Honeymoon ends for NAACP's Chavis


Beset by the NAACP's financial problems and concerns that he is leading the organization out of the mainstream, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. enters the civil rights group's 85th annual convention this week in Chicago needing a lift.

A year ago, Dr. Chavis was on his institutional honeymoon. After three months on the job as the NAACP's youngest executive director ever, he made a smashing debut at the group's convention. He delivered to the NAACP a $2 million pledge from the late Reginald F. Lewis' foundation, brought in South African leader Nelson Mandela to speak and energized the gathering with his vigor.

Today, as Dr. Chavis addresses the convention, the honeymoon is over. The 46-year-old leader has heightened the NAACP's visibility and remains popular among the rank and file, but some NAACP board members blame him for the organization's $2.7 million deficit and want to know how he will eliminate it.

"We're spending more than we're taking in," said Marc Stepp, a Detroit board member who helped bail the NAACP out of a financial crisis in late 1992, before Dr. Chavis took office. "It's because of spending in the current administration."

The convention, with a full schedule of pageantry, speeches and closed-door meetings today through Thursday, is an opportunity for Dr. Chavis and board chairman William F. Gibson to mend fences -- and to discourage any serious challenge to Dr. Gibson in 1995 board elections.

"There are some grave concerns about the financial health of the organization," said Joseph E. Madison, a board member and Washington radio talk show host. "But people tend to circle the wagons around the institution of the NAACP. The convention is a platform for Chavis and Gibson. I don't think people are ready to have the convention torn apart over this issue yet."

Dr. Chavis has often been at the center of controversy in the pastyear, largely due to his decision last fall to open a dialogue with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the black separatist Nation of Islam.

Minister Farrakhan, who has a history of anti-Jewish statements, was a key player at last month's NAACP-sponsored black leadership summit in Baltimore. A summit sequel, again including Minister Farrakhan, is scheduled next month.

This year's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention happens to be in Chicago, Minister Farrakhan's home base. He is not scheduled to address the convention.

Dr. Chavis has worked in his first 15 months on the job to broaden the base of the mainly middle-class, middle-aged NAACP. Trying to appeal to young blacks, he has courted gang leaders, "gangsta" rap musicians and black nationalists, even convening a secret April meeting of leftists in Detroit without informing his board.

He has angered labor allies by passing up an opportunity to speak at last fall's AFL-CIO convention and by reportedly lobbying in favor of the Clinton administration's North American Free Trade Agreement in disregard of an NAACP position against the pact.

Labor is "not walking away from the NAACP," said Richard Womack, chief of the AFL-CIO's civil rights office, "but we need some direction from them. Where does the leadership see the NAACP going? Is there room for us or are you pushing us out?"

What really got NAACP insiders' attention, however, was the disclosure at a May board meeting that the civil rights group had a $2.7 million deficit at the end of March.

Dr. Chavis compounded the concern when he was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that he had inherited a $2 million deficit from his predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks.

Dr. Hooks says that's not true. In fact, he said in an interview, he laid off staffers between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1992, and raised funds to put the NAACP on sound footing.

When he left the NAACP in April 1993, "there were no great outstanding bills owed," said Dr. Hooks, who won't comment on Dr. Chavis' performance at the NAACP. "I'm not criticizing anybody, just setting the record straight."

Mr. Stepp, who headed the 1992 fund-raising drive, says the organization was "pretty near solvency" when Dr. Hooks left. "We were down less than $200,000. I read in the paper that Dr. Chavis said he took over a $2 million deficit. That's not true."

Mr. Stepp, a retired United Auto Workers official, said the board has asked him to again head an effort to reduce the NAACP deficit.

Dr. Chavis complained in a recent interview with The Sun that he "inherited numerous liabilities," although he did not mention a $2 million deficit. "A lot of unpaid bills from 1992 had to be paid."

He said the NAACP was $900,000 in the red for 1993. He vowed to end 1994, his first full year as executive director, with the group's $18 million annual budget in balance. He said unnamed critics of his management would "rather bite and back-stab than go forward."

Dr. Chavis blamed much of the deficit on two setbacks: an old $680,000 judgment that the NAACP was ordered to pay this year after a legal appeal failed, and mounting losses in the televised NAACP Image Awards. He said that program, run by the NAACP board, lost $600,000 this year alone and will be scrapped unless he can make it pay for itself.

Only about $210,000 of the $2 million Lewis Foundation pledge has been delivered so far, he said, and that money was earmarked to create an NAACP endowment, not to cover expenses.

The NAACP leader has dismissed 10 staff members out of 150 and says more cuts are coming -- although he says that the reductions are due to a long-planned reorganization, not the deficit.

"What the delegates to the convention expect me to do is give truthful disclosure about where the NAACP is financially, and I intend to do that," he said. "The financial condition of the NAACP won't be an issue at the convention."

However, some critics want to know why NAACP revenues aren't booming if, as Dr. Chavis maintains, the group's membership has soared by 160,000 (to 650,000) since he took office.

The NAACP's answer is that the new members have largely been youth -- who pay as little as $3 annual dues, less than the cost of processing their applications. But that response doesn't convince those who suspect that Dr. Chavis' membership claims are inflated.

"My sources tell me he doesn't know how to count, that he is citing renewals as new members," said Michael Meyers, an NAACP dissident who heads the New York Civil Rights Coalition. "I don't think it's credible."

Mr. Meyers contends that the NAACP "has been hijacked by black extremists," including Dr. Chavis, and "become an adjunct of the Nation of Islam, as opposed to being its chief critic."

That view of the Chavis-Farrakhan relationship isn't widely shared in the NAACP.

But there is concern about whether a financially distressed NAACP can afford to alienate old allies. (The NAACP's main fund-raiser, Gilbert Jonas, says corporate and foundation support hasn't slipped yet.)

Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis civil rights activist and NAACP life member, said the organization's money problems may force Dr. Chavis to trim his sails.

"Maintaining a progressive organization with mainstream dollars: It's almost a contradiction in terms," he said.

"The NAACP as an organization is trying to walk down two different roads -- to unify the black community and at the same time to make a linkage with corporate America. Chavis is not finding equilibrium, and I'm not sure he can."

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