Poor deserve better than ACORN

Our view: Controversial organization's methods always hindered its influence

March 17, 2010

The demise of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, in Baltimore and across the country, ought to be a sad story. The group's purpose was to help the poor to gain a voice through grass-roots organizing, and it was taken down by political activists using ethically and legally questionable means.

But it's not a sad story. The people ACORN was designed to advocate for certainly do need the help, but they deserve a much better partner than ACORN. The beginning of the end for ACORN nationally was the release last fall of videos secretly recorded by two conservative political activists in which they entered the Baltimore ACORN headquarters, pretended to be a pimp and a prostitute, and got advice from ACORN workers on how to avoid taxes on the supposed brothel they intended to set up with underage, illegal immigrant girls. That video was followed by similar ones recorded in several ACORN offices in cities across the country, making it impossible for the group to claim that the problems were an isolated incident. Congress quickly dumped contracts it had with the group for outreach work, and ACORN's budget plummeted, forcing its branches to close their doors or reconstitute under different names.

The reason conservatives had it in for ACORN was the group's role in voter registration. It spent significant resources, particularly during the 2008 presidential election, to register poor and minority voters -- an effort widely expected to help Barack Obama and other Democrats. But in some well-publicized incidents, ACORN voter registration workers turned in large batches of fake registrations. Republicans accused them of trying to help Democrats through voter fraud, though the motivation was more likely that workers were being paid for each new registration and thus had an incentive to bump up the numbers.

Whether that had any impact on the outcomes of any elections or not, it certainly exposed a sloppy and casual attitude about following the rules that ran through many of ACORN's activities. ACORN was not a group that politely sought redress of its grievances; it was loud and brash and conveyed an attitude that the righteousness of its mission justified whatever tactics were expedient in the battle of The People vs. The Man. In Baltimore, the group stormed banks in an effort to shut them down over foreclosures, sought to physically disrupt auctions of foreclosed homes on the steps of the courthouse and, while television cameras rolled, broke the padlock on a foreclosed home in an effort to reclaim it for its owner. Is it any wonder that its tax advice wasn't by the book?

The odd disconnect in the politics of ACORN is that conservatives attacked the group on a national level, supposing that its voter registration efforts meant that Democrats would do whatever it asked. But ACORN's work was primarily on local, urban issues, and that meant that the people in political power it was fighting were most often Democrats. Certainly, when the Baltimore branch dumped a sofa on the steps of City Hall to protest trash in the streets or paraded someone in a rat costume to highlight Baltimore's rodent control problems, it wasn't protesting anything Republicans had done. In fact, ACORN's one big political success in Baltimore -- pushing through a change to reduce the size of the City Council and create single-member districts -- came in the face of direct opposition from the city's Democratic political establishment. After all, the effect of the effort was to put elected Democrats out of jobs.

The one truly sad thing about the shuttering of ACORN's office here is that the group was able to engage thousands of poor citizens and give them the belief that they mattered. They believed it so much that they were willing to spend money they almost certainly couldn't afford on membership dues. ACORN proved that the disenfranchised are desperate for a voice. Let's hope some new, more reliable group steps in to give them one.

Readers respond

No criminal activity found because the Brooklyn district attorney found that there was massive video doctoring involved. And the law that Congress passed to strip funding away from ACORN was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Where was The Sun when these decisions came down?

Sandra

I'm glad they went under. I made the mistake of using them for my loan modification application. Eight months, and they basically did nothing. Complete lack of organization/accountability. I used to call them every week, and they never had any information at all. I had to do all the work with the bank myself.

JMR

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