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ACORN's Current Woes Years In The Making

Hundreds of Hurricane Katrina survivors march on Capitol Hill in February 2006, in a rally organized by ACORN to press the Bush administration and Congress to fund the rebuilding of New Orleans.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Hundreds of Hurricane Katrina survivors march on Capitol Hill in February 2006, in a rally organized by ACORN to press the Bush administration and Congress to fund the rebuilding of New Orleans.

ACORN, the community organizing group, is fighting for its survival these days, but its current plight has been years in the making.

Part of the story is the group's own missteps. ACORN was founded to help low- and middle-income Americans, but its edgy tactics and a series of gaffes fed the notion that the group was unreliable.

That image, however, was built in part by a long campaign of attacks and allegations of illegal activities from a host of opponents in the corporate world, the Republican Party and conservative media outlets.


ACORN attracted the scrutiny of these groups because its work — which ranges from campaigns for a higher minimum wage to voter registration drives — was often effective.

But as ACORN achieved some successes and grew quickly, its management woes led to additional missteps, including an episode last year where the brother of ACORN's founder was accused of embezzling nearly $1 million from the group, giving its political enemies even more fodder.

The latest — and most explosive — stumble came after conservative activists videotaped themselves posing as a pimp and prostitute to get housing advice from ACORN employees. ACORN insists that this behavior by a few of its workers, who were promptly fired, was an aberration, not the norm. Nonetheless, conservatives have pounced on the incident, pushing through Congress a temporary freeze on government funding for the group and its affiliates.

The overall dynamic is a familiar one, says Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University who has observed some of ACORN's work firsthand.


"One side has perhaps exaggerated the influence and scope of this group's power, and it becomes this larger-than-life force," says Green, the director of Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies. "You have an inflated sense of what your opponents are able to accomplish, and it makes you all the more outraged that they might be skirting the law."

Radical Roots; Successful Results

Because of what we knew about the organization and the number of clearly fraudulent registrations that were showing up, there was a suspicion that they were cheating on both registration and turnout on a significant scale.

ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now, currently claims to have more than 500,000 member families and a budget of about $25 million. At least until the latest scandal broke, the group worked closely with several U.S. government agencies and several prominent U.S. corporations.

Historically, however, ACORN was more radical. Founded in Arkansas in 1970, it spread across the country by staging demonstrations, sit-ins and confrontational protests that made the group difficult to ignore in many local communities.

"ACORN can be the most militant of the existing direct-action groups," says Michael McCray, a former ACORN member who fell out with the group last year after a power struggle over its leadership. "Forty years ago, a lot of groups were doing things — more sit-ins, more direct action — but over time, that space has been left to ACORN."

The group took on many high-profile targets, including banks, low-wage industries, large corporations and even some prominent Republicans. In 1995, for example, ACORN activists disrupted a speech by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In one typical campaign, ACORN targeted H&R Block for allegedly gouging low-income customers on tax preparation fees. Protesters picketed branches in dozens of cities and allegedly even showed up at the home of the chief executive. Eventually, H&R Block agreed to negotiate with ACORN to lower its fees, and the two launched a campaign to reach out to low-income clients.

"Among sociologists who have studied ACORN, of all the groups who are trying to help the poor, ACORN is one of the most successful, if not the most successful, in terms of producing results," says John Atlas, the president of the board of the National Housing Institute and the author of a forthcoming book sympathetic to ACORN called Seeds of Hope.

Powerful Allies, Powerful Enemies

ACORN targeted banks it accused of predatory lending to minorities and other low-income Americans. It ended up forming partnerships with several banks, including Countrywide, to help prevent foreclosures. (Bank of America, which purchased Countrywide, recently suspended that program in the wake of the latest scandal.)

Other industries never made their peace with ACORN. The group has long pushed for a higher national minimum wage across the country, a campaign that sparked opposition from lower-wage industries like chain restaurants.

The Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank with ties to the food and restaurant industry, started following ACORN's activities more than a decade ago. EPI has issued several reports over the years pointing out that, among other things, ACORN was fighting for a higher minimum wage across the country even as it was trying to exempt itself from minimum wage rules when it came to its own staffers in California.

ACORN attracted EPI's attention in part because it was successful in helping to get minimum wage questions onto several state ballot initiatives.

"They were players, and they were injecting themselves into the debate and changing the conversation, to a certain extent," says Justin Wilson, a senior research fellow at EPI. "We've spent years trying to get academic research into the field, but it was going up against a much more politically minded and vicious degree of advocacy coming from ACORN."

Getting Out The Vote

Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, my belief is they were targeted because they were highly effective in registering large numbers of minority and low-income voters that tended to vote Democrat.

But it was ACORN's voter registration and canvassing work that prompted some of the most intense scrutiny. While the group had worked for years to register lower-income voters, it really stepped up its campaign after the razor-thin outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

Yale's Green has watched ACORN's get-out-the-vote efforts firsthand. "They are among the most effective in terms of mobilizing low-income or inner-city constituents," he says. "They do what they do well, but doing it well and doing it on a scale necessary to have the capacity to swing elections are two different things."

Republicans have long accused the group of fraud, claiming that large portions of the people it registers do not exist or are not eligible to vote.

A July report by Republicans on the House Committee for Oversight and Government Reform accused the group of "systemic fraud" and a "purposeful lack of quality control" when it came to whom it employed to register new voters.

Indeed, over the years, dozens of ACORN workers across the country have been caught falsifying voter registrations. In each case, the workers were fired. ACORN officials, who have never faced federal charges of voter fraud, say the low-paid employees in these cases were simply trying to get paid without doing any real registration work.

"When a group like that gets heavily into, first, registration, and then turnout, you know if you're on the other side that you're probably getting screwed," says David Norcross, the chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association. "Because of what we knew about the organization and the number of clearly fraudulent registrations that were showing up, there was a suspicion that they were cheating on both registration and turnout on a significant scale."

ACORN says it worked to implement stringent quality control measures, adding that when workers were caught falsifying returns, the group fired them and notified state authorities.

"I can assure you that in the places where we ran the most pristine effort, we were as viciously attacked as everywhere else," says Brian Kettenring, ACORN's deputy director of operations. "People use the sloppiness argument, and that's not to say the registration work was perfect everywhere all the time, but it's frankly not true."

Era Of Close Scrutiny

Either way, the issue of alleged voter fraud preoccupied the Bush administration, which was voted into office in 2000 by the narrowest of margins.

When David Iglesias was appointed to be the U.S. attorney in New Mexico in 2001, he received official instructions from the Justice Department in Washington to investigate voter fraud in his state. After he formed a task force to look into the issue, Republican officials and activists in the state deluged him with complaints, many of which involved ACORN.

"Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, my belief is they were targeted because they were highly effective in registering large numbers of minority and low-income voters that tended to vote Democrat," Iglesias, who was one of seven U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration on the same day in 2006, said in an interview with NPR. "I never received any evidence indicating that ACORN, as an organization, was involved in any criminal activity on voter fraud."

Iglesias, a Republican, was allegedly removed for underperforming. But the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General concluded that the "real reason" for Iglesias' dismissal was "complaints about Iglesias' handling of voter fraud and public corruption matters."

Even as some officials in the Bush administration were urging closer scrutiny of the group's voter-related efforts, ACORN was winning competitive contracts from government agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and building working relationships with the International Revenue Service and the Census Bureau.

In 2008, however, the pressure on ACORN intensified dramatically, particularly after Barack Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama was a long-time community organizer himself, and Republicans tried to tie him to ACORN.

Organized Campaign Or Grass-Roots Opposition?

More broadly, ACORN and its supporters allege that the group has been the target of a coordinated and growing attack by right-wing activists.

"Each success we had built on previous ones, and each success caused more and more unholy alliances to be formed to destroy that work," says ACORN's Kettenring. "First, there was the low-wage restaurant industry. Then it was the payday lenders. Then it was the predatory mortgage lenders. And then it was the entire Republican establishment with regards to getting minorities to vote."

Conservatives retort that ACORN was brought down by its own mistakes.

"There's not an organized right-wing conspiracy whatsoever on ACORN," says EPI's Wilson. "We haven't done research on ACORN for more than a year, but all of these details keep bubbling out as if it's some sort of giant oil field."

Christopher Martin, a journalism professor at the University of Northern Iowa who co-authored a study on media coverage of ACORN, says the dynamic is more subtle. He notes, for example, that EPI is funded indirectly by the restaurant industry.

"It starts with people we called opinion entrepreneurs — bloggers and lobbying groups," he says. "It filters up from there to talk radio, which is largely conservative, and into the conservative media."

A growing number of these attacks struck home because of the group's own vulnerabilities and its rapid growth, which was fueled in part by left-wing opposition to President Bush.

"They more or less doubled in size in a five-year period," says Robert Fisher, a professor of community organization at the University of Connecticut, who edited a book on ACORN. "Historically, ACORN was more informal, and it certainly made them vulnerable. The organization grew very, very fast, and maybe not everybody can be properly trained at every single level."

The growing pains often became embarrassingly public. ACORN's founder, Wade Rathke, was ousted last year after ACORN officials learned that Rathke's brother embezzled nearly a million dollars from the group. New reports suggest that the figure was even higher, a charge denied by ACORN.

The group's confusing structure — with countless affiliates and member organizations around the country — exposed it to other attacks. Indeed, the report by House Republicans called it a "shell game" with at least 361 different entities — a mix of for-profit and nonprofit corporate structures.

"They had always had a freewheeling manner of treating leadership, employees and money," says lawyer Norcross, a longtime member of the Republican National Committee. "We long suspected they were intermingling all these things."

For its part, ACORN insists that it has cleaned up its act. The group says it has shut down more than 100 corporate entities since June 2008, and that more will be closed by the end of the year.

"We admitted last year that we didn't think we were well-managed," ACORN's new CEO, Bertha Lewis, recently told a Washington audience. "We know we have work to do."

Republicans, who want to make sure ACORN is cut off from receiving any additional funding from the federal government, say they will be watching.

"They're on the ropes now, but they're not out by any manner or means," says Norcross. "Don't assume because of everything you read that suddenly this fight is over."

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