’ve seen with another, very different sort of virus, epidemics don’t discriminate on the basis of religion or political party, and Jacquie Sullivan and her family are undeniable examples.​

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