After the Politicking, Letís Remember ACORNís Vital Work

Posted by John Atlas on December 9, 2009

ACORN has been falsely charged in the news media, by politicians, and even by some supporters. This was the point driven home by Wade Rathke, the founder of ACORN (the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now), who gave a talk last week before some 40 people who braved a cold, dark, slushy afternoon to hear him talk about his new book, Citizen Wealth, ACORN, and the state of the progressive movement. It is also the message delivered by an independent investigation of ACORN conducted by Scott Harshbarger, former Attorney General of Massachusetts.

The event held at the Montclair Unitarian Church in Montclair, NJ, and jointly sponsored by the National Housing Institute and BlueWaveNJ, stimulated an impassioned debate about what progressives should do to defend ACORN and addressed the limited accomplishments of President Barack Obama in the first year of his term — especially in light of the hopes and dreams he inspired after his election.

As the moderator, I began the session noting that ACORN has accomplished something unique in our fight for social justice. Nearly four decades after Rathke founded ACORN , it’s grown into an exceptional national antipoverty group. This accomplishment was especially impressive because ACORN succeeded during a conservative era. While our leaders have ignored the problems of the poor and less powerful, ACORN tackled some of Americaís most intractable problems: improving urban neighborhoods, increasing worker’s wages, and helping low-income families buy homes.

Rathke detailed how ACORN battled in city halls and state capitals, in Washington, D.C., and Wall Street, pressuring the powerful to provide affordable housing, access to health care, and compensation for the victims of the subprime predatory home loans. ACORN has also prevented foreclosures, registered people to vote, and cleaned up vacant lots turning them into parks.

I pointed out (tongue in cheek) that ACORN also accomplished bipartisanship — seriously. It’s something no one has even come close to doing, not even the president with his promises of a new era of bipartisanship. Here we are, a year into his presidency, and Congress is divided over cap and trade, health care reform, the war in Afghanistan, and re-regulating our out-of-control financial service industry. But with the exception of some 80 members, a large majority of Congress agreed to rush to judgment and de-fund ACORN. ACORN united Congress and showed us what bipartisanship is about. More seriously ACORN exposed both parties as being more concerned about the interests of insurance companies, the hedge funds, defense contractors and Big Pharma. Congress had lavishly funded many corporations that unlike ACORN actually committed felonies. For example, Pfizer paid a $1.3 billion criminal fine for kickbacks and off-label marketing. Congress took no action to prohibit Pfizer from the Medicare program. Northrop Grumman continued to receive military contracts after it had to pay a $500 million fine for getting caught nine times for contract fraud. Blackwater, a company that had five of its employees facing murder charges in a massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007, had received a $217 million contract to provide security in Iraq.

In his short speech, Rathke referred to Sarah Palin’s 2008 RNC wisecrack denigrating community organizers. After Rathke made a compelling case for community organizers, Bob Russo, former Mayor of Montclair, reminded Rathke how much a small town mayor can still accomplish. Russo also referenced an article in the TriCityNews about increasing disenchantment with the unfulfilled promises of Obama and his administration. Russo had hit a chord that various questioners returned to repeatedly over the hour.

The progressive activists who founded BlueWave have worked hard since John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2004. They came together to make sure that the progressive agenda had an opportunity to flourish and they made clear at this meeting that they intended to develop strategies that would hold both Democrats and Republicans accountable.

A few of those in attendance also expressed their concern for what they labeled the rise of neo-McCarthyism and the need to speak out in support and defense of ACORN. Civil rights and union lawyers, teachers, social workers, and health professionalsóthe backbone of the progressive wing of the Democratic Partyóspoke repeatedly about targeting members of Congress who had voted to de-fund ACORN and rewarding those who had the courage and common sense to support it. Rathke said there’s a price that will be paid if President Obama doesn’t deliver on his promises of change and hope.

Coincidentally, just two days after this event, the aforementioned independent report on ACORN was released and concluded that while ACORN needs to improve its management structure, it did not engage in illegal activities when two videographers, one posing as a prostitute, sought to entrap ACORN employees. The report, authored by Scott Harshbarger, former Attorney General of Massachusetts and former president of Common Cause, suggests that the rush to judgment by Congress, as well as by some of ACORN’s political allies, was premature. Harshbarger noted that the videos, made by two conservative videographers under the guidance of right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart, were doctored and distorted, making it difficult to determine what actually occurred. The videographers refused to provide Harshbarger with the original videos or to talk with him for his report. Harshbarger’s report concluded that ACORN grew too quickly and did not create a management structured necessary to oversee its large operation, which involved both community organizing and the provision of free homeownership and tax counseling for low-income residents, with chapters in over 70 cities. ACORN’s CEO Bertha Lewis said that the organization intends to implement Harshbarger’s recommendations, although it must first find the financing resources to do so.

The Harshbarger report provides sorely needed perspective on ACORN. In recent years the group has been accused of everything from causing the subprime crisis to stealing the presidential election for Obama. Yes, you read it right. According a recent poll, despite the fact that Obama won the election by over 5 million votes, more than half of self-indentified Republicans believe ACORN stole the election from McCain!

While the right-wing mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck will continue to fan the flames of paranoia, Harsbarger’s report should give sane people a perspective on ACORN. That is also the hope of Michael B. Keegan, president the People For the American Way. In a statement released on Monday Keegan said that the report reveals an organization coming to terms with its limitations and as well as a plan to address them. Keegan said the report also highlights ACORN’s vital work on behalf of low-income and minority Americans. “The group’s voter registration efforts, while much maligned by the right, have contributed to significant, legitimate increases in minority voter participation,” said Keegan, adding “We hope that members of Congress and the media will take note of today’s report and reconsider their rush to judgment.” he added.

Letís hope so.

About the author more ¬Ľ

John Atlas is president and one of the founders of NHI. His recent book is _Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group_ (2010, Vanderbilt University Press).

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