"I'm saying right now they should run her ass out of the district." CARL MACK, president of the Seattle NAACP, is venting about his latest target, Kent schools Superintendent Barbara Grohe, someone who has stood unapologetic in the face of a storm of controversy over the district's use of handcuffs on students. Mack ignited the storm after first bringing one incident to the district's attention and then, after feeling fobbed off, investigating more incidents that eventually resulted in the NAACP filing legal claims on behalf of 15 students.
The tall, deep-voiced mechanical engineer for King County has zipped over to the NAACP's cramped Central District office to talk on a day in late May. The preceding night, an independent panel commissioned by the Kent district had issued a report that was highly critical of student handcuffing and other disciplinary procedures. Mack had attacked the panel members as likely district apologists, but now he hailed the report as vindication—and further ammunition against not only Grohe but Seattle Times columnist Matt Rosenberg, who had risen to the district's defense. "That motherfucker is going to be eatin' crow right now," Mack gloats.
Then he turns serious, reflecting on how the report had stoked his anger, and how he was glad of it. "I don't want my anger to die down," he says. "I want it to stay white hot."
Mack's indignation—combined with his forceful leadership style, personal magnetism, and strategic picking of battles—has revitalized the once- dormant local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since he strode to office a year and a half ago after a startling challenge to the reigning president that led to a vote, Mack has held true to his promise to increase the chapter's visibility. Press conferences and protests around issues such as student discipline and police accountability have kept the NAACP in the news, attracting new and younger members. Mack says membership has roughly doubled to 1,400 since he took over. Civic organizations around the state clamor for his oratorical skills, which mix fiery rhetoric with brainy analysis. King County Executive and gubernatorial hopeful Ron Sims calls him "the best speaker in the state right now"—high praise from someone who is a strong contender for that title himself. In early July, the chapter under Mack's leadership won the national organization's Thalheimer Award, given to branches considered most effective.
A Federal Way resident recruited into the NAACP, the 42-year-old Mack hit the limelight while still vice president of the organization. He took a leading role in the protests over the killing of Robert Thomas by an off-duty King County sheriff's deputy, standing in the front line of one march that veered suddenly onto Interstate 5 and brought rush-hour traffic to a halt. He delights in telling how he confronted Sims over his refusal to take a position on Thomas' inquest. When the county executive failed to relent in a meeting with the NAACP, Mack abruptly declared, "This meeting's over," and walked out of the room, followed by his supporters.
Sims put out the word through mutual friends, "I will not accept that conduct from anybody again." But he says he and Mack kept talking and learned to respect each other's role. Similarly, Mack and Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl have good things to say about each other, though their relationship got off to a tense start. Angered over Sound Transit contractor Kiewit Pacific's sparse use of African-American subcontractors, Mack says he essentially told Earl: "We'll shut your site down." But Earl says Mack was willing to get beyond threats to sit down and look at the numbers. "I felt like I could work with him," she says. After negotiations brokered by Earl between the NAACP and Kiewit, the contractor significantly increased the amount of work slated for African-American companies.
Mack says he has approached his presidency with a different philosophy than his predecessor, Oscar Eason Jr. Whereas Eason wanted to work on "large systemic issues," according to Mack, he wanted to tackle individual, manageable issues that could show results. "My philosophy," he sums up, "was learning how to win again."
Carl Mack's Picks
Best Restaurant: McGowan's Restaurant & Lounge in Renton. "I love the food. I love the fact that it's African-American owned. Whenever I have a business meeting or meeting with the police chief or anybody, it's always McGowan's. I always order the catfish and greens and candied yams."
Best Place to Relax: "Emerald Downs every time. When I go, I don't like sitting in the box seats. They got something called the Champions Bar, which has got all the screens up, and it's just common, average everyday folks. The same folks are there all the time. It's like Cheers—except you got horses. If I was wealthy, I'd be there every day."
Best Way to Get the Media's Attention: "Call a press conference. The media realize when we call a press conference, there's usually something to it. There are two words that scare me to no end—Tawana Brawley [the African-American teen whose tale of rape by law-enforcement officers in 1980s upstate New York spurred Al Sharpton into über-protest mode, until the story was proved a hoax]. Before I go public with anything, I want to investigate it thoroughly."
Best Local School Superintendent: "Tom Murphy of Federal Way, by far. When he came into office, Federal Way had a whole series of issues around race. Murphy called for an independent investigation [into reasons behind the achievement gap]. When the finding came out damning to the district, he publicized it and said, 'Now that we know it, let's address it.'"
Best Local Police Chief: "The only one I've dealt with is [Gil] Kerlikowske. I have Kerlikowske's home number. Anything that goes down, he wants me to give him a call. We've dealt with a number of issues that never went public. I've got a lot of respect for him. But the test of the relationship has yet to come."
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