November 2010, Week 3


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Fri, 19 Nov 2010 23:08:42 -0500
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Acorn's Long Rise and Fast Fall
The GOP's other election victory

By Tom Robbins
November 17, 2010
The Village Voice

Long before voters hit the scanner box this bleak
electoral season, Republicans knew they'd already
scored a huge win: Thanks to a fusillade of hyped-up
stories and pumped-up investigations, they'd succeeded
in knocking out an organization with a well-honed
ability to turn out large numbers of people likely to
vote for the other side: Acorn.
Most local Acorn chapters closed in the wake of last
year's sensational right-wing video stings, escapades
that on closer inspection turned out to be just more
YouTube foolery. On election day, what was left of the
organization announced for bankruptcy. "Acorn has
fought the good fight," said executive director Bertha
Lewis, who was recruited while battling her landlord in
an ailing Bronx tenement.

Not that the now-defunct national community organizing
group alone could have turned the GOP/Tea Party tide.
But it's not a big leap of faith to believe that in a
few races it might well have made a difference. Take
Pennsylvania, where Democrat Joe Sestak--a former
admiral--lost to conservative Republican Pat Toomey by
75,000 votes. Sestak, running behind most of the
campaign, almost closed the gap on election day based
on a surge of Philadelphia votes. Then he ran out of

Pennsylvania's story was the same as in many parts of
the country: Voter turnout there slipped below 50
percent, as compared to 2008 when a boisterous 70
percent of eligible voters showed up to vote for
president. Were it still in business this fall, there's
every reason to believe that Acorn could have boosted
those numbers. For starters, Philadelphia was long one
of Acorn's main bases of power, a city where it first
captured attention in the late 1970s with a squatting
campaign in abandoned houses. Within a few years, the
group helped win legislation--the National Homesteading
Act--that enabled low-income families to buy HUD-
foreclosed homes.

Those kind of campaigns helped Acorn build a national
membership that, before it went under, was some 400,000
strong. Unlike most other community organizations,
which labor in local trenches and rarely see over the
top, Acorn's leaders had a national analysis of power.
This led it to voter registration and get-out-the-vote
efforts. Its biggest push came in the months leading up
to the 2008 presidential campaign, when it registered
some 1.3 million new voters, many of them in
battleground states--Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New
Mexico, Nevada--crucial to Democratic chances.

This electoral muscle had already been on display in
earlier elections, enough to capture the attention of
GOP political handicappers, who began to look for ways
to curb it. There is a simple reason Republicans oppose
most measures favoring greater voter registration and
turnout. It is this: the more people going to the
polls, the less chance Republicans have to win.

Taking Acorn out of the game wasn't the biggest
advantage that Republicans brought to the midterm
elections. But it was a wonderful insurance policy, as
good as kneecapping the other team's star outfielder
right before the World Series.

This isn't to say that some of the wounds that
eventually brought Acorn down weren't self-inflicted,
or that its leaders weren't often too clever by half,
and prone to cutting corners when it suited them. But
none of those sins amounted to more than a two-day
story, or the kind of fierce internal battles that the
left specializes in having. What made them fatal was a
coordinated attack, with the full weight of the Bush
Justice Department and the Greater Murdoch Media Empire
brought to bear.

Just how much was gained and lost in Acorn's rise and
fall is told in Seeds of Change: The Story of Acorn,
America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community
Organizing Group, by John Atlas, a lawyer and veteran
housing organizer from New Jersey. Atlas started his
book in 2004 while looking to chronicle winning
strategies for change. "We were losing out in so many
places," he says. "We needed to make a big difference."

As his model, he chose the Association of Community
Organizations for Reform Now, which had started in
Arkansas in 1970. He wound up an accidental witness to
its destruction. "Few people had heard of Acorn when I
started," he says. "By the time I finished, 80 percent
of Americans had heard all about it, and what they'd
heard was wrong."

Polls show that 52 percent of Republicans believe that
Acorn stole the 2008 election for Barack Obama. And why
wouldn't they? Every time they turned on Fox News or
listened to conservative radio, that's what they were

There were investigations--dozens, in fact. But their
biggest yield was 11 convictions of registration card
forgers who tried to turn a quick dollar after being
hired among thousands of canvassers. And most of those
were turned in by Acorn. The only charges against the
organization itself were in Nevada. There, its alleged
crime was paying bonuses to its hardest working
registrars--a capitalist offense of the highest order.
An audit issued this June by the U.S. Government
Accounting Office found that six cases of alleged
Acorn-related voter fraud--the ones that brought the
scandal headlines--were investigated by U.S. attorneys
and the FBI since 2005. All were closed for lack of

Atlas walks the uproar back to the earliest Republican-
promoted probe in Florida in 2004. Acorn at the time
was riling conservatives with a campaign seeking a
statewide referendum to hike the minimum wage, while
registering thousands of new voters.

One of its local recruits was a Cuban-American named
Mac Stuart, who presented himself as a former police
officer excited about Acorn's goals. Stuart initially
seemed a hard worker. He was promoted to oversee the
voter-registration drive in Miami. But supervisors
soured on him when he stopped delivering registration
cards to the Board of Elections. When Acorn finally
checked out Stuart's background, it found that not only
had he never been a cop, but he had served time for
armed robbery with past busts for drugs and a concealed

The rogue employee was fired. But it was already too
late. Within days, he showed up at a press conference
represented by Florida's most influential Republican
law firm--Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler--announcing
lawsuits claiming that Acorn had hidden thousands of
voter registration forms. The Florida Department of Law
Enforcement instantly made a rare public announcement
that it was investigating. Local authorities jumped in
as well.

This won headlines and Rush Limbaugh's attention. "A
group that was formed in the 1970s--you may have heard
of them, Acorn--is out trying to register voters two
and three times, and they've been caught in the act,"
he trumpeted. Stuart appeared on Fox News with Bret
Hume, who introduced him this way: "More troubles in
Florida today for that left-wing group, Acorn."

Atlas includes the postscripts unnoted by Fox: A year
later, Stuart's lawsuits were dismissed; the criminal
probes also fizzled. Stuart even admitted that he had
defamed Acorn with his bogus vote-fraud charges.

This year, Florida's most sensational criminal case was
that of Scott Rothstein, the now disbarred GOP lawyer
whose firm first embraced Stuart and promoted his phony
charges. Rothstein, whose past partners included GOP
mischief-maker Roger Stone, was sentenced in June to 50
years in prison for his own $1.2 billion fraud.

Oh, and that minimum-wage increase on the 2004 Florida
ballot? It passed 3 to 1, upping wages by a buck and
indexing them for inflation. Apparently, it was enough
to make some people want to put a stop to such


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