Acorn’s Long Rise and Fast Fall


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 time.

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 told.

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 evidence.

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 weapon.

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 nonsense.

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