SACRAMENTO — An effort by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown to woo African American voters has touched off a controversy within the state's largest teachers union that threatens to dislodge one of its highest-ranking black officials.
Leaders of the California Teachers Assn. are investigating whether Alice Huffman, the union's political director, violated the CTA's internal conflict-of-interest code.
Under union review is a $175,000 contribution that Brown made earlier this year to a political action committee headed by Huffman and whether any of the funds benefited the influential official, according to Ned Hopkins, an assistant executive director of the labor union.
The Democratic gubernatorial campaign of John Garamendi has alleged that the money was intended to unfairly sway the union into endorsing Brown.
A spokesman for Brown denies the allegation and says the donation to Huffman's Committee on Minority Political Rights was intended only to enlist support among African American voters, not court the CTA, which wound up declining to endorse anyone for governor at a meeting in Los Angeles last month.
While the union looks at Huffman's status, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is defending Huffman, a close ally, calling her "the most visible African American woman in the whole political spectrum" and warning that "anyone who mistreats Alice is mistreating me."
If Huffman is forced out at CTA, where she has served for the past decade, her departure could jeopardize the close alliance between the Speaker and the union, which pumps millions of dollars into Democratic campaigns and fields an army of volunteers for candidates it endorses.
In a brief telephone interview Friday, Huffman, on vacation from her $110,000-a-year position, defended her actions.
"I haven't done anything wrong and I want to keep my job," she said. "I've worked hard for (the CTA). . . . I've had nothing but glowing evaluations."
Huffman acknowledged that a public relations firm she owns used CTA money and campaign contributions "to carry out community work" but emphasized that she "didn't make any money from those things."
CTA officials are expected to take up the future of Huffman's status at a meeting this week.
Huffman, 58, is no stranger to controversy. One of 18 children, the outspoken advocate is a high school dropout who has risen to become president of the Black American Political Assn. Along the way, she has forged close ties to Speaker Brown, whose name she floated last year as a candidate for governor.
That relationship has all along alienated the teachers union from Republicans. And now, because of her partisan loyalties, education officials and lobbyists say, Huffman has found herself at odds with CTA President Del Weber, a Republican who is using the conflict-of-interest wrangle as a way to try to ease Huffman out of her influential position or buy out her contract.
Weber could not be reached for comment.
The uproar over Huffman's actions began after she was quoted last month in Political Pulse, a Sacramento insider newsletter, saying the CTA was expected to endorse Brown for governor.
Darry Sragow, Garamendi's campaign manager, said the report confirmed his suspicions that the union's endorsement was wired on behalf of Kathleen Brown.
Unable to meet with union officials in advance of last month's CTA meeting, Sragow said he put together a memo outlining the payment to the committee and circulated the memo at the gathering.
"I think a reasonable person would conclude that Alice Huffman has a conflict of interest with regard to the CTA endorsement," Sragow said in the memo.
The impact of the memo was unclear, but the decision of the CTA not to endorse a candidate was viewed as a plus for underdog Garamendi.
Michael Reese, a spokesman for the Brown campaign, said it is preposterous to insinuate that the $175,000 contribution to the committee was aimed at influencing the CTA endorsement.
A March 29 memo from Ralph Flynn, the CTA's executive director, seems to buttress that contention. In the memo, Flynn says he has determined that neither Huffman nor any other official "acted inappropriately in our endorsement process."
Reese said the Brown campaign sought help to maximize turnout among African American voters, a key Democratic constituency, through radio and newspaper ads and endorsements. He said that two other recent Democratic candidates, Tom Bradley and Dianne Feinstein, fell short in their gubernatorial races in part because of low turnout among black voters.
"Kathleen Brown will not make the same mistake," he said.
For that reason, he said, Brown turned to the Sacramento-based committee, a political action committee of which Huffman is president and treasurer.
The committee was extremely active in the 1993 election fight against Proposition 174, the school voucher initiative, receiving $350,000 in contributions, much of it from a group aligned with the teachers union to oppose the measure.
According to state-required campaign reports, Huffman's public affairs firm received at least $117,000 to place a variety of advertisements in African American- and Latino-oriented media outlets. At least $18,500 of it went to purchase advertising on Oakland radio station KDIA, which is co-owned by Speaker Brown.
Besides Speaker Brown, the endorsement controversy has prompted other African American leaders to rally to Huffman's defense, saying they want her good name restored.
In a recent letter to Weber, Assemblywoman Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said: "We view these allegations as an attack on her (Huffman's) credibility as a leader of the state's African American community and an attempt to undermine the integrity of the African American community leadership more generally."
Times staff writer Daniel M. Weintraub contributed to this story.