Most members of NAACP board are undecided

August 19, 1994|By This article was written and reported by Sun staff writers James Bock, Ivan Penn and Dana Hedgpeth.

The bulk of the NAACP board will come to Baltimore tomorrow apparently undecided on the fate of Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., but Chairman William F. Gibson has sent signals that he won't block an effort to depose the man who seemed to be his protege.

The 64-member board has scheduled an emergency meeting at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore to discuss Dr. Chavis' secret deal to pay Mary E. Stansel, a fired assistant, up to $332,400 to settle a threatened lawsuit.

Ms. Stansel, a 49-year-old former U.S. Senate aide, has since alleged in court papers that Dr. Chavis, 46, sexually harassed her -- an allegation that the NAACP leader denies.

But the main issue at tomorrow's meeting, board members say, is not likely to be the nature of Dr. Chavis' relationship with Ms. Stansel or other women at the NAACP. They say the focus will be on Dr. Chavis' judgment and credibility, as reflected by the fact that he told neither the NAACP's board nor its general counsel of the Stansel deal.

The Stansel settlement compounds a growing Chavis credibility crisis that has roots in other issues, including:

* His decision to hold an April meeting of black nationalists in Detroit without telling Dr. Gibson or board members who live in Detroit.

* His contention that the NAACP's nearly $3 million deficit was largely due to debts inherited from his predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, which Dr. Hooks and other NAACP insiders deny.

* His boast that membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has jumped from 490,000 when he took over in April 1993 to 675,000 today. Syndicated columnist Carl Rowan reports today that NAACP documents show that membership has actually declined and is at least 200,000 fewer than Dr. Chavis says.

Over the 16 months that Dr. Chavis has run the NAACP, Dr. Gibson, 61, a South Carolina dentist, has been a fatherly figure who has gloried in the executive director's ability to put the NAACP back in the public eye.

The chairman has hovered at Dr. Chavis' shoulder at news conferences and photo opportunities. When Dr. Chavis jumped on a trash receptacle to address a Chicago street protest in July, Dr. Gibson followed. The chairman spoke emotionally about Dr. Chavis to the NAACP annual convention: "He's a good friend, a young man I have grown to know and to love."

When news of the Stansel deal broke, Dr. Gibson quickly sprang to Dr. Chavis' defense, saying at yet another joint news conference that the executive director had full authority to make such an agreement.

But more recently, as criticism of Dr. Chavis mounted, he has questioned Dr. Chavis' handling of the deal and the settlement's size.

Gibson still powerful

Dr. Gibson, who has been chairman since 1985, holds considerable sway over the board. That he has stopped advocacy on the executive director's behalf sends a message.

"My perception is, Dr. Gibson has clearly given a signal to members of the board that you can bring your conscience and intellect to the meeting and use both," said Kelly M. Alexander Jr., a Charlotte, N.C., board member who is regarded as part of Dr. Gibson's inner circle. Mr. Alexander has also supported Dr. Chavis.

Another board member and Gibson associate, who asked not to be named, said the chairman "has released all board members to vote as they wish." He said Dr. Chavis had assured Dr. Gibson that the Stansel case was "no big deal" -- and then the controversy blew up in the chairman's face.

"Ben Chavis obviously does not really tell you everything," the board member said. "Everybody will vote his conscience on this issue."

According to a survey of board members, only a handful will enter the meeting publicly for or against Dr. Chavis. While almost 10 board members of nearly 40 contacted by The Sun appeared to be leaning against Dr. Chavis, most either were undecided or would not comment before tomorrow's meeting.

Among the solidly pro-Chavis forces on the board are Larry W. Carter, vice president of a Des Moines, Iowa, financial company, and most, perhaps all, of the seven youth members.

"Chavis is going to win this one. He's going to win it and win it strong," said Mr. Carter, who supports the executive director's efforts to reach out to young and disaffected African-Americans. "If it goes any other way, then Larry Carter will resign as a board member."

Yasmin Hurston, a New Yorker who is a youth member on the board, spurred on Chavis supporters at a rally in Brooklyn Tuesday night.

Youth support

"Young people don't want to lose Dr. Chavis. That's just first and foremost," she said. "The youth love Dr. Chavis so much I don't know if they would be willing to open up to somebody like that again."

At the other extreme of board opinion is Leroy W. Warren Jr. of Silver Spring, who was the first to call for the resignations of both Dr. Chavis and Dr. Gibson. He objects to the leaders' consorting with black separatists and "gangsta" rappers as well as their financial management of the NAACP.

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