In late January, news came out of the Portland branch of the NAACP that raised eyebrows around the Portland political scene: the chapter’s newly-elected president, James Posey, was attempting to appoint Vadim Mozyrsky as chair of the branch’s Political Affairs committee. 

Less than a year earlier, Mozyrsky, whose family came to the United States as refugees from Ukraine, had been a candidate for Portland City Council running to the right of sitting Commissioner and former NAACP branch president Jo Ann Hardesty. He was also an outspoken opponent of charter reform, having clashed with several progressives when he served on the reform commission. 

Mozyrsky ultimately failed to advance to the November run-off, finishing third in the primary behind Hardesty and Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, but that failure didn’t seem to dampen his political ambitions: He helped launch a political action committee that worked to boost Gonzalez and has reportedly mulled a run for Multnomah County District Attorney, despite the fact that he has no experience in criminal law. 

The notion of Mozyrsky as the NAACP’s political chair roused a coalition of Black and progressive Portlanders, who organized against the appointment and ultimately saw the branch’s board vote it down. But the episode illustrated the extent to which Posey and the new leadership of the local NAACP has reoriented its political aims at a critical time in the city’s politics. 

“It feels like… a shift—a very intentional move, certainly going more right from the more progressive mindset,” Sharon Gary-Smith, the former branch president, said. 

Vadim Mozyrsky and James Posey  
Courtesy Vadim Mozyrsky campaign / NAACP Portland

Posey, the new branch president, has a long history in Portland. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Posey, 77, ran a construction business and co-founded the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2004. 

Posey also has a long history with the local NAACP, and was involved in the movement to oust former chapter President E.D. Mondainé following accusations of abuse by former members of the church where he serves as a pastor. 

In early 2022, Posey was serving on the executive board and aiding with the chapter’s search for an executive director when he contacted Charles McGee, who was accused of sexual assault in 2012, regarding the role. McGee was acquitted in a trial, but his decision to speak to McGee rankled some members. Shortly thereafter, Posey resigned from his role on the board. 

Sharon Gary-Smith, who preceded Posey as branch president, suggested there were deeper issues with Posey’s communication style as well. Gary-Smith said Posey could be misogynistic and abrasive. Posey said that he was simply “direct” in often meandering meetings. 

In any case, not a year after resigning from the board, Posey was elected president. More than political concerns, he said he was motivated to run by what he saw as administrative failures under Gary-Smith. 

“They went a number of months, maybe a year-and-a-half, without a chair of the membership committee,” Posey said. “Similarly, they never had a strong political action chair. They went through the whole election season without having a political action chair.”

Posey has said his tenure in charge of the branch is about restoring stability to the organization’s committees and returning the branch to its “traditional foundation in terms of its mission” — a foundation that he suggests it strayed from over the last two years. 

“With Sharon, the NAACP took a new direction that was more radical than it had been in the past,” Mac Smiff, who formerly served as chair of the Black Liberation and Social Justice committee, said. “And the NAACP is not historically a super radical organization. It has been at times, but these branches tend to often just become a stamp for the government.”

Under the leadership of Gary-Smith and Second Vice President Donovan Scribes, the Portland branch was not that. Instead, it launched the Black Liberation committee, held community meetings to discuss issues like charter reform, and revamped the branch’s financial transparency policies.

Gary-Smith also spoke out strongly against the influence of People for Portland, a nonprofit group formed in 2021 to advance hard-line approaches to homelessness and crime. Gary-Smith sent a clear message about the branch’s political alignment early in her tenure when she turned down an invitation to meet with then-incoming Portland Police Association President Aaron Schmautz. 

“I knew it was a PR moment,” Gary-Smith said of the proposed meeting. “That they were going to have the press there. I said, ‘I don’t do kumbaya.’”

People involved in Gary-Smith’s administration believe they helped rebuild community trust in the branch, the oldest continuously chartered NAACP branch west of the Mississippi, after the tumult of Hardesty and Mondainé’s tenures. But it was also, in some ways, a challenging moment for the organization. 

Gary-Smith replaced Mondainé after a period of time in which the branch’s membership had increased substantially to well over 1,000 members during the Black Lives Matter uprising of the summer of 2020, but then saw it fall off to the point where fewer than 100 people voted in the election in which Posey defeated Gary-Smith.  

After Posey took over and turned over many of the branch’s leadership roles, things changed quickly. 

“We had taken the NAACP and positioned ourselves as a threat—as a group that could challenge things that the city is doing that is harmful,” Smiff said. “And [Posey] quickly just got back in the mayor’s lap. I think that’s the biggest issue.”

Smiff and a number of other people were quick to observe that Wheeler was among the attendees at Posey’s inauguration as chapter president, though Posey said he didn’t invite Wheeler and that the mayor simply showed up of his own volition. 

Nevertheless, shortly after the release of police body camera footage of the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Posey did something that Gary-Smith and her leadership team would not have: join Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell at a press conference warning Portlanders not to engage in violent protest. 

“We had taken the NAACP and positioned ourselves as a threat—as a group that could challenge things that the city is doing that is harmful,” Smiff said. “And [Posey] quickly just got back in the mayor’s lap. I think that’s the biggest issue.”

Posey said he doesn’t want to see the NAACP isolate itself, but rather bring people together. 

“How do you ever solve problems if you’re not communicating with people? You tell me,” Posey said. “How do you bridge the gap? How do you have any reconciliation? How do you move forward with an agenda that is going to be beneficial for our entire community unless you're having conversations with people?”

To Smiff, however, the appearance alongside the mayor and police chief represented a step backward to a time when, in his estimation, the branch’s leadership was more interested in access to power than in the work of challenging it. 

The ideological clash between NAACP leadership regimes reflects not only a disagreement about the role of the NAACP, but also broader disagreements about what Portland’s most pressing issues are and how to solve them. 

Smiff said he feels the NAACP should be focused on challenging the planned expansion of I-5 and challenging Gonzalez’s ban on the distribution of tents to the unhoused, among other issues. Gary-Smith added “curbing the influence of developers” and police violence as major concerns.

It’s a very different list than Posey presented. Posey opposed charter reform and voted for Gonzalez over Hardesty, arguing that the city has become a magnet for “wrongdoing people.” 

“I think it’s misguided for the city to allow people to live on the streets in tents, looking like we’re somewhere in Beirut or somewhere in Afghanistan or somewhere in a third-world country,” Posey said. “That was a misguided policy.” 

According to Posey, the branch should be focused on taking measures to close the city’s education achievement gap, which sees students of color graduate at significantly lower rates than their white peers, and working to engage the business community to become more involved in civic affairs.

“We can call ourselves Plywood City now,” Posey said. “Nobody wants to be in a city where every other business has got plywood placards sticking up trying to account for crazy people knocking out their windows. You don’t want to be in a city where, every other step you take, somebody is pooping on the sidewalk.” 

Though Posey has made administration a focal point of his leadership, he’s dealt with personnel issues of his own. On January 6, Posey appointed Cinna’Mon Williams as the branch secretary without disclosing the fact that Williams pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges of aggravated theft for stealing money from the nonprofit Business Diversity Institute when she served as treasurer. 

When the treasurer at the time, Kevin Machiz, objected to Williams’ appointment, Posey asked him to resign. In a letter to the executive committee dated February 6, Machiz wrote that Posey’s failure to disclose “amounts to a material negligent omission.” Machiz did resign. Williams is still listed as the branch’s secretary. 

“The organization is about second chances and trying to mitigate the impact of the criminal justice system,” Posey said. 

The change in direction at the NAACP comes as Portland is on the brink of changing its form of government and electing a new city council and mayor next year—a major opportunity for progressives to retake power in the city. 

Smiff noted that there are a number of other progressive, Black-led organizations in Portland for people to support, from the Urban League, to Imagine Black and Spirited Justice. Still, he said, the NAACP remains outsized in its importance. 

“If we abandon our organization because our leadership is not representing us or taking an extremely capitalist angle or whatever it is, all that happens is that other folks join and it becomes their organization,” Smiff said. “You have to stay in there, and fight, and get it back.”