HOUSTON – There is a funny thing about the programs for this year’s NAACP national convention. Amid all the lists of speakers and seminars there’s a full page, full color picture of President Barack Obama, touting him as the speaker at the final plenary session of the convention in downtown Houston.
There’s only one problem: The president isn’t coming.
The convention organizers are already talking about their main concerns, from economic opportunity to what critics call “voter suppression” efforts to block African-Americans from voting. But they’re also pardoning the president for declining their invitation and instead dispatching Vice President Joe Biden, even though Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney plans to speak next week.
“Well,, everybody would like to have the president wherever they are, which is why the president is not going to be able to make it,” said U.S. Rep. Al Green, the Houston Democrat whose association with the local NAACP dates back decades. “There are many demands on the president.”
Organizers expect more than 8,000 visitors to come to Houston for the convention, including delegates and their families. Some of them showed up for registration on Friday, the day before the formal opening of the gathering at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Workers driving forklifts, spreading carpet and setting up framework for booths spent the day preparing for the five-day event.
In many ways, it’s a standard convention with days full of arcane seminars and panel discussions bearing titles like “Collective Action Fundraising” and “How to Obtain Injunctive Relief on Election Day.” But it also has the feel of an annual reunion for African-American leaders, both national and local, who get together every year in a convivial setting.
For many of the group’s leaders, the main emphasis is upon fighting for voting rights, especially here in Texas. NAACP leaders have spoken out against voter ID laws like the rules passed, but not yet implemented, in Texas, which they say discriminate against African-Americans.
“There is concern with the voter suppression laws that we are fighting in Texas,” Green said. “Obviously it’s great to the NAAACP to come to our town when we’re fighting these laws. These laws would prevent people from voting who have been voting for years and years and years.”
But President Obama’s absence is conspicuous in an election year headlined by a difficult campaign for the nation’s first African-American commander-in-chief. Nonetheless, black voters are in a mood to forgive him.
At Thelma’s Barbecue, a popular diner in a historically African-American neighborhood of southeast Houston, voters simply shook their heads and dismissed the notion that the president owed the NAACP a visit.
“As long as the issues are addressed that I’m concerned about, where he’s addressing them from doesn’t make a big deal to me,” said Stan Jones, a customer dining on a fried catfish lunch.
His co-worker, Ferdinand Morrow, agreed and added that Romney probably won’t win any support by showing up here next week.
“Mitt Romney coming to this convention doesn’t mean anything,” Morrow said. “He’s not going to persuade any black voters. That is the reality.”
Romney is scheduled to speak on Wednesday. Biden is expected to appear on Thursday.