In business, you would call it a hostile takeover.
Ron Busby, a former small business owner and corporate executive, in 2010 officially launched the U.S. Black Chamber, Inc., an alliance of 80 black chambers of commerce across the country.
“Everyone has someone representing them here in Washington, D.C. except for black businesses,” Busby explained in a recent interview with BMoreNews.com.
Except, there is an organization in D.C. called the National Black Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1992 and headed by Harry Alford.
Now, Alford’s longstanding black business group and Busby’s rival upstart are locked in battle, including a lawsuit over trademark infringement.
And President Obama, the nation’s first African American president, has backed Busby, bringing him to the White House for bill signings and important speeches, and his staff even helping coin the new organization’s motto, “the national voice of the black business community.”
Meanwhile, the slights have left Alford – who voted for and donated to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign – fuming. He calls Obama’s move a calculated strategy to silence him.
“They’re afraid of me. They’re afraid of the Chamber. My work has a lot of credibility, and they’re afraid because I don’t dance to their music,” Alford said in an interview.
An associate of Alford’s went further. “Why is the White House doing this when it at least can be perceived as a way of kneecapping an African American with a long history in the business community?” the source asked.
Certainly, the fiery Alford has at times created headaches for Obama, and Democrats.
In July, 2009, he famously blasted California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer face-to-face in a congressional hearing. When Boxer attempted to offset his testimony against cap-and-trade legislation by highlighting the support of the NAACP, Alford said it was “condescending…you’re trying to put up some other black group to pit against me….I think it’s God-awful.”
A few months later, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on “How are Minorities Faring in the Economic Downturn?” then-Democratic Chairman Edolphus Towns wanted Alford to testify, but the White House intervened, persuading Towns against it, Alford said. Instead, the panel’s top Republican, Darrell Issa, invited Alford.
Most recently, Alford has crusaded against the Obama administration’s strict regulations on for-profit colleges, teaming up with lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus to argue the regulations would disproportionately hurt black students of the schools.
The most controversial parts of the regulations, a top priority of Education Department Sec. Arne Duncan, are still pending at the department, having been delayed by the fierce lobbying of critics.
It’s this issue, Alford and other sources close to the issue say, that has particularly rankled the Obama White House.
While it’s still unclear just how involved the White House has been in promoting Busby’s rival group, the evidence suggests it played a significant role.
Busby has been invited to the White House 23 times to Alford’s five, according to White House visitor logs, including a slew of meetings with top officials from the Office of Public Engagement, an office overseen by Valerie Jarrett.
Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for Obama, implicitly denied the White House favors one group over the other, saying its job is to reach out to groups of all kind.
“The White House Office of Public Engagement is the open front door of the White House for the American public. OPE holds numerous meetings and events with a variety of groups, organizations, and stakeholders to discuss a variety of pressing issues–including five meetings with representatives from the National Black Chamber of Commerce over the last two years,” Lewis said.
Obama’s team was “excited” when the U.S. Black Chamber formed, Busby recalled. “From their perspective, they were looking for an organization that wasn’t politically biased.”
The U.S. Black Chamber, Inc., Busby said, has worked in “disseminating” the Obama administration’s message on how health care reform will impact businesses and, on that issue, pushed to eliminate a burdensome tax reporting requirement that Congress and Obama just repealed.
For Alford, a particularly stinging part of Obama’s favor of Busby is that the U.S. Black Chamber is barely off the ground.
For instance, the group does not have its own office yet, instead sharing space with Women In Public Policy, a group representing women-owned businesses. Alford’s associate called U.S. Black Chamber a “bogus Potemkin village shell organization.”
(Busby says 80 black chambers of commerce across the country, and especially in Texas and California, have already signed up.)
There are also the cases of mistaken identity.
“The I.R.S. called here last week looking for Ron Busby,” Alford said.
In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the National Black Chamber of Commerce says Busby is infringing its trademarked name.
The U.S. Black Chamber, the lawsuit says, even once posted video of Alford testifying before Congress on its website.
Busby’s group has filed motions to dismiss the case, which is still pending.
Asked about Alford, Busby said he was “trying to stay out of the mud.”
“We are an alternative…but options are good. Why not support all the options?” Busby asked.
But in other forums, Busby speaks as if Alford’s group never existed at all, that no one had attempted to represent black businesses. And according to Alford’s lawsuit, he’s made active attempts to poach membership from the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
For Alford, besides the bitter issue of an Obama-backed rival, there’s a deeper issue of how a supporter like him could find himself on skids for what he considers a few honest policy disagreements.
“I’m in pretty good company,” Alford said, “he treats Jesse Jackson like the plague. He treats Tavis Smiley like the plague. Cornell West is now an enemy. He doesn’t listen.”
Recalling the first time he met Obama personally, Alford said the president kept a cool demeanor. “It’s forced. It’s like talking to a college professor you don’t know. ‘Hi. Bye. See you later.’
“I would have one-on-ones with George W. Bush. After Katrina, George W. Bush asked me, ‘what do you think?’ I said, ‘I think you’re doing a lousy job, but you can turn it around.’ Bush said ‘give me three weeks.’ And he did it,” Alford said.