Although his arena has changed, Mfume is still wooing constituents NAACP chief impresses at group's annual meeting

July 07, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NAACP President Kweisi Mfume left Congress in February, but yesterday he found himself again playing the familiar role of politician wooing constituents.

The former Maryland representative met with his new constituents -- about 350 NAACP branch presidents, the heart of the organization's rank and file -- as the group's 87th annual convention began under the theme "A New Day Begun."

Like the successful politician he was, Mfume told them things they wanted to hear, eliciting scattered "amens" at first and then a standing ovation.

Mfume said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was climbing out of debt and accounting for every dollar. He said the organization would open an interactive web site on the Internet. He said it was revamping its historic magazine, The Crisis. He said the NAACP would soon be able to mail out membership cards within a week.

That last pledge, seemingly a minor matter but a reflection that all NAACP politics is local, won the most applause of all. NAACP branch presidents have long complained that newcomers to the 575,000-member civil rights group often wait months for acknowledgment that they belong.

By the time Mfume finished, the NAACP activists seemed at TC ease with their new leader and relieved that the dark days of runaway spending and internal warfare that brought the organization to its knees under former Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and Chairman William F. Gibson appeared to be over.

"You can see confidence rebuilding," said Van Robinson, president of the Syracuse, N.Y., branch. "Many of us have been made promises in the past. But this time people feel these promises will be fulfilled."

Geraldine Washington, president of the 5,000-member Los Angeles branch, said of Mfume: "I give him an A-plus. After we leave here, I think we're going to be re-energized."

Mfume broached the sensitive idea of raising membership dues. He said the NAACP loses $2.10 on the yearly $15 adult dues, which includes a subscription to The Crisis. It costs more to join the Boy Scouts than the NAACP, he added.

But he introduced the subject so gingerly ("At some point in time, we should have that discussion," he said) that it raised no hackles.

The 47-year-old chief executive also moved to head off grumbling that he had missed NAACP regional conferences and fund-raising dinners during his first 4 1/2 months on the job.

"My job was to get us back on track. The first four to five months were dedicated to that," he said. "After that, you might see me so much you don't want to see me."

That satisfied Frances Huntley-Cooper, president of the 370-member Madison, Wis., branch.

"If he visited all [2,200] units, he wouldn't be able to do his work," she said. "If you sit back and realize what he has to do, you realize there are not enough hours in the day to do it."

Muriel Cunningham, president of the Charlotte County, Fla., branch, said: "Sometimes when a person's working hard, he doesn't have time to socialize. He's trying to restructure the whole organization."

Mfume has upset some NAACP veterans by firing longtime staff members, hiring several former congressional aides and centralizing some functions at the Baltimore headquarters.

One fired staffer, Janice Washington, the 48-year-old former director of the mid-Atlantic region, circulated a five-page letter here accusing the NAACP of sex and age discrimination.

But the convention is already shaping up as a coronation of Mfume, who is to address the full gathering tomorrow.

Mfume told a news conference yesterday that Bob Dole, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has yet to confirm his attendance. President Clinton is to speak Wednesday.

The NAACP leader said the organization would sponsor a 90-day get-out-the-vote drive before the November elections and distribute report cards grading congressional voting records.

Mfume said he aimed to build an NAACP endowment over the next five years so that the organization, which has been slashed from more than 120 to fewer than 40 national staff members over the past three years, can grow again.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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