"This whole period of Neo-McCarthyism we're confronting now is wrapped up in a whole lot of things from the Obama moment to a number of other issues. It's just virulent, I can't really explain it."
For all the bad press that ACORN has received in the media in recent years -- according to Lexis Nexus, from 2007-2008 there were 4,468 newspaper and wire stories that mentioned ACORN -- the general public remains largely uninformed about what ACORN is and what exactly it does, outside of signing up Mickey Mouse to vote every four years. In short, ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizations For Reform Now, provides a voice for the voiceless, advocating, organizing and agitating on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised -- registering them to vote, helping them obtain suitable housing, get a mortgage, protecting them from predatory lenders, helping them earn a living wage and then providing free tax preparation services to help them give back their fair share on those living wages -- providing the largely invisible underclass with something you and I take for granted every day: agency, or the capacity to make choices and impose those choices on the world.
In 1970, founder Wade Rathke opened ACORN's first office in Little Rock, Arkansas (ACORN originally stood for Arkansas Coalition For Reform Now) organizing welfare recipients and working poor families to advocate and, if that failed, agitate for free school lunches, Vietnam Veteran's rights, unemployment benefits and hospital emergency room care. After making headway in Arkansas, ACORN began opening new chapters across the south and then nationwide. As of 2007, ACORN had chapters in 103 cities across 37 states.
In June of 2008, Rathke resigned his post as Chief Organizer of ACORN in the wake of controversy surrounding his brother's embezzlement of nearly one million dollars from the ACORN coffers nearly 10 years ago. Rathke felt ACORN would not be well-served by going public and getting law enforcement involved and, like most corporations when faced with an embezzlement scandal, opted to handle it quietly and in-house. The money was replaced, but the scandal eventually went public and Rathke resigned in the hopes of shielding ACORN from further controversy. Today, Rathke lives in Louisiana, runs ACORN International -- organizing ACORN chapters in India, Kenya, Argentina, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, and Canada -- and publishes Social Policy magazine quarterly. He was in town last week promoting his new book Citizen Wealth: Winning The Campaign To Save Working Families and PW took the opportunity to get his side of the story about all the controversy surrounding the organization he founded some 40 years ago.
PW: Tell me about the premise of your new book Citizen Wealth: Winning The Campaign To Save Working Families.
WADE RATHKE: Citizen Wealth is about income security. The book looks at it from a number of different ways: the living wage campaign or the work done with Community Reinvestment Act, or any number of other campaigns that unions and ACORN are involved in. It's about how families, both individually and collectively, can achieve some level of community and individual income security.
PW: When it comes to working families in this country do you think that the playing field is more level today than when you started ACORN back in the 70s or vice-versa? Or somewhere in between?
WADE RATHKE: In the working world it seems too often to be one of those two-steps-forward-two-steps-back situations, so certainly I don't know that I can glibly compare what it was like to organize almost 40 years ago and now, but The Great Recession we're in right now is sort of ripping apart a lot of those advances in terms of living wages and home equities that lower-income families were starting to gain because of home ownership. It's a real step backwards in terms of income security, so these have not been friendly decades overall for working families. I'd like to think we made progress, though. But in summary I hope it's better, but, boy, don't make me prove it.
PW: Can you speak to why the right has such a virulent hatred of ACORN and seems to take every opportunity they can to demonize the organization?
WADE RATHKE: I'm probably not the best one to speak about what in the world the right might be thinking. Certainly what ACORN was during the 38 years I was there it was designed and I think was an effective voice for lower-income families and a way for them to engage deeply on issues they needed to see resolved, as well for them to build real power to impact on their aspirations and income issues. I think this notion is increasingly troubling to this deeply rooted Taliban-like right wing we have in the country now. This whole period of Neo-McCarthyism we're confronting now is wrapped up in a whole lot of things from the Obama moment to a number of other issues. It's just virulent, I can't really explain it. You think you're making progress, but look at what we have now.
PW: Now do you think that this vitriol stems from the perception that ACORN is basically a voter registration arm for the Democratic party or is it a matter of providing a voice to people that were voiceless, which irritated very powerful moneyed interests in the financial sector, in the housing sector, and in the labor sector?
WADE RATHKE: I really think the second. I think for all their angst about voter registration -- voter registration is an essential part of democracy; if you don't like it you can change it -- to finally allow people to automatically be registered would just be more appropriate. I think the real issue is the second point you mentioned. I think there's real a resistance to changing the fact that low-income people really don't have an effective voice. All of this is educational for me. This new world of Google Alerts, you get to see on a daily basis way more of the polarizing iteration that is out there with a lot of people. It's troubling to me frankly, Jonathan.
PW: And this level of vitriol that we're seeing in the political discourse unprecedented in your experience or were there times in the past when the temperature on the discourse was this heated?
WADE RATHKE: It reminds me a lot of the late '60s and early '70s when I was first starting ACORN. I can remember in '72 and '73 resolutions passed in the Arkansas state legislature demanding investigations of ACORN, insinuating that it was all communistic and demanding copies of our membership lists, all of which were illegal and none of which went anywhere. I can remember organizing committee meetings, when were first organizing, that were broken up by the Klan and that sort of level of discourse was very raw and very polarized but we accepted it. I know when I started in Arkansas I didn't know whether I should be afraid for my life or would be embraced with open arms. A lot of this reminds me of those times, frankly, when we had to struggle to have people understand that if you were eligible for welfare that was actually a right not a gift, or that if there was a food stamp there wasn't anything wrong with you actually receiving food stamps. Unfortunately, we seem to be moving a little bit backwards in that direction.
PW: What role do you think that race plays in all of this?
WADE RATHKE: I can't believe there's much doubt that race is right at the heart of this issue, and there's no question in my mind that it is a huge part of this. There's no question in my mind that it's a stand-in for a very hard bitten group of people who are still just mortified that we have an African American president and that there is starting to be a different public posture and stance around African Americans and their integration into the overall community than what was true in the past. I think ACORN has become the whipping boy to a degree. It has a very diverse constituency of Latinos, African Americans, and whites. It very threatening to many of these hard-crusted folks who really don't believe that's appropriate.
PW: Can you clarify the voter registration fraud allegations? Looking into this, I found it's mostly a lot of smoke and not very much fire, frankly.
WADE RATHKE: Well this is a pattern, as you know, since I'm talking to somebody from Philadelphia I know it's not news to you. You know before the '08 election and the previous several cycles the Republican party of Pennsylvania filed a number of complaints in previous cycles against ACORN registration practices here in Pennsylvania, in Ohio and Florida. There was a clearly concerted strategy on the part of the National Republican party in '04 and '06 to try target these registration efforts. Not surprisingly within several months after the election there'd be a boil up point in a number of those places. Certainly, all of the stuff about firing U.S. Attorneys and Karl Rove and the resignation of the Attorney General based on that is part of this. We have the eight or nine U.S. Attorneys who were specifically asked to prosecute ACORN voter registration efforts. This is now well-documented, so this has been a pattern. I thought actually before I left in June of '08 that had sort of made the preparations to withstand the fury for the November election. As it turned it out it was at a level of intensity and focus where they clearly wanted to polarize so much around ACORN and it sort of went to a whole new level. This is an ongoing systematic strategy by the right, particularly the Republicans, to try to repress low-income and minority voting patterns in a number of battleground states in recent cycles. Pennsylvania's really been ground zero for a lot of that activity as you probably know.
PW: Can you comment on the whole hooker-sting video controversy?
WADE RATHKE: Luckily, when it all came out I was in Canada and when I'd get called by Fox News or CNN I would honestly tell people on the phone, "you know what, I haven't seen it, they don't have Internet in Canada yet." I actually haven't seen it, I certainly read enough about it. I think it's one of those terribly unfortunate tragedies where clearly in the middle of the bunker zone that the existing internal leadership was in at ACORN over a number of months, I was not closely focused on some local operations and it turned out to be pitifully easy to do this Candid Camera thing it seems. The more troubling thing to me is people make mistakes, the folks that were involved were pretty quickly terminated where it was justified. From what I understand from reading the papers there was an internal investigation with a well-known guy out of Massachusetts and they are trying to figure out what it takes to get their house in order. I think unfortunately they're not going to have a chance to really get their house in order because there's been such a stampede that has overtaken people's rational thinking about it and the funding bills, whether it's governors or Congress that decide to target ACORN or anybody who's ever been near ACORN, I think will have a chilling impact. I just hope ACORN can recover from the mistakes they made in the field.
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