Features: The Democratic Party’s Worst Nightmare
For all the attention focused on the relationship he and other African-American ministers have with Bush — and the enormous possibility they represent for the Republican Party — Lusk doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics. He is, at heart, a pragmatist, and his support seems to hinge far more on whether someone is willing to help him with his pet causes — AIDS in Africa, poverty at home — than on ideological purity. He is quick with kind words about Ed Rendell, John Street, Chaka Fattah, Dwight Evans. “I am just trying to be helpful to the people I love,” he says. “I don’t understand why that upsets people.”
Lusk clearly feels a connection with Bush. And though he is hardly expansive as he describes the President, calling him simply “a good man,” it’s plain Lusk has no higher compliment he could pay. When his mother died earlier this year, Lusk recalls, Bush wrote the family a note, then personally called the Memphis church where the funeral was being held to make sure it got through via fax. “The secretary came running out of the office saying, ‘The President of the United States called to make sure his fax got through, and he called you Herbie,’” says Lusk.
Which is not to say that Lusk isn’t politically savvy. He knows how useful he is to certain people, e.g., the entire upper echelon of the Republican Party. But he also knows how useful they can be to him. On a recent weekday afternoon, Lusk was sitting in People for People’s seventh-floor conference room, huddled with his senior staff, trying to figure out whether he would like to take a lot of money off the government’s hands. The feds had asked if the organization could administer supplemental education services — part of the No Child Left Behind Act — for all of Pennsylvania, a contract that could potentially be worth millions, and entail a lot of responsibility, for Lusk’s organization. The problem: The government wanted an answer the next day, and nobody knew whether People for People had the resources to take on the work — including People for People itself. As the group sat around the table, Lusk turned to his CFO, Robin Eglin. “I’m scared of the numbers,” he said, “But the last thing is not to do it because of fear. This could be significantly good for us.”
This is not the sort of dilemma most nonprofits have to deal with, and it encapsulates both the promise and the pitfalls of Lusk’s singular station. Over the past 15 years, he has proven, time and again, his ability to get things done in a place few others have. Yet even if People for People is the best, most qualified organization to handle the assignment, the money will always bear the whiff of politics. If that doesn’t matter to Lusk — or the people he provides services to — should it matter to anyone? A few minutes later, after several of his lieutenants expressed skepticism about being able to do the work, Lusk turned to the whole group: “This has got to be coming from up top somewhere. And they wouldn’t send me something that wouldn’t be good for us, because I am, after all, something of a poster child.”