WASHINGTON, D.C. (TriceEdneyWire.com) — The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, regarded by some as America’s foremost think-tank for black political and economic research, is struggling with financial problems so serious that its political arm has been gutted and its interim president is working for free.
Spencer Overton, the center’s interim president/CEO, is on sabbatical from his job as a Georgetown University law professor. He assumed the interim presidency in February after the departure of Ralph Everett, who was president for about eight years.
Upon Everett’s departure Dec. 31, Dr. Brian D. Smedley, director of the Center’s Health Policy Institute, assumed the interim presidency briefly until Overton came on board.
But Overton, who was also a member of the Joint Center’s board, recently confirmed in an interview with the Trice Edney News Wire that he took the position with no salary.
“No, I am not on salary,” Overton said after participating as a panelist for a recent Capitol Hill event.
Asked previously about the financial state of the Joint Center, Overton responded guardedly in an email, saying, “The recession has affected various organizations. People of color face significant challenges, however … there is a clear need for a think-tank that focuses on policies that affect people of color.
“I think if we focus on the challenges of real people, produce high quality policy solutions to those challenges, maintain responsible internal practices and clearly communicate the value of our work to potential supporters, we will grow and thrive. There is much work to do but I’m excited about the future.”
Overton has spent the last three months meeting with people who have been affiliated with the Joint Center over the years, seeking advice and help.
Despite Overton’s public silence on the state of the organization’s financial affairs, long-time black political researcher David Bositis, who recently left the Joint Center because of its financial woes, was not reticent.
“They’re having money problems. Basically, right now, they’re a health group,” said Bositis, who researched black politics for the Joint Center for 23 years. “They’re trying to hold on. And they’re not under water, in the sense that they’re not closed. I mean they are still open, but the political part of it… politics is not being emphasized anymore.”
Bositis said the health research aspect is important but that black political research – such as tracking the growth and decline of black elected officials, voting trends, positions on issues – is still equally as needed.
“I’ve been involved in all sorts of legal cases on voting rights and redistricting. The thing is you need that research to provide information for a lot of the court cases,” Bositis said.
Overton led the Political Law Studies Initiative at Georgetown and served as a member of the first Obama campaign, transition and administration. But he said nothing about political research in an emailed response to questions about his vision from a political perspective. Instead, he referred to health policy as a “traditional strength.”
Founded in 1979, the Joint Center, in its first 15 years, was called the Joint Center for Political Studies. JointCenter.org now says the “Joint Center uses research, analysis, and communications to improve the socioeconomic status and political participation of people of color, to promote relationships across racial lines, and to strengthen the nation’s pluralistic society.”
Other sources close to the Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan non-profit have expressed deep concern about its finances and future. They include the Center’s former 30-year president, Eddie Williams.
“I’m very concerned,” said Williams, who assumed the presidency two years after the center’s founding. “I have a meeting coming up with the new president to get some perspective on that,” he said of the organization’s financial woes.
Word began to circulate about the Joint Center’s financial problems shortly after the departure of Everett in December. In addition to Everett and Bositis, at least seven staff members have quit since late last year, sources confirmed.
The Joint Center’s funding comes largely from foundations, corporations, government contracts and individual donors, as well as fundraisers such as dinners and luncheons. Its gala dinner is set for June 25, when U.S. Senator Cory A. Booker, the former Newark mayor who is the black elected to the Senate since Barack Obama, will receive its highest award, the Louis E. Martin Great American Award, named after the legendary journalist, presidential confidant and co-founder of the Joint Center.
Among associates from whom Overton has sought advice is Dr. Elsie Scott, former president/CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, who raised millions through the CBCF’s annual dinner.
“I’m very impressed with his commitment to try to raise the funds and keep the Joint Center moving and preserve the rich legacy,” said Scott, who confirmed she met with Overton two weeks ago to discuss fund-raising strategies. “It’s going to be a hard hill for him to climb. But, I think that if anybody can do it at this time, I think he would definitely be a person who has the commitment and drive.”
Scott said much weight will likely be placed on the amount of money raised at the upcoming dinner, which would go toward “core support,” such as staff, upkeep of the building and operational funds to sustain the center while it seeks grant money.
“I think the dinner is going to be a major decision point for their board. If they don’t do well, the board is going to have to make some decisions,” Scott said.