Capitol Alert

How a high school dropout fought her way to the pinnacle of California politics

She was a church girl with a foul mouth and a high school dropout who graduated from UC Berkeley in two years with honors.

She’s also a celebrated civil rights leader long accused of leveraging her role as president of the California NAACP to line her pockets.

One thing is clear: Alice Huffman never backs down from a fight.

“I don’t go looking for a fight,” Huffman said in a recent interview at her home in a gated community in the Pocket area, her Yorkie, Lishous, nearby. “I’m not a protagonist. I just defend myself. Sometimes people aren’t used to women who can defend themselves and hold their own.”

Once again, Huffman is defending herself against election-year critics who say her group’s endorsements can come with a price tag.

Over the years Huffman, 80, and the California NAACP have weighed in on key ballot measures on topics as diverse as redistricting and gay marriage. This year her organization is taking sides on 16 of the 17 measures on the statewide ballot – including advocating for a tobacco tax increase and legalized marijuana, while opposing a plan to cap drug prices paid by the state.

Huffman runs her own consulting business, A.C. Public Affairs, and has a history of working for some of the same campaigns endorsed by the state NAACP, which she has served as president since 2000.

So far this year, the “No on 61” committee, funded by the pharmaceutical industry in opposition to the drug pricing measure, has paid Huffman $108,500 for consulting work and reimbursements for mailers, according to state filings. Proponents of the $2 tobacco tax increase have paid A.C. Public Affairs $60,000 for consulting work, and gave the NAACP a $25,000 civic donation earlier this year. Her firm has also worked on marijuana legalization and Gov. Jerry Brown’s criminal justice measure.

“Among the political class in Sacramento, it’s very well known that Alice essentially applies the NAACP good housekeeping seal to special interest causes in return for money,” said Garry South, the Democratic consultant leading the campaign to cap drug prices. “I don’t know how she gets away with it.”

Huffman said she feels no guilt about her work and established safeguards after the first news articles scrutinized her business dealings years ago. Now A.C. Public Affairs only works for causes that the state NAACP board voted to endorse and won’t entertain conversations with campaigns until that happens, she said.

And quite frankly, she says, she could earn a lot more money if she consulted full-time, she said. The NAACP position is unpaid.

“If anyone can show me where I have harmed the NAACP, I would be open and have to listen,” Huffman said. “But I have not. I’ve increased its visibility. I’ve increased its ability to survive in this environment.

“And it comes up every campaign. I realize it’s from the enemy camp.”

It’s lunchtime at the Capitol, and Huffman is cracking up a room of political types at the Sheraton.

She’s the featured speaker for a She Shares event. The invitation placed her among an elite class of women, including Attorney General Kamala Harris and California’s first lady, Anne Gust Brown, who have headlined the series in the past.

Her bio for the event is four chunky paragraphs long, about 370 words describing state and national honors received over a nearly 50-year career in politics: California Legislative Black Caucus Heritage and Legends Award; The National NAACP Thalheimer Award; an appointee of three governors; member of the executive committee and co-chair of the rules committee for the California Democratic Party; a super delegate and chair of the party’s national convention in 2004. Huffman has won eight consecutive elections for president of the California NAACP.

It doesn’t mention that Huffman helped build the California Teachers Association’s political power in the 1980s and earned Brown’s ear before most of her critics sent out their first mailers.

She describes a colorful childhood.

Huffman tells the crowd that she was one of 18 children born to a miner, Hammond Smith, and a gospel singer, Fannie Mae, in Raleigh, W.Va., a tiny coal-mining town. Huffman’s mother had her first child at age 15 and her last at age 39, she explains.

“I say, thank God she didn’t know about Planned Parenthood because me, Cecelia and Mackie wouldn’t be here,” Huffman jokes. Laughter hits right on cue.

Her father died when Huffman was 6, and the family moved to Charleston. The youngest half-dozen Huffman kids were quickly put to work.

“When we went to Charleston, my mom took her six little orphan kids, put us in black and white and made us a little singing group,” Huffman said. “One brother played the piano. She took us out singing, and she made money all through West Virginia singing with her kids.”

Huffman describes her mother as her role model and backbone, a smart, moral woman and missionary.

They butted heads on at least one topic: her foul mouth. Her mom often got on her about her choice of words. Later on as an adult, Huffman dismissed the criticism.

“I said, ‘Look, Mom, I’m out fighting with barracudas. You sit at home. You pray for me so I can bring you money ...”’

Huffman’s mother remarried to an evangelical preacher when Huffman was 8. He moved the family around to open churches. The experience gave her training in fundraising, a skill she would later use at the Capitol, and a commitment to civil rights cemented during hours of sermons about rights and wrongs.

While many of her family members took up careers serving God, she was drawn down another path.

“I chose show biz, politics, all kinds of things to make money,” she said at the She Shares event. “I had an interest in money. I thought by now I’d be a millionaire.”

Huffman dropped out of high school in 10th grade after a guidance counselor directed her to a vocational school instead of the mostly white school for high-achieving students in Cleveland. She later fell back on her musical skills and tried her luck as a singer, joining Billy Lilly and the Thunderbirds.

She gave up the act after about two and a half years, and struck out on her own as solo artist Asa Love, channeling Peggy Lee. “I then decided that I didn’t like twisting the night away,” she said. “I wanted to stand up and say fev-ah.”

Huffman said she first became “smitten” with politics listening to Martin Luther King speak on a white radio station in a factory where she embroidered bowling shirts after leaving school. After her music career fizzled out, she volunteered for the Congress of Racial Equality, an African American civil rights organization founded in 1942. Although largely uneducated, she said she knew she could outwork and outthink the men in charge.

Through CORE, Huffman helped out on Carl Stokes’ historical mayoral campaign in Cleveland in 1967, which made him the first African American to lead a major city. During the Stokes campaign, a man she worked with told her she was bright and suggested she move to California and get an education. He said it wouldn’t matter that she never finished high school.

“So, I got in my car,” Huffman said.

She drove from Cleveland to California, where a year and a half later a wide-eyed Huffman notified her bosses that she would be leaving her job at Peralta Community College in Oakland in a few months to attend UC Berkeley in the fall. She didn’t know she needed to apply. Determined to get in anyway, she took a week off and camped out each day at the admissions and Educational Opportunity Program offices. By the end of the week, she said, she had talked her way in despite her lack of a high school diploma. She graduated cum laude two years later.

Huffman’s trail to the Capitol started at UC Davis, where she worked in special admissions. She said she was intrigued by news coverage of Brown, then in the early months of his first term as governor.

“He lived in an apartment,” Huffman said. “He wouldn’t live in the mansion. He drove a Plymouth. He didn’t want a big car.”

Brown had a good reputation for hiring women and minorities, so Huffman organized a reception for his new African American appointees. Brown later appointed her to two state jobs and today refers to her as “a force of nature.”

Huffman calls him the second Brown love of her life. Former Speaker Willie Brown became a friend and political ally after the two teamed up while she was a lobbyist and then director of political affairs at CTA, from 1985 to 1994.

By 1988, Huffman had founded A.C. Public Affairs with her sister and began building her client base.

Her dual roles as consultant and NAACP president have worked in conjunction on a number of campaigns over the years.

In 2005, the pharmaceutical industry paid Huffman $375,000 in consulting fees. That year the California NAACP sided with the drug companies on two ballot measures that promised lower prices for prescription drugs.

She was paid $210,000 for work for a campaign, funded by the cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, opposing a tobacco tax increase in 2006. Huffman and the NAACP reversed its anti-tax stance this year and now supports a $2 tax increase on tobacco.

The “No on 8” campaign gave Huffman $255,000 in consulting fees in 2008. She was among the only African American leaders in the state to oppose the ban on gay marriage.

“Too often I think her role as political consultant conflicts with her role as an advocate, particularly when her role as a consultant is to get African Americans in support of whatever her client is,” said Craig DeLuz, a Republican political strategist and member of the Robla School District board of trustees.

Elihu Harris, former mayor of Oakland who also served in the state Assembly, rebuffs the idea that Huffman’s firm is a conflict of interest or that she’s sold out the NAACP. He said Huffman’s business relationships predate the NAACP, and she’s leveraged that prior experience to make the civil rights organization “a force to be reckoned with” in Sacramento.

“You have to learn how to submit to Alice or fight with her. It’s not a situation where she’s going to simply give in because you’re a man or you have a higher position or whatever,” he said. “You don’t mess with Alice.”

The head of the state’s most powerful business association agrees. Allan Zaremberg took over the California Chamber of Commerce about the same time Huffman nabbed the top spot at the state NAACP.

He describes Huffman as “passionate and effective,” and had trouble recalling specific times when the two organizations were at odds.

“Maybe the best thing I can say is that I try to avoid those situations,” he said.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna