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NAACP leader works to remake organization

Published July 16, 2006

NEW YORK - 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's not 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 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 finding new ways to push a civil rights agenda.

"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."

Gordon's own to-do list is long. He says 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 NAACP is often a bit player in public policy debates.

It opposed the nominations of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, but both were approved. It criticized federal budget cuts targeting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; they passed. Meanwhile, an IRS investigation of the group is ongoing.

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. Rather than joining this spring's huge street demonstrations calling for immigration reform, the NAACP issued a news release and Gordon attended a Hispanic 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."

Donna Brazile, a black 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 has met with Bush three times - his predecessor, Kweisi Mfume, managed it once. The president hasn't said if he'll make it to the Washington Convention Center for the group's gathering, which runs through Thursday.

Gordon said he is unconcerned with critics.

"We are going to be very outcome oriented, very results oriented, as opposed to activity and effort oriented," said Gordon. "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."

[Last modified July 16, 2006, 02:04:27]

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