Montgomery County NAACP president takes on powerful adversaries

December 26, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

W. Gregory Wims is a mild-mannered management consultant with the unusual hobby of taking on high-powered adversaries -- the National Institutes of Health, Hughes Network Systems, GEICO and the Montgomery County government, to name a few.

Mr. Wims, 44, pursues his avocation as president of the NAACP's Montgomery County branch, where he is in the middle of a two-year term. By orchestrating a string of news conferences and rallies in recent months, he has heightened the civil rights group's profile.

Admirers laud the 2,300-member Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for its activism, and detractors scorn it for what they call a tendency to seek publicity first and ask questions later. But few ignore it.

"He's impressed me," George N. Buntin Jr., the Baltimore NAACP's executive director, said of Mr. Wims. "He's really gung-ho, especially on economic development issues, and he has shaken up the corporate community in this state. . . . This is the kind of leadership we need and want."

By leveling discrimination charges this year against several employers, the Montgomery branch has been in sync with the national NAACP's emphasis on economic issues under its new leader, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.

The national NAACP, which has headquarters in Baltimore, has named Mr. Wims to head a task force on job bias in federal agencies and companies that do substantial government business.

The Montgomery group also has touched a particularly explosive area in the minefield of American race relations. Whites and blacks view employment discrimination through different lenses, opinion polls show.

Nearly three-quarters of blacks think whites don't want African-Americans to get ahead; only about a third of whites agree. Blacks narrowly support the need for affirmative-action programs to remedy past discrimination in employment; whites oppose such programs by 2 1/2 to 1.

The Montgomery NAACP's campaign has brought results.

Mr. Wims' charges that the National Institutes of Health often fail to promote black employees led the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson and the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights to investigate NIH workers' complaints for free. The inquiry, which has attracted congressional interest, is still at an early stage.

"Greg in particular played a critical role in bringing public focus to the problems," said Steve Routh, a Hogan & Hartson lawyer. "What he has done here is help raise the issue to a different level and get other people involved."

And Mr. Routh saw at one NIH rally that Mr. Wims can shed his mild-mannered demeanor.

"Greg got up and was leading cheers," he said. "When he wants to, he can rally the troops."

The Montgomery NAACP's charges have sometimes been imprecise. The branch accused Hughes Network Systems, a manufacturer of communications gear, of having only 16 black employees out of a 1,200-person work force in Germantown. It later conceded the correct number was 66.

Still, after the NAACP targeted Hughes, the company stepped up its recruiting of minorities. Now Mr. Wims and the company say they enjoy good relations.

"Once we expose you, we sit down and work with you," Mr. Wims said.

The Government Employees Insurance Co. (GEICO), a recent Wims target, complains that the NAACP sat down with them -- and then unfairly attacked them.

The NAACP charged in November that GEICO fails to promote blacks and sets different standards for insuring homeowners depending on their neighborhoods' racial composition. The company denies the allegations.

David Schindler, a GEICO regional vice president, contended that the NAACP charges were based largely on information from a disgruntled former employee who GEICO says was fired for good cause. Mr. Schindler said the NAACP owes the insurer a public apology.

Mr. Wims said the NAACP is looking into GEICO's objections, but that he stands by the allegations, which he said current GEICO employees substantiated.

"The NAACP did not do its homework," Mr. Schindler said. "It did us harm because the African-American community is one of our largest markets in the District of Columbia, and when somebody goes about stating things that are not factually accurate, of course it does harm to us."

But he added: "Gregory Wims is a very pleasant person. In other circumstances, I wouldn't hesitate to want to have him as a friend. He's an awfully nice guy."

Mr. Wims, who majored in political science at the University of Maryland, is a longtime activist. A fourth-generation Montgomery countian from Gaithersburg, he was named to the county Human Relations Commission at age 21.

His Montgomery County work has earned him a growing reputation. He recently finished second to Marjorie Green of Baltimore, the state's largest branch, in voting for president of the NAACP's Maryland state conference.

Montgomery County, a predominantly white Washington suburb traditionally known for its affluence and liberalism, might seem an unlikely civil rights battleground.

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