The first week of May was as eventful for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) as any time since the 2008 election. It began with 26 counts of extortion and voter registration fraud filed against the group and some of its members in Clark County, Nev. It continued with the indictments of seven ACORN workers in Allegheny County, Pa. Democrats staged a floor fight over a Republican amendment to block any organization that had indicted members from getting taxpayer dollars. ACORN’s national spokesman was kicked off of Glenn Beck’s Fox News set.
Republicans pounced, and the week ended with a Republican National Committee fundraising appeal that attacked the Obama administration for considering the use of “sampling” in the upcoming Census as a hidden-in-plain sight benefit to ACORN.
“ACORN’s community organizers are eager to once again take action to aid their old friend in the White House,” wrote RNC Chairman Michael Steele. “You can be sure they’ll be manipulating population numbers.
The 39-year-old group has never been more controversial. Bertha Lewis, the chief executive officer and chief organizer of ACORN since the middle of last year, could not have been happier.
“Fine, bring it,” Lewis said in an interview with TWI, inside ACORN’s national offices near Capitol Hill. She brought up her fists in a boxing stance. “Let’s bring it. We know what the true facts are. We know that we’ll win in court. Our strategy now is to beef up our operations so we can defend ourselves.”
ACORN spent decades under the radar, agitating on housing and employment issues, garnering the ire of business and conservative leaders, but not really winning political infamy. That changed in 2008, and Lewis now believes the organization’s next 39 years might be spent in a permanent offensive stance — battling lawsuits, defending its “brand” against attacks from Republicans, and indulging in cable news shouting matches. In the space of months the group has become the most notorious member of the Democrats’ coalition. To many conservatives, it’s about time, and it’s the pay-off for years of fruitless exposes of ACORN’s influence.
“Republicans had been looking for a way to bring them down for a long time,” explained Matthew Vadum, a senior editor at the Capital Research Center, an anti-union think tank, “In the last year, all these of opportunities were presented to them. Barack Obama was running for president, and he’d been a ‘community organizer’ who’d worked with ACORN, and that heightened interest in what ‘community organizing’ was, and who these people were. All these corrupt things you’re hearing about today, they were happening in the past. They just weren’t as interesting or as sexy for the media.”
The Capital Research Center, founded in 1984 and located in a rambling, busy townhouse off of Dupont Circle, was one of the conservative organizations that spent years investigating ACORN while having little luck weakening them. As recently as 2006, a Republican like Sen. John McCain was comfortable attending the group’s national convention to ask for support on immigration reform. That changed with the 2006 elections and the indictments of ACORN workers, in key campaign states like Missouri, for voter fraud — which was pushed behind the scenes by the Department of Justice and was part of the broad scandal surrounding the firing of nine U.S. attorneys that ended with the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
“I think they’ve never forgiven us for being the impetus of bringing down Alberto Gonzales,” said Lewis. “They came after us in 2006, and tried to get [former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico] David Iglesias and these other attorneys to come back with something, and there was nothing. We don’t get enough credit for bringing down Gonzales.”
All of this came shortly before ACORN’s leadership would be taken down in a separate scandal. In 2008, the group’s founder Wade Rathke resigned after an investigation revealed that his brother had stolen $1 million from ACORN. It was a public relations blow and an organizational crisis — Rathke, according to Vadum, was an “organizational genius” — and it led directly into a general election where ACORN faced more indictments and became a bruising point of attack for Republicans. According to McCain, ACORN was “destroying the fabric of democracy,” and according to the Republican Party the group was trying to “steal the election” by registering fraudulent voters.
Republican officials now admit that the group didn’t really come close to stealing the race for Obama. On Election Day, recalled Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden, the GOP watched the issue closely, alerted state officials to bogus registrations, and dispatched “trained people” to the polls to look for voters showing up to cast ballots under assumed names at fake addresses. None showed up. “Would it have made a difference?” asked Lowden. “No, none of our races were that close.”
Nonetheless, Lowden was one of many Republicans who cheered at the indictments handed down in Nevada last week. The charges came after local officials, several of them Democrats, answered the 11th-hour controversies over ACORN registrations by asking for official investigations. The timing was good for House Republicans who spent last week attempting to save an amendment that was explicitly written to block money for ACORN, but it took others by surprise.
“I’m surprised that it’s not happening closer to the election,” said David Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney who lost his job after declining to throw the book at ACORN in 2006. “It’s worse than beating a dead horse. The horse is just buried. I never reviewed any evidence to see that ACORN, as an organization, was directing fraud. That’s the kind of evidence that you need to actually win one of these prosecutions.”
The prosecutions, and their coverage, were a token of ACORN’s new, ever-controversial reality. In the past six months, they have been accused, by conservatives, of being the culprits of much more than voter registration fraud, and any hint of ACORN connections have been enough for robust attacks on liberals. Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has popularized the dubious theory that ACORN’s campaigns for low-income housing was “at the base” of the housing bubble and the subsequent economic collapse. House Republicans have frequently portrayed the economic stimulus package as a giveaway to ACORN which, they argued, would be eligible for a portion of $4.19 billion in “neighborhood stabilization” funding earmarked in the bill for states, local governments and community groups. David F. Hamilton, Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, was opposed by the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network because he had done some work with ACORN in the 1970s. At the first anti-stimulus “Tea Party” protests in late February, some protesters brandished anti-ACORN signs — before the wave of protests on April 15, a rumor spread that ACORN was readying a campaign of mass disruptions and infiltration. In Fox News reports, this rumor was traced back to “some people.” At the Tea Party in Washington, the occasional trouble-makers that walked by, such as the ironic protesters of Billionaires for Bush, were greeted by shouts of “ACORN,” even though they had nothing to do with the group.
Lewis reiterated what she said in April — “we don’t care about their Tea Parties” — but Heather Heidelbaugh, a Pittsburgh lawyer who has aggressively investigated ACORN scandals on behalf of state Republicans, said that three members of the group showed up at the Pittsburgh Tea Party. They simply weren’t undercover. And in any case, Heidelbaugh has concentrated more on representing ACORN whistleblowers who claim that the organization exploits its volunteers and offers up “muscle for money” — protesters for hire to shake down other organizations. In March, Heidelbaugh testified before a House panel and got what sounded like a tentative commitment from Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to investigate the group.
“The Democrats have found a natural constituency with ACORN,” said Heidelbaugh, “but there’s a rising tide here. The more they are exposed by their members, the more difficult it will be for their natural constituents to support them, because it will be politically impossible to do so.”
But the break hasn’t happened yet. Heidelbaugh was disappointed last week after Conyers balked at an investigation after speaking with ACORN and being told by fellow Democratic members that the case against ACORN was baseless. One unintended consequence of the Republican anti-ACORN push, so far, has been unified support from Democrats against the attacks. Only four House Democrats voted against an amendment that struck Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) rule to deny contracts to any group with a member under indictment.
“The media plays a vital role in this,” said Heidelbaugh. “If the criticism of ACORN comes across as ‘those Republicans going after ACORN again,’ it gets covered like a political attack. If you state the facts, that there are African-American board members of ACORN who want to expose corruption in this organization, then the Democratic Congress might stop and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ That’s not happening yet.”
Lewis relished in the way that Republicans were politicizing the case against ACORN, and credited the Democrats with “standing up” against anti-ACORN legislation — even if they don’t brag about it in their campaigns. “The more wacko the Republicans get,” said Lewis, “and the more shrill they are, and the more we stand up, whether it’s the administration or it’s us, the more people are going to go, ‘You know, these people are wacky, this is silly, and this is stupid.’”