PAC member resigns after questioning role of elected officials

by Jordan Green

PAC member resigns after questioning role of elected officials

The George C. Simkins Jr. Memorial Political Action Committee, which distributes tens of thousands of mock ballots to black voters during election season in Greensboro, has suffered a defection. The Rev. Cardes Brown, described by the committee’s chairman as a “junior member,” had been appointed as a voting member of the committee by virtue of his position as president of the Greensboro branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. Brown said he had irked fellow members by complaining that black elected officials’ role on the committee as voting members with power to decide which candidates receive its endorsement poses a conflict of interest. He said at the committee’s most recent meeting in early July, his fellow members indicated that they would vote to remove him, and he decided to save them the trouble by resigning. “I have been very expressive as a member of the PAC that I did not believe elected officials should be on the PAC, that it was not in the best interest of the community,” Brown told YES! Weekly. “It was conflictive.” Known for short as the Simkins PAC, the committee is both feared and revered in Greensboro. Simkins PAC has been the subject of intensive commentary among many white conservatives, who complain of its clout in determining the outcome of elections through its influence over black voters, who are thought to uncritically vote for PAC-endorsed candidates. The committee is considered by many African Americans, especially of the elder generations, to be an important pillar of the civil rights movement, which helped secure political representation for blacks. If the committee’s membership is not exactly a secret, it is also not openly broadcasted. New members can only come on by being invited by sitting members, adding to its sense of mystique and elitism. The committee that is now known as the Simkins PAC was founded in the early 1960s by George C. Simkins, a Greensboro dentist and local NAACP president who played an instrumental role in desegregating Gillespie Golf Course and Moses Cone hospital. A 2005 mailer described the committee’s legacy. “We were there to force the issue when you needed voter registration, when you needed access to hospitals, public libraries, tennis courts, golf courses, swimming pools, public schools and restaurants,” it reads. “We were there when you needed a district system to assure African-American representation in city government.” Brown is something of an iconoclast and a political leader with a broad progressive streak. He pastors New Light Missionary Baptist Church, with a large and activist-oriented congregation that houses an alternative education program for students suspended from school. Last year, the church’s gymnasium served as a venue for a candidate forum organized by Guilford County Unity Effort (Disclosure: This writer asked questions to candidates on behalf of the organization). Brown is also a member of the Pulpit Forum, a consortium of black pastors who publicly advocate a range of racial justice causes in Greensboro. And, like George Simkins before him, Brown is the elected president of the local NAACP branch. Brown said he believes elected officials came to control the committee because in its earliest days community leaders served on it, won elections and then stayed on. “My feeling is that once they were elected, in order to create accountability to the PAC and to the citizens, they should step down,” the pastor and NAACP president said. “My feeling is that if the persons are elected and they are elected on their particular platform, they should be responsible for giving an account of what they’ve done for the community.” Brown questioned whether the six black elected officials could be objective in the committee’s secret ballot vote to determine which candidates receive its endorsement. “You’re not going to be vote for yourself?” he asked. “It makes it hard for people to not endorse you if you’re on the PAC.” Steve Bowden, a lawyer who chairs the committee, declined to name the six elected officials who hold voting memberships, but Rev. Brown confirmed that they are Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson, Greensboro District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells, Guilford County Commission Chairman Skip Alston, Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, NC Rep. Alma Adams and NC Rep. Earl Jones.

“We take our trust seriously,” Bowden said. “Because you sit on the PAC doesn’t assure you will be endorsed.” Brown said he was only aware of one instance in which the PAC did not endorse one of its own members — that being an election in which Jones did not receive the nod. Bowden declined to offer additional examples, calling the matter “irrelevant.” Brown argued in a recent interview that the elected officials’ membership on the committee puts other qualified black candidates at a disadvantage. “Every elected official has an obligation not to dictate, not to demand, but to serve the will of the people,” he said. “You need to keep the door ajar to let air in.” Brown suggested that the committee has strayed from the spirit of its founder’s activism. “Would Dr. Simkins see it as a conflict today?” he asked. “He was a civil-rights advocate, president of the NAACP. It was never, for him, about getting people into office and freezing them in place.” Bowden disagreed. “I’ve talked to George,” he said. “He treated me as his son. I know how George would think. He had a great deal of trust in me.” Far from being a departure, Bowden insisted that the appointment of electedofficials on the committee was part of a tradition established bySimkins. “We disagree with that assessment: Dr. Simkins brought electedofficials onto the PAC,” Bowden said. “They were closer to the activitybecause of it, whether they served on the city council, the countycommission or the General Assembly. They could bring us informationthat is

‘Everyelected official has an obligation not to dictate, not to demand, butto serve the will of the people. You need to keep the door ajar to letair in.’ — The Rev. Cardes Brown, who recently resigned from the Simkins PAC relevant to the concerns of the community.” Brownsaid he believes the committee’s influence over the black electorate inGreensboro is on the wane. But if the committee has lost credibilitywith black constituents, it’s not for reasons many white conservativesmight suspect. Much commentary in the conservative press andon local blogs has focused on the committee’s supposed support forcandidates who backed former City Manager Mitchell Johnson, who hasbeen credited or blamed, depending on one’s perspective, for givingserious consideration to discrimination complaints brought by blackpolice officers. In fact, if there’s a rift between thepolitical action committee and the community it is supposed to serve,it’s over municipal, county and school bonds. “People foundthe PAC’s support for the bond issues disturbing,” Brown said. “Peoplethought that we should not have signed that as a blank check….African-American contractors were not getting a portion of funds frombonds that really showed equity and parity.” Bowden presenteda political vision somewhat more accommodating towards the whitemajority community. “We try to protect the [black] community, and wetry to do the best for the entire city of Greensboro,” he said. “Ourcommunity will succeed if the entire community succeeds. We want tomake sure we get our share.” Bowden said he believes theSimkins PAC’s influence is as strong as ever, but also noted that itspriorities are closely aligned with the city’s political mainstream. “Ifyou look at our history relative to the performance of the candidateswe support, they’ve done well,” he said. “The other part of that is, Ithink we support good people. We have a history of performance becausewe are organized. People trust us because we’re not self serving.”

Simkins PAC members Rep. Alma Adams and Steve Bowden watch election returns last November. (file photo)