ACORN more subdued in quest to alter council

Known for its theatrics, group follows conventions to get plan on Nov. ballot

October 07, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The community group called ACORN has been trying to raise hell in Baltimore for four years - blocking a busy street with trash, piling rubbish in front of City Hall, barging into a bankers dinner with big inflatable sharks, and rattling stones in tin cans to disrupt public meetings.

But the group has pulled off its biggest coup with only a few flashes of flamboyance.

ACORN got a measure put on the Nov. 5 ballot that could profoundly reshape the City Council, and last week it managed to quash a rival plan backed by the council. It accomplished these acts by forging alliances with groups such as the League of Women Voters, collecting signatures on petitions, studying the Open Meetings Act and filing a lawsuit with help from a high-priced lawyer.

There were but a couple of classic ACORN moments along the way. Loud confrontations with the council. A summer intern delivering the first batch of petitions to City Hall dressed in a leotard, a mask and a cape.

The combination of quiet, mainstream tactics and in-your-face theatrics has won ACORN powerful friends - and foes.

The organization that Mayor Martin O'Malley dismisses as "professional protesters," that some council members accuse of lying and extortion, receives financial support from the prominent Abell Foundation, which gave it a $90,000 grant for a lead paint assessment project this year. Several candidates for the House of Delegates, including Curtis S. Anderson in the 43rd District and Jill P. Carter in the 41st, say the group helped put them over the top in last month's primary.

"They're trying to take politics back to the people," said state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes. "Their tactics sometimes I disagree with. They're quite confrontational sometimes. Sometimes I think they might be too aggressive. ... [But] I do think they're a good group and will have to be reckoned with."

Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil counts herself among those who applaud most of the group's political aims but take issue with the leadership's often confrontational style. She complained that one of her aides was essentially hijacked into participating in an ACORN protest.

`Some dirty tricks'

Last spring, ACORN invited Stancil and others on a "tour of shame" through blighted Baltimore neighborhoods. Stancil said her aide attended in her place and was startled at the end of the tour when the bus rolled up to the mayor's house and people started pouring out.

"They do pull some dirty tricks like that. ... There are boundaries, and they don't seem to have a problem crossing them," Stancil said.

O'Malley, who was not home at the time, was even more upset.

"They unloaded a busload of people shouting pretty ugly things and scared the daylights out of my wife and kids," he said. "I thought it was a pretty cruddy thing to do. My kids don't get paid to take their abuse. I suppose I do."

ACORN officials tell a different story. They say only one person got off the bus to knock on the door and was shooed away by O'Malley's security detail before reaching the front steps. They concede that Stancil's aide was unwittingly taken along for the ride and say they're sorry if he was inconvenienced.

But ACORN offers no apologies for aggressive tactics. Members say that is often the only way to bring attention and action to long-neglected parts of the city.

"They don't sit down pansy-wansy and say, `Maybe we need to go to Annapolis and lobby,'" said Rose Taylor, 60, a longtime activist from Greenmount West who is co-chairwoman of Maryland ACORN. "We go to Annapolis, and we're up in their face. That's why ACORN and I click. We don't just talk about it. We do something about it."

Chapters in 45 cities

The group's chief Maryland organizer is Mitchell Klein, 32, a New Mexico native with a sociology degree from the University of Michigan and a Tasmanian Devil tattoo on his right arm.

Klein has a knack for keeping the phone numbers of friendly politicians in his head. He also has an unflagging habit of criticizing those he feels are out of touch.

"To me, it's unbelievable that a City Council person would hold a press conference announcing they're going out to their community for the day," he said, referring to a councilman who set up a temporary office on drug corners during the summer. "You shouldn't visit a drug corner as a special thing when people are living with it every day."

ACORN began in Little Rock, Ark., in 1970 to help welfare recipients in need of clothing and furniture, according to the group's Web site.

Then, the acronym stood for Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now. Today, ACORN has chapters in 45 cities and its name has been changed to Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. It claims to be the country's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, with more than 120,000 members.

ACORN campaigns for liberal causes, such as higher wages and affordable housing, and against such issues as predatory lending and privatization of public services.

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