NAACP poised to name new national president

Change: Former Verizon executive is the top candidate to head the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

June 16, 2005|By Kelly Brewington and William Patalon III | Kelly Brewington and William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

CLARIFICATION

An article in Thursday's editions of The Sun said that Kweisi Mfume was forced to resign as president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sources within the NAACP leadership have described his departure that way. Mfume and an NAACP spokesman have said that Mfume left the organization voluntarily.

Throughout its nearly 100-year history, the NAACP has chosen charismatic public figures to lead the nation's oldest civil rights group: social activists, ministers and political leaders.

Now, perhaps as a sign of changing times for an organization struggling to remain relevant in the post-civil rights era, the NAACP leadership is poised to pick a president from the ranks of corporate America.

The leading candidate for the presidency of the NAACP is Bruce S. Gordon, former president of Verizon's Retail Markets Group. While Gordon refused to comment, other than to say he is "a candidate," sources both inside and outside the organization confirmed Gordon is the NAACP selection committee's top choice to take over the helm of the Baltimore-based organization.

The 64-member board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is expected to approve Gordon during a June 25 meeting in Atlanta. Gordon, 59, is credited with naming Verizon, today a Fortune 10 company with $67 billion in revenue, considered a world leader in the telecommunications industry.

Gordon combined the Latin word veritas, meaning certainty and reliability, with "horizon," representing the distance the company wanted to go, said Eric Cevis, Verizon's vice president Business/Channel Development and Multicultural Marketing, who considers Gordon a mentor.

"I cannot suggest that they could find a stronger or better candidate," he said. "His business savvy is a given. He ran the largest organization within Verizon and utilized the platform to care for the social consciousness of people as well as the profession."

If approved by the board, Gordon will inherit an NAACP reeling from recent controversy and concerns over budget issues, stagnant membership and the group's relevancy.

Kweisi Mfume was forced to resign from the organization in November after allegations that the work environment at the NAACP was rife with sexual favoritism. As a result, the organization paid a settlement of about $100,000 to a former female employee.

The NAACP, which claims 500,000 members, announced earlier this year it used reserve funds to cover a $4.7 million budget shortfall and asked a dozen employees at its Baltimore headquarters to take lower-paying positions.

While NAACP leadership insists the group has weathered worse, outsiders say the group is at a critical crossroads.

Last year, it launched a still-continuing fight against an IRS audit that jeopardizes its tax-exempt status. The probe claims Chairman Julian Bond crossed the line into partisan politics through his critical remarks of President Bush.

NAACP leadership has struggled throughout Bush's presidency to have the ear of the administration. Bush did not accept the group's invitation to address the convention last year.

Gordon's candidacy could be strategic, said Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, and author of the Encyclopedia of African-American Politics.

"A business executive, a card-carrying member of the corporate establishment, could be viewed as a person who would more effectively articulate the NAACP's agenda in this era of conservative government," Smith said.

When Gordon retired from Verizon in 2003 after a 35-year career, he left a lasting impression on executives such as Cevis, who credit him with making the company a household name and pushing minorities into management ranks.

Some NAACP members, however, said they worry Gordon does not have enough grass-roots experience.

"He has no civil rights background, and that concerns me," said Jerry Mondesire, president of the NAACP's Philadelphia branch, one of the nation's largest. "That said, he seems to bring some great experience. I'm sure he will do a good job fund raising. My biggest hope is that he can put up with the board and all their individual agendas."

While Gordon's strength is clearly his business and management background, those who know him say he has been a champion for diversity and a force for change within Verizon. Gordon's position as the NAACP's leading candidate was first reported by American Urban Radio Network.

Born in Camden, N.J., Gordon, graduated from Gettysburg College and started his career at Verizon, then Bell of Pennsylvania, in 1968.

In 2002, Fortune named Gordon sixth on its list of the nation's "50 Most Powerful Black Executives" and Black Enterprise awarded him "1998 Executive of the Year."

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