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NAACP to push voting rights

Says 1,000 will lobby senators

WASHINGTON -- At least 1,000 NAACP members attending the organization's convention will go to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to push the Senate to reauthorize expiring portions of the Voting Rights Act, the group's leaders said yesterday.

``We'll be showing up in numbers," said NAACP President Bruce Gordon. ``The NAACP is paying close attention."

Gordon spoke as delegates gathered for the group's 97th annual convention, a six-day meeting at the Washington Convention Center that will include panel discussions and workshops on topics such as AIDS, voter empowerment, educational and economic disparities, and lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.

The lobbying trip to Capitol Hill has turned out to be an accidental highlight of the convention, which had not been held in Washington since 1987.

``It's pure coincidence the convention is here in D.C.," said NAACP legislative assistant Matthew Segal, ``but it's perfect."

In the 41 years since its initial passage, the Voting Rights Act has been credited with stopping the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters through barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Much of the legislation, including a provision that bans racial discrimination at the ballot box, is permanent law.

But several key provisions are temporary and will expire next year if not renewed by Congress. One provision requires certain states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval for voting law changes. Another imposes a language assistance requirement on jurisdictions with a high percentage of voters whose native language is not English.

The House voted to extend the provisions last week after GOP leaders quelled a rebellion among some members from Southern states who objected to the provisions as an affront to states' rights. The matter now rests with the Senate.

Gordon and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond also renewed their invitation to President Bush to visit the convention. Bush has turned down invitations to attend five previous NAACP gatherings.

A White House spokeswoman, Christie Parell, declined to say yesterday whether Bush planned to attend.

Gordon, a retired businessman, has been leader of the NAACP for less than a year.

But as he presides over his first national convention with the organization, he has already overcome the low expectations of many critics.

It isn't so much what the former Verizon executive has accomplished as what he has started to do that has earned praise. For instance, he has worked on repairing frayed ties with the Bush administration, is advocating for Katrina victims, and kicked off an overhaul of the NAACP's structure and staff.

Now Gordon is facing tougher work: reviving stagnant membership and pushing a civil rights agenda in a conservative national climate.

``I was very skeptical about him coming on, but when I look at the extraordinary challenges he's faced in his first year -- I've seen him engaged," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. ``I give him high marks for trying, but it hasn't yielded very much."

Gordon's own to-do list is long. He wants to close racial gaps in wealth, in education, and on prison rolls, among other things.

Many believe the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People should be larger player in public policy debates.

``Wherever there's an issue that African-Americans are concerned with, they should have a presence," said Lorenzo Morris, a political scientist at Howard University. ``They haven't been as effective as I'd hoped."

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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