Racicot Out, Wofford In at America’s Promise

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Promise not to tell, but America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth (AP) had one ally too many over the past year. Last January the Alexandria, Va.-based group that works to advance children and youth services reluctantly bid farewell to its first chairman, Colin Powell, now secretary of state. Tapped by the heavily Republican board last March to fill Powell’s enormous boots was former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, with little to recommend him for the chairmanship of the 21-member board other than his close political ties to President George Bush and his support of AmeriCorps and other programs run by the Corporation for National Service (CNS). With big-sky ambitions too small for Montana, Racicot signed up as a lobbyist for the Houston law firm of Bracewell & Patterson and was soon raking in huge fees from such companies as RICO-eligible Enron and the gutter-talk-is-good-for-your-kids Recording Industry Association of America.

A search on the Internet found barely a trace of Racicot in his yearlong role as chairman of AP. In May Racicot was in Richmond for a thinly disguised campaign appearance for then-State Attorney General Mark Earley, the unsuccessful GOP nominee to succeed Jim Gilmore as Virginia governor. The occasion was Earley’s selection as chair of AP’s Virginia’s Promise Leadership Council. Earley was praised by Racicot because of his “dedication to this crusade.” Earley is now president and chief executive of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a Va.-based ministry founded by Chuck Colson.

The next public mention of Racicot and AP came eight months later, when the “chair of America’s Promise,” it was announced, was to be awarded an honorary doctorate from his University of Montana alma mater. Racicot is “a role model for young people,” says a university press release that also quotes UM President George Dennison saying Racicot was selected because of his “commitment to community service and civic engagement … as leader of America’s Promise.” Racicot, when governor, appointed Dennison to chair Montana’s Commission on Community Service.

Having done virtually nothing on behalf of either AP (its now annual $7.5 million earmark in the CNS budget was already in the bag) or for disadvantaged kids, other than preside over a November board meeting, AP Chairman Racicot in mid-January added the title of chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), replacing Gilmore. After being designated by President Bush to chair the RNC, Racicot eschewed its miserly $150,000 annual salary and declared he would “continue on with my occupation.” But after a hailstorm of criticism, much of it from GOP-leaning pundits, Racicot changed his mind, sort of, about being a registered lobbyist.

Supporters of AP knew they had a problem with this partisan profile, so unlike the above-the-fray image carefully nurtured by former Chairman Powell.

But no one clued in AP’s two youth members who joined the board in November: Daniel Horgan, 21, of Bethel Park, Pa., a student at Robert Morris College, and Aisha Shaheen, 20, of Carson, Calif., a student at the University of Southern California. Shaheen, an all-American young woman in a hijab, expressed total confidence in Racicot’s leadership of AP by saying his dual chairmanships are “not really [a problem] for me.”

Three days after Shaheen’s comments, AP was relieved of its non-problem when Racicot resigned as chair and board member. Squeezing into Racicot’s narrow cowboy boots is former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.). He served as CEO for five years at the helm of the Bill Clinton-created CNS. During his tenure at CNS, Wofford played a vital role in organizing and financing the 1997 Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia. From that mountaintop came America’s Promise, which has over the years shifted to a transient operation promoting volunteerism, from its more sensible focus on encouraging expanded youth development activities. Powell’s wife, Alma Powell, remains vice-chairwoman.

To some, Wofford is a fanatic when it comes to promoting civic engagement; to others he’s a mere zealot. AP, says Wofford, is “inherently nonpartisan,” adding, “I admire Gov. Racicot tremendously.” He acknowledges that AP’s greatest challenge is to succeed in “its campaign to deliver the five promises” to kids “without the most famous, popular person in the country,” Powell. Powell himself shed his America’s Promise red wagon lapel pin on Sept. 11 in favor of the American flag.

Talk of delivery on those improved outcomes for youth eventually turns to the stalled-in-Congress Younger Americans Act (YAA), which could, if enacted, spend for the first time up to $500 million per year on positive youth development programs. In September 2000 Powell (still AP chair) endorsed the measure at a nonpartisan Capitol Hill press conference. Standing by Powell’s side was Wofford. Enacting the YAA became a priority of AP and, in the eyes of its critics, a litmus test of the 55-staffer organization’s commitment to youth work.

On Racicot’s AP watch, the chairman was missing in action in the struggle to pass YAA. Wofford reconfirmed his “strong, strong support of the Younger American Act,” calling its enactment “basic to the work of America’s Promise.” That back-to-the-basics call to get the YAA through a Congress staring a self-inflicted $106 billion deficit in the face is expected to begin with a March hearing before the Senate Children and Families Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Contact: AP (703) 684-4500, ww.americaspromise.org.