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NAACP leader takes businesslike approach

Bruce S. Gordon has been president of the NAACP for less than a year, but as he presides over his first national convention with the group, he has already overcome the low expectations of many critics.
Bruce S. Gordon
Bruce S. Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, presides over his first national convention this week in Washington, D.C.Seth Wenig / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bruce S. Gordon works quickly.

The retired businessman has been president of the NAACP for less than a year. But as he presides over his first national convention with the group this week in Washington, he has already overcome the low expectations of many critics, who figured a corporate type had little to offer a group with a history of upending the status quo.

It isn’t so much what the former Verizon executive has accomplished as what he has started to do that has earned praise. For instance, he has worked on repairing frayed ties with the Bush administration, is advocating for Hurricane Katrina victims and kicked off an overhaul of the NAACP’s structure and staff.

Now Gordon is facing tougher work — reviving stagnant membership and pushing a civil rights agenda in a conservative national climate.

“I was very skeptical about him coming on, but when I look at the extraordinary challenges he’s faced in his first year — I’ve seen him engaged,” said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “I give him high marks for trying, but it hasn’t yielded very much.”

Eyes on the prize
Gordon’s own to-do list is long. He wants to close racial gaps in wealth, in education and on prison rolls, among other things.

“These are high bars,” Gordon said in a recent interview at his Manhattan home. “But if we don’t engage in addressing the fundamental issues that, to me, represent the civil rights struggles of the 21st century, then we shouldn’t exist.”

Right now, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is often a bit player in public policy debates.

It denounced the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, for example, but both were approved. It blasted federal budget cuts targeting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; they passed. Meanwhile, an IRS investigation of the group, which threatens its nonprofit status, is ongoing.

Low-key on immigration
And the group has taken a low-key approach to one of the year’s biggest national issues: immigration. It’s a tricky subject for the NAACP because, more than other groups, blacks worry that immigrants take jobs from Americans, though Gordon notes that blacks and Latinos have many common bonds. Rather than joining this spring’s massive street demonstrations calling for immigration reform, the NAACP issued a news release and Gordon attended a Latino conference.

“Wherever there’s an issue that African-Americans are concerned with, they should have a presence,” said Lorenzo Morris, a political scientist at Howard University. “They haven’t been as effective as I’d hoped.”

GOP seen as an obstacle
David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on minority issues, said that the lack of victories isn’t surprising with a Republican president and the GOP controlling Congress. “In the past few years,” he said, “Jesus could have been head of the NAACP, and unless he was going to perform miracles he wasn’t going to make the terrain all that much better.”

Donna Brazile, a black Democratic political consultant, was at Gordon’s meetings with President Bush last year after Hurricane Katrina. She said Gordon was “savvy” and helped win more federal support for New Orleans and storm victims.

Gordon already has met with Bush three times — his predecessor, Kweisi Mfume, who is running for Senate in Maryland, managed it once. Still, the president isn’t sure he’ll make it to the Washington Convention Center a mile from the White House for the group’s gathering, which runs through Thursday.

Focusing on results
Gordon said he is unconcerned with critics or supporters. He is focused on improving the lives of black Americans by the NAACP’s 100th anniversary in 2009.

“We are going to be very outcome oriented, very results oriented as opposed to activity and effort oriented,” said Gordon, a Camden, N.J., native who retired in 2003 as president of Verizon’s retail division. “If we stage a direct action, if we protest, if we rally, if we have letter-writing campaigns, if we do things that mobilize our membership base to advocate for a particular issue, but we don’t achieve our mission, then I can’t declare success. We have to produce outcomes, and those outcomes need to be measurable.”

Within the NAACP, Gordon has reorganized departments and hired a string of new department heads: Chairman Julian Bond said he has “brought a level of competence that we hadn’t had.” He noted that Gordon has traveled nonstop, quickly learning the organization’s culture, and is winning support from members nationwide.

Wanted: More members
That’s particularly important because Gordon wants to fatten the membership rolls. For years, NAACP officials said the group had 500,000 members, but Gordon said that number is closer to 200,000. “We need to be a million,” he said.

That also would help the NAACP’s finances. Tax returns for 2004, the most recent year available, show the group spent nearly $4 million more than it took in, its third consecutive deficit.

“Bruce Gordon has done what he’s needed to do, but his sort of internship is over,” Bositis said. “If he’s going to make a mark, he’s got to start doing some things that really show up.”