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NAACP, leader viewed as mismatch

It was a mismatch from the start.

Bruce S. Gordon was the civil rights outsider with the robust corporate resume. The board that hired him was a collection of 64 personalities, many of them foot soldiers in past battles for racial equality.

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Gordon's abrupt departure from the NAACP - he announced his resignation as president and chief executive officer Sunday and said he plans to leave today - did not come as a surprise, said board members who had noticed his growing frustration with their decisions.

Nor has Gordon held back on his long-simmering dissatisfaction with the job since making his announcement. In an interview yesterday with The Sun, Gordon acknowledged that NAACP Chairman Julian Bond had to talk him out of quitting just weeks after he took over in the summer of 2005.

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For the second time in three years, the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People must search for a new leader, and some observers are wondering if it should stick to what it knows best: candidates with proven civil rights records and a dedication to social justice.

"We don't need a philosophical debate over what we're about," said Rupert Richardson, a board member from Baton Rouge, La., and a member of the search committee that selected Gordon nearly two years ago. "We need someone who knows that we are an advocacy organization. We don't need someone who thinks they need to change that. The person we hire needs to accept that and hit the ground with that vision."

Where board members have focused on eradicating discrimination, challenging police brutality and fighting inequality in the courts, Congress and local jurisdictions, Gordon proposed a different course, Richardson said.

Gordon, 61, disputed that assessment yesterday, saying he hoped to enhance and expand the NAACP's mission with programs aimed at helping black communities help themselves in such areas as financial literacy training and homeownership workshops.

For example, when Congress was considering the Medicare Part D plan, the NAACP voiced its opposition. Shortly after Congress approved the proposal, Gordon noted that African-Americans were slow to sign up for the benefit - so he created a program to educate frustrated seniors how to apply.

"My strategy was not to change us from advocacy to service, but to strike a different balance between the two," he said. "The NAACP has to do both. The implication that I tried to depart form advocacy couldn't be further from the truth."

Richardson said the problems went beyond substance: Gordon and the board had incompatible leadership styles.

"We would have liked the opportunity to work with him, but he came with this corporate attitude of: 'You hired me to do this job and get out of the way and let me do it,'" he said. "That's not how things work in most civil rights organizations, and certainly not at the NAACP."

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Gordon rankled some NAACP members on his way out, choosing the Sunday after the NAACP star-studded Image Awards to announce his departure. It also was the day that politicians and civil rights stalwarts flocked to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the clash between state troopers and demonstrators marching for voting rights.

As during the organization's last search, after Kweisi Mfume's resignation, Dennis C. Hayes, the NAACP's general counsel, will lead the organization in the interim.

Gordon said he respects the NAACP's long tradition of fighting for civil rights. But he said he was disappointed that its board would not allow him to assert himself as a strong chief.

"I didn't come here to be a manager, I came here to be an executive and a leader," he said.

Gordon was accustomed to such a structure, joining the NAACP after 35 years at Verizon Communications Inc, most recently as president of its retail markets group. In 2002, Fortune magazine named Gordon sixth on its list of nation's "50 Most Powerful Black Executives."

At the time he was hired, NAACP's leadership lauded Gordon's corporate credentials, and said he offered a fresh perspective, exactly what the organization needed.

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"The vitality, you can hear it in his voice," said NAACP Vice Chairwoman Roslyn Brock, the day that Gordon was approved by the board in June 2005. "He's young enough to connect to young people but is old enough to understand the generation who marched in the movement."

In replacing Mfume, Gordon came to an organization with concerns over stagnant membership, questions over its relevancy and budget problems. In 2005, the NAACP 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.

Today, Gordon leaves an organization that is again at a critical crossroads. Gordon has been lauded for advocating for victims of Hurricane Katrina and smoothing long-existing tensions between NAACP leadership and the Bush White House.

But a budget deficit remains, and a major fundraising campaign is needed to finance a planned relocation of its headquarters from Northwest Baltimore to Washington.

The financial struggles at the NAACP could have contributed to Gordon's departure and could hurt its chances at relocating, said Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has followed the NAACP closely.

Board members said Gordon did not raise the money he promised to during his tenure.

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"His ability to raise money was an expectation and part of the reason the board selected him," said Walters.

Gordon would not disclose figures, but insisted that he was pleased with his fundraising results. Under his leadership, the NAACP's corporate fundraising increased 30 percent from 2005 to last year, he said.

"It takes a while to get the financial flow where you want it to be," Gordon said. "I think we have positive momentum. I am convinced that I raised funds that wouldn't have been raised had I not been here."

Soliciting corporate donations was once frowned on by the NAACP, said the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, who served as executive director for 15 years.

Hooks said that in 1977 he was the first president to seek donations from corporations, despite resistance from the board. The effort netted $3 million the first year, accounting for a fifth of the NAACP's budget, said Hooks.

Hooks rationalized the effort as a way to get corporate America to be held accountable for civil rights issues.

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"We raised hell in Congress and in the courts, well, why should we let the corporate world off?" he said in an interview yesterday.

The experience serves as an example of how the board and the NAACP's leader can work through divisive issues, he said. Since then, the NAACP had relied heavily on corporate donations to survive.

Nevertheless, when searching for a successor, the organization should not see the corporate world as its savior, said Hooks.

"They can look to the corporate world," he said. "but they must not focus on corporate America exclusively. Their primary goal must be finding someone who is successful."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com


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