African-American leaders aim criticism at Gregoire

African-American leaders yesterday denounced Attorney General Christine Gregoire for the role she played more than 30 years ago in a college sorority that barred women who were not white.

Gregoire, a Democratic candidate for governor, was a member of Kappa Delta sorority at the University of Washington in the late 1960s.

In a story Monday, The Seattle Times wrote about Gregoire's time at Kappa Delta and her decision to remain a member and work from within the sorority to oppose its discriminatory membership rule.

Gregoire's campaign initially embraced the story. Campaign manager Tim Zenk on Monday sent a message urging supporters to read the article and then send letters to the editor praising Gregoire.

Zenk wrote to supporters that the story "reveals how Chris stood up to the racist policies of a national organization while still a young woman. When others quit or were satisfied to simply make a statement, Chris went toe-to-toe with a southern sorority."

Carl Mack, president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, said yesterday it was upsetting enough to find out that Gregoire once pledged an oath to a discriminatory organization. But what really angered him was how her campaign is now portraying the sorority story.

"To try to spin it that way is insulting and it speaks to her not being forthright," Mack said in an interview yesterday. "You sit silently in a sorority and now, today, you come out and say you were a champion for civil rights; that's hard to swallow."

In a news conference later at Seattle's Mount Zion Baptist Church, Mack and other local African-American leaders said Gregoire's actions had had no impact in changing the sorority's exclusionary rules, which violated the university's nondiscriminatory policies of the time.

They criticized Gregoire for not being repentant about her involvement in the sorority.

"Even Trent Lott said he regretted his actions," said Tony Orange, a board member of the Seattle-King County NAACP and director of the Central Area Motivation Program. "There seems to not be any repentance on her part."

Lott, former U.S. Senate majority leader from Mississippi, stepped down from his post in 2002 and apologized for his remarks praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign for the presidency.

Gregoire's campaign responded yesterday by sending out a statement from two African-American supporters defending her actions at Kappa Delta and her record in fighting discrimination.

The statement, from former state lottery directory Merritt Long and Walter Hubbard, chairman of the state personnel appeals board, painted Mack's remarks as divisive and inappropriate.

"Gregoire has opposed discrimination while standing up for civil rights and equal rights throughout her career," they said.

In Monday's story, Gregoire said she had no regrets for deciding to stay with Kappa Delta and oppose its rule from within.

Gregoire said she didn't learn about Kappa Delta's whites-only rule until just before her initiation in 1966. She said she considered quitting, but decided to stay and try to fight the discriminatory rule from within the sorority.

She eventually became chapter president in 1969, her senior year, and had to inform new recruits about the unwritten rule.

Gregoire didn't take any dramatic stands against the rule during her time at UW. But in 1973, as an alumna adviser, she traveled to Kappa Delta's national convention in Virginia and tried unsuccessfully to get the sorority to allow nonwhites.

Gregoire said she is convinced her actions convinced Kappa Delta to drop its discriminatory rule. But sorority leaders disputed that and said the rule wasn't changed until years after Gregoire spoke out.

"The truth is Chris stood up at a national convention to change a national policy," Long and Hubbard said in the statement from Gregoire's campaign. "She was the first and only one to do so."

King County Executive Ron Sims, Gregoire's opponent in next month's Democratic primary and an African American, declined to comment on the sorority story or yesterday's response by African-American leaders.

During yesterday's press conference, Mack and the other black leaders said Gregoire has not used her clout as attorney general to fight discrimination or to take on other issues important to African Americans.

"If we saw that, maybe we'd say, 'OK, we can understand, she probably made a mistake as a young woman,' " Mack said. "We don't see that."

But in their statement yesterday, Long and Hubbard said Gregoire spoke out against Initiative 200, a measure to roll back affirmative-action laws in the state, and has been recognized for her record in hiring minority managers at the Attorney General's Office.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or