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Democrats for Rent 

The NAACP’s Alice Huffman leases out the legacy of Rosa Parks

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006
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When’s the media going to get around to taking on Alice Huffman, the longtime Democratic Party apparatchik who has turned her presidency of the California NAACP into a highly profitable personal political-consulting gig?

Under Huffman’s leadership, America’s oldest civil rights organization flirts with becoming a round-heeled advocacy group–for–hire as Huffman rakes in six-figure payoffs from corporate special interests.

The L.A. Times finally took a three-line shot at Huffman, revealing that she has accepted a $160,000 consulting fee from the tobacco industry and that — cough, cough — just by coincidence, the NAACP is now publicly opposing Proposition 86, the ballot measure that would slap a hefty $2.60-per-pack tax on ciggies. But so far, only the obscure insider Capitol Weekly has more completely unearthed the mountains of dirt and piles of political payola surrounding Huffman.

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Is Huffman otherwise getting a pass because she heads up a civil rights organization and calling her out would seem racist? I frankly can’t imagine a Republican operative being involved in so much double dealing and still cruising so much under the media radar.

Huffman’s had the best of teachers in perfecting the political double-dip, having studied at the feet of mentor and world-class manipulator Willie Brown. Back in 1994, Huffman had to take a buyout from her longtime post as chief lobbyist for the teachers union after a PAC she worked with was accused of taking a six-figure contribution to swing the union behind then-gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown.

But that was hardly a speed bump inside the pay-to-play California Democratic Party as Huffman continued a career of political glory. Gray Davis appointed her to be a trustee of the California State University system. The lieutenant governor, a.k.a. Chief Cruz Busta-money, named her a Woman of the Year. And in 2004, the Democratic National Committee named Huffman as co-chair of its convention-site committee. She should have, instead, been named as an embarrassment to all those highfalutin principles to which Democrats claim to subscribe. Instead, she’s a stark reminder that even if Republicans get the walloping they so richly deserve on November 7, a Democrat-dominated America will hardly be on the cusp of salvation.

Huffman argues that her personal opposition to the tobacco tax, and that of the NAACP, coincidentally, derives from it being a regressive tax on low-income smokers, including many blacks. That argument might have a puff more resonance if we could overlook the nearly $800,000 that Big Pharma, the corporate drug lobby, injected into her private consulting company last year when — yes — Huffman and the NAACP — cough, cough — came out against a measure that would have lowered prescription-drug prices.

Then there’s the tiny detail of Huffman failing to disclose the $12,000-a-month consulting payment she gets from AT&T. At least Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez played some very public rounds of tournament golf with the phone company lobbyists as he was championing their cable bill through the Legislature. Huffman, on the other hand, kept her financial relationship with the telecommunications giant secret even as the NAACP went through the “process” of endorsing the bill (and thereby greasing the way for its passage over the objections of some consumer advocates).

The Capitol Weekly blows a gaping hole in Huffman’s laughable cover story that her political-consulting business and the NAACP are separated by some sort of firewall, an argument that falls rather flat when we learn they share the same mailing address and the same phone system.

This is the legacy of the NAACP? This is continuing the work of such heroes as W.E.B. DuBois and Rosa Parks? Apparently some organization officials think so, lavishly praising Huffman and her record. No one inside the NAACP is publicly calling for her ouster, though some African-American activists plan to show up at this week’s state convention with a campaign to reverse the decision to oppose the tobacco tax.

Best of luck to them, as they are facing some formidable odds. The problem is that some of the more clever corporate lobbies have greedily exploited the relative vulnerability of minority political organizations and have been all too ready to provide funding where others haven’t. With funding comes political compliance and dependency. Two years ago, at the Democratic National Convention, one could witness the appalling spectacle of the Congressional Black Caucus allowing Lockheed and Verizon to take credit for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the bold action taken by Fannie Lou Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. It was, at least for me, a stomach-turning sight as anonymous but courageous octogenarian civil rights fighters came onto the stage only to be given a handshake and a plaque by a blow-dried phone company lobbyist.

Don’t think it will come as much of a surprise to learn that both Philip Morris and AT&T are also giving direct grants to the California NAACP. That money has helped Huffman upgrade the organization from near-derelict status to one with a significant budget and modern, inviting offices. Inviting, that is, if you don’t mind putting on a gas mask before you walk in.

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