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Joint Center: Once bastion of Black political research pressing to survive

Crucial fundraiser held yesterday

By Hazel Trice Edney TriceEdneyWire.com | 6/26/2014, midnight

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, esteemed 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 on Dec. 31, Brian D. Smedley, Ph.D., director of the center’s Health Policy Institute, assumed the interim presidency briefly until Overton was announced. 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 confirmed in a brief interview after participating as a panelist for a recent Capitol Hill event.

When asked previously about the financial state of the Joint Center, Overton had 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 organization because of its financial woes, was not as subtle.

“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 from 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 is extremely important, but Black political research— such as tracking the growth and decline of Black elected officials, voting trends, positions on issues—is still equally as needed, he says.

“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. “I’ve been talking to a variety of people in terms of where we go from here.”

Overton led the Political Law Studies Initiative at Georgetown and served as a member of the first Obama campaign transition and administration. But, ironically, 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.”