By Gregory B. Hladky
9:35 PM EDT, May 13, 2013
Connecticut's NAACP is in turmoil.
Fierce and prolonged infighting in Bridgeport and Waterbury has forced state and national officers of the civil rights group to step in and order "reorganizations" of those branches. A bitter election battle two years ago has left lingering wounds in the Hartford branch. Former state and branch chairmen claim there's been a lack of leadership at the state and national levels, declining membership, generational conflicts, and even racist attitudes against Hispanic members.
"I've seen grown men crying — grown men!" Victor Diaz, president of the Waterbury branch until about a month ago, says of some of the vicious internal conflicts.
Russell Williams is a former Greater Hartford NAACP president and he's appalled at what's happening: "It's hard to believe the organization has reached this point."
On the other hand, the current leader of the statewide civil rights organization shrugs off such concerns. Scot X. Esdaile's response when asked to comment about the troubles facing Connecticut's NAACP was, "What controversy?"
Esdaile has been the Connecticut NAACP's top state leader for nearly a decade. He now sits on the organization's national board. According to him, what's happening with the Bridgeport and Waterbury branches is a simple restructuring that many organizations and groups need to go through periodically.
"We have to do it like everybody else has to do it," says Esdaile. "People change, leadership changes... We have some problems, but everybody has problems... We're keeping moving on," he insists.
The question is, moving in what direction?
Connecticut's oldest civil rights group has experienced its share of infighting and controversy in the past.
In 2001, the national NAACP overturned an election result for the presidency of this state's chapter. Ben Andrews, a prominent state and national leader in the organization, was accused of rigging the voting to favor his hand-picked candidate.
Andrews was a member of ex-Gov. John G. Rowland's infamous Republican "Rainbow Ticket" in 1998. Several of the people on that GOP election slate (including Rowland and Andrews) eventually ended up in prison on corruption charges.
The current series of controversies and insider feuds seem to be taking the organization to a whole new level. The Rev. Gill Ford, national director of unit administration for the NAACP, says national officials feel required to step in and reorganize less than 1 percent of its 1,700 branches.
What bothers some NAACP members is that all the infighting here may be undermining the organization's ability to take effective action on all kinds of serious issues facing Connecticut's minority communities.
Issues such as racial profiling, for example. It appears doubtful that East Haven (the target of federal police abuse investigations and federal reform orders) is the only Connecticut community where cops are singling out Latinos and African-Americans for unfair attention. Williams and others insist far more needs to be done about the vast income and educational gaps between rich white suburbanites and poor inner-city people of color.
The Connecticut chapter has recently signed on to a national NAACP campaign to shut down the worst-polluting urban power plants in the nation because minorities living close to them are the most hurt by the pollution. But those plants have been around for a long, long time and so have higher rates of asthma for nearby urban minorities.
Diaz, 34, was the first Dominican-American branch president in the history of the Waterbury branch and the nation. His election was touted by national NAACP officials as evidence of their push to represent all minorities. But he says some African-American members in Waterbury undermined his efforts by telling people "not to show up to some of my fundraisers because I was Hispanic."
"With me being Hispanic, you'd be surprised at how much support I didn't get because of that alone," says a frustrated Diaz. "You can't say you're fighting racism when you're [confronting] some of those same issues internally."
Adding to the difficulties, according to Diaz and other Connecticut NAACP members, is the resistance by some veteran civil rights activists to allowing a younger generation to take over leadership position
Jimmie Griffin thinks the NAACP's generational challenge "runs both ways." He is a former state president of the organization (2001-04) and a former head of the Waterbury branch, and was suspended from membership by the national board last November for going public with his criticism of local NAACP officials.
Griffin believes some younger people don't think of the NAACP as an organization that can have a major impact anymore, while the "older generation is not giving up leadership roles."
He is highly critical of both national organization officials and of Esdaile, who beat Griffin in another contested election for the state presidency back in 2004.
Esdaile is "the one who has the most to lose" in this current fight, Griffin claims. "It's his job to make sure the branches in the state are intact... If two branches are in trouble, what does that say about his leadership?"
"This has been going on for a long time," insists Griffin. And he gets agreement on that point from Carolyn Vermont, the most recent president of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP.
"It's been going downhill for two decades," Vermont says of the disputes and ferocious personal feuds that have fractured her branch.
The Bridgeport feuding apparently centered on disputes over financial and membership records and control. Vermont has denied claims she failed to file proper reports. Four Bridgeport members tried to remove Vermont and her treasurer from access to the Bridgeport branch's bank account.
"I support national [officials] making a clean sweep of the organization," Vermont now says. "This takeover, I support it 100 percent... My hope is to get some young blood in here."
Esdaile says proudly that 500 young people were signed up at the state organization's "Great Debate" event at the Shubert Theater in New Haven last month.
Russell Williams isn't so optimistic. He was president of the Hartford NAACP branch from 1996 to 2000, and several years ago made an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Esdaile as state president. He is currently working for the Center for Economic and Social Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit.
He believes a crisis has been building within all levels of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for a long time.
"The leadership of the NAACP locally and nationally doesn't have a clear agenda," Williams says. "Oversight and transparency within the organization... are woefully lacking."
In 2011, former Hartford Mayor Carrie Saxon-Perry narrowly won a branch presidential election against challenger Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari. She was 80 and he was 73.
Ansari challenged the results and the national NAACP ordered a new election, which Ansari won. In Williams' view, Ansari was guilty of the same unscrupulous tactics he'd claimed were used by Saxon-Perry. Williams asserts national officials failed to carry out a serious review.
Williams says allegations have been rife for years that candidates in branch elections "bought memberships" for people they knew would vote for them. He argues that it's that sort of behavior and suspicion that has created an internal atmosphere of distrust and feuding.
Rev. Ford says the goal of the national organization is to "create a more transparent process" in the election of officers and controls in the Bridgeport and Waterbury branches. "The role of the national office is not to determine leadership" of branches, he insists. Ford says that's for local members to determine.
Ford also says he's not heard of the kind of complaints about anti-Hispanic feelings within any of the branches and said the NAACP has been a multi-racial organization since its founding in 1908.
Sweeping away the whole top level of Connecticut's current NAACP leaders may not solve much, warns state Rep. Larry Butler of Waterbury, a lifetime member of the organization. "I don't necessarily see it as a failure of state leadership," he says. "I don't necessarily agree with a clean sweep."
Diaz also has doubts about how these feuds can be settled. "It's difficult to have a clean sweep... when the same individuals are still there," he says. "You're going to have the same people doing the same things."
There is both sadness and frustration in the voices of even the harshest of critics when they talk about the problems confronting Connecticut's premier civil rights group.
And most probably agree with Diaz when he says, "Instead of working together and finding solutions for our communities, individuals are hurting our communities even more."
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