ACORN and voter registration--new book

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at
Fri Oct 24 12:46:35 CDT 2008

[ed: congratulations to Heidi for the new book relevant to our 
discussion--announced about halfway down her message.]

From: swarts at

I'm Heidi Swarts, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers
University-Newark. I wanted to comment on the plethora of issues about
ACORN that Randy raised, and also announce my new book on ACORN and
faith-based community organizing, which I'm not sure I announced before on
this site - and there couldn't be a more appropriate time.

First, on ACORN: I believe ACORN/Project Vote's voter registration
campaign is doing exactly what it is supposed to do - pose a serious
enough challenge to power to call forth a serious response. It's
fascinating to watch this battle, unequal as it is, because the battle is
now truly joined, at least electorally. It also illustrates the hobbled
political discourse that the left is forced to limit itself to, as
"socialist" is thrown around as a dreaded epithet even as commentators
raise the question "Is it socialist to nationalize bank ownership?" the
most important thing is that ACORN, like Obama (and unlike Kerry and Gore)
has come back swinging hard at the attacks, and must continue to do so. I
support the internal struggle ACORN is undergoing to change top leadership
and bring fresh air and light into the organization.

One thing my research indicates: I think confrontational direct action
(only a part of ACORN's repertoire of contention) forges solidarity and
internal cohesion, consistent with other social movement research.

here's the book:


Heidi J. Swarts
University of Minnesota Social Movements, Protest, and Contention Series,
volume 28.

My key arguments are:

1) ACORN and faith-based community organizing are neither “better” nor
“worse” than one another; rather, ACORN has contributed a unique
movement-building campaigns, and successful national campaigns active
simultaneously at multiple levels). In contrast, while it has also
developed policy innovations, the truly unique contribution of
congregation-based organizing is its unique CULTURAL STRATEGY– ideas and
norms that links time-tested organizing ideas to “values,” which a shared
basis in religion encourages. But its interfaith nature and broad basis in
shared values could be taken up by secular organizations.

2) Community organizing has produced countless public policy innovations
rising from the local to state and even national levels, for which it
receives little recognition by scholars or the public. The book seeks to
remedy that neglect and documents, including an appendix of all the
“wins”, in dollars or number of people affected, I could verify for ACORN
(from 1990 on), the Gamaliel Foundation, and the PICO National Network. I
document many millions of dollars in redistributive impact.

The book also includes four case studies of locals that illuminate the
processes by which they produce results: one ACORN local and one
faith-based community organization each, in St. Louis (Gamaliel affiliate)
and San Jose (PICO affiliate). Research includes 200 interviews, archival
data, a year of full-time participant-observation split between the two
cities, a decade of research, as well as my own experience organizing.

swarts at

Discussion list for COMM-ORG wrote:
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> [ed:  developments with ACORN are coming very quickly, and are worth 
> following.  First below is a post from Nathan.  Also, a New York Times 
> article discusses an internal report to ACORN.  See 
> for the Times article "Acorn Report Raises Issues of Legality." (this 
> article was behind a member logon for me, so you may need to do a search 
> for the article title if the url does not work).  ACORN's response 
> includes a statement from the lawyer who issued the report and disputes 
> the spin of the Times article.   ACORN has also announced Bertha Lewis's 
> selection as chief organizer.  I do not find these two things on their 
> website, so am sending them out from their e-mail list.  The ACORN 
> website, has a great deal of reading on all of 
> this.  There are clearly many issues to be discussed here.  Passions for 
> and against ACORN are both very strong, and I encourage a careful, 
> reflective analysis.  Some thoughts from me at the end.]
> From: "Nathan Henderson-James" <nathanhj at>
> ACORN and Brave New Films have released a video responding directly the 
> attacks on ACORN's voter registration work. You can find it here: 
> Feel free to watch and send around. People need to see the truth about 
> ACORN's work.
> Nathan Henderson-James
> ************************8
> From: Steven Kest <legrep at>
> October 22, 2008
> To:  ACORN friends and allies
> Fr:  Steven Kest and Bertha Lewis
> We wanted to let you know about an article in this morning's New York 
> Times which is inaccurate and misleading in the extreme.
> The article, headlined "ACORN Report Raises Issues of Legality", 
> misconstrues beyond recognition a June 2008 confidential report prepared 
> to guide ACORN's board in the wake of ACORN founder Wade Rathke's 
> departure from the organization.
> The ACORN board, fully cognizant of its responsibilities as stewards of 
> the organization, took a number of steps in early June to ensure that 
> the organization was being effectively and appropriately managed.  They 
> brought in an outside accounting firm to review the organization's 
> financial procedures.  They asked the Sidley Austin law firm to examine 
> decisions made in 1999-2000 regarding the embezzlement of organizational 
> funds by Rathke's brother.  And they asked outside counsel Beth 
> Kingsley, of Harmon Curran, to conduct a full review of governance, 
> corporate structure, and related issues for ACORN and its affiliated 
> organizations.
> An early draft of Kingsley's report, which was presented to the full 
> board at its June 20th meeting, found its way to Stephanie Strom of the 
> Times and was the basis for her article this morning.
> The report made a long list of recommendations for improving governance 
> of ACORN and its family of organizations.  Virtually all of these 
> recommendations were adopted or are in the process of being adopted.  
> Affiliate boards were strengthened.  New board policies were adopted, 
> including protections for whistleblowers, prohibitions on conflicts of 
> interest and nepotism, and requirements for document retention.  And 
> additional safeguards to ensure that all funds are spent appropriately 
> were put in place.
> Given the heightened scrutiny that ACORN's civic engagement work was 
> likely to encounter during an election year (an expectation which has 
> been amply born out in the last several weeks), Kingsley's report 
> discussed the relationship between ACORN and Project Vote.  Kingsley 
> recommended that ACORN and Project Vote pay close attention to 
> documenting the strictly non-partisan nature of the voter registration 
> drives carried out jointly by ACORN and Project Vote.  She suggested 
> this because it is good policy and practice, and, she wrote, in order to 
> "create a solid defense against whatever accusations might be thrown at 
> them".  Throughout the report she said certain steps "must be taken in 
> order to fully protect the organization against its enemies' 
> allegations".  Nowhere in Kingsley's report is there any hint that this 
> work was being conducted outside the letter of the law.  To the 
> contrary:  her report argued that we needed to do a better job of 
> documenting that the work was being conducted appropriately and in a 
> non-partisan fashion, so that we could incontrovertibly prove this when 
> we were attacked.
> Here is Beth Kingsley's statement in response to the Times article
>     Statement of Elizabeth Kingsley
>  >>begin quote>>
>     Ms. Strom's article in today's New York Times misrepresents the 
> purpose and context of my June memo as well as  my conclusions and 
> recommendations.  I was providing confidential advice to a group of 
> organizations that I knew would come under just the sort of politically 
> motivated attacks we have seen this fall.  My advice was offered for the 
> organizations to be prepared to defend themselves against any imaginable 
> allegation that might be brought.  Accordingly, I flagged areas where I 
> had concerns about their ability to affirmatively and formally prove the 
> absence of legal violations.  This is a far cry from stating that any 
> actual violation had occurred or even that it may have.
>     The report that Ms. Strom describes was delivered to the ACORN board 
> less than two weeks after I began work on the project.  It was based on 
> an examination of procedural and structural relationships, not extensive 
> field work to examine specific transactions or operations. It identified 
> potential weaknesses in the ability to prove a negative - that funds 
> were not misused.  My report did not analyze the use of any 501(c)(3) 
> funds or Project Vote's operations, other than to say that "I am not 
> worried about the content of this program" from the 501(c)(3) 
> perspective, based on all my knowledge of that program.  
>     Regarding the relationship between ACORN and Project Vote and the 
> use of charitable funds, the legal standard is an ill-defined "facts and 
> circumstances" analysis.  In the face of such a vague and subjective 
> legal test, a cautious approach will advise stricter and clearer 
> separation than would be absolutely required.  Knowing that political 
> attacks would be coming, I used strong language to alert the 
> organizations to the need to take such a careful approach, saying that 
> they "must take certain steps in order to fully protect the organization 
> against its enemies' allegations."  I did not say "must do this in order 
> to follow the law."  I said I "cannot confirm", based on my review to 
> that time, how strategic decisions had been made based on the 
> information I had compiled in those two weeks.  I had uncovered and 
> reported no evidence that decisions had been made improperly.  I did not 
> by any means conclude that there was "potentially improper use of 
> charitable dollars for political purposes." 
>     Indeed,  the written contract governing the joint voter registration 
> efforts between Project Vote and ACORN requires that all work be 
> scrupulously nonpartisan, and that both take steps to ensure that their 
> operations provide neither support nor opposition, assistance or 
> hindrance to any candidate or party.  There is a procedure for selecting 
> jurisdictions that gives Project Vote staff the right to make final 
> selections based on its own research and nonpartisan criteria.  ACORN 
> must certify that any targeting recommendations it might make are based 
> on nonpartisan considerations only.  
>     The law does not prohibit people wearing two hats, or playing a role 
> in a nonpartisan charity while also being politically involved in a 
> different capacity.  I raised concerns about such situations because of 
> the challenge for an embattled organization of proving that certain 
> decision-making was insulated from political considerations.  There is 
> absolutely no IRS guidance that requires such separation of roles.  In 
> fact, recent guidance indicates that an individual's work for a charity 
> will not necessarily be tainted by their political involvement outside 
> of that role.  However, to avoid the nearly impossible task of having to 
> prove a negative, a charity that expects to be challenged does well to 
> go beyond the minimum legal requirements.
>     My June memo was intended to encourage the organizations to create a 
> solid defense against whatever accusations might be thrown at them, not 
> to state a legal baseline that had not been met.  
> <<end quote<<
> In summary, and contrary to the implications of the Times story, 
> Kingsley's report is an example of an organization and its board taking 
> comprehensive steps to improve its governance and ensure that its work 
> is conducted in accordance with all appropriate laws.
> **********************************
> From: Brian Kettenring <fieldrdso at>
> Immediate Release
> October 21, 2008
> For More Information
> Contact Brian Kettenring
> flacornho at or 727-692-7215
> Bertha Lewis Named Chief Organizer of ACORN
> Announces Clean Break with the Past, Vision for the Future
> October 21, 2008 ~ Bertha Lewis has been officially named Chief 
> Organizer of ACORN.  Ms. Lewis had been acting as Interim Chief 
> Organizer since Wade Rathke resigned.
> In an October 19th board meeting at ACORN~s national headquarters in New 
> Orleans, Bertha Lewis was elected Chief Organizer by an overwhelming 
> margin (43-5), eliminating the "Interim" from her title.  Bertha 
> previously held the position of Executive Director of New York ACORN.  
> Bertha has more than 20 years experience as an organizer working for 
> affordable housing and social justice, and has worked for New York ACORN 
> since 1992.
> During her tenure as Executive Director, New York ACORN has organized 
> tens of thousands of families in low-income neighborhoods, and won 
> landmark victories on the state and local level.  In 2002, Lewis helped 
> to form a city-wide coalition of labor, religious, community and 
> political groups that passed a new Living Wage law in City Council, 
> covering over 50,000 New Yorkers. Recent achievements include successful 
> campaigns to save 6,000 units of affordable housing in Brooklyn~s 
> Starrett City Housing complex and winning union representation for 
> 28,000 Home Childcare Providers.
> A native of Philadelphia, Lewis originally came to New York as a theater 
> producer and became an education activist.  In a protracted battle with 
> the city of New York and a notorious landlord, Lewis became a tenant and 
> housing rights leader, and in 1988 she went to work for the Banana Kelly 
> Community Organization as a tenant and community organizer.
> Frequently seen commenting on social justice issues in the New York 
> Times and other national and local press, Lewis was named ~one of the 
> 100 Most Influential Women of New York 2007, by Crain's magazine and one 
> of the state's "Influentials" in politics by New York magazine 2006.
> Following her appointment to national Chief Organizer, Ms. Lewis said 
> "This represents a new beginning for ACORN.  After 38 years under one 
> Chief Organizer, the Board has made a clean break from the past.  I am 
> honored to have the confidence of the board, and I am 150% committed to 
> ensuring ACORN remains the most powerful community organization of low- 
> and moderate-income families in the nation.  We are proud of all ACORN 
> has accomplished and are determined to make it even more transparent and 
> effective in fighting for policies that help all low- and 
> moderate-income families in the years ahead.~
> During this meeting, the board reviewed governance issues, adopted a 
> number of policies, and set a new direction for the future of the 
> organization.  The board adopted a set of governance and procedural 
> policies including:
>     * A Conflict of Interest Policy
>     * A Whistleblower Protection Policy
>     * An Anti-Nepotism Policy
>     * A Document Retention and Destruction Policy
> ACORN Board Member Marie Pierre, the National Delegate for New York, and 
> Northeast Regional Representative, said, ~This board meeting was 
> structured differently than any before.  We received documents in 
> advance, had opportunities to review those documents, and were given an 
> opportunity to have real input.  Bertha, since being named Interim Chief 
> Organizer, has promoted an open door policy.~
> The board also discussed and is moving forward on:
>     * Establishing an audit committee, which will report directly to the 
> board.
>     * Establishing a committee to direct legal counsel in the 
> organization's efforts to disentangle organizations in its network or 
> using its name from its former chief organizer, Wade Rathke.
>     * Finalizing payment schedules for tax payments that fell behind 
> schedule during the period immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck 
> its national headquarters in New Orleans.
>     * Encouraging each of the entities in the network of organizations 
> that ACORN helps to lead, to examine and, where appropriate, strengthen 
> its own board and governance structures
> In addition, recognizing that any organization that has as big an impact 
> on public policy as ACORN will always be under attack, it will be taking 
> additional steps to even more fully document the policies and procedures 
> that already ensure that all work conducted with 501~3 funds are 
> entirely non-partisan and that all other appropriate legal boundaries 
> continue to be scrupulously maintained.
> Rev. Gloria Swieringa, Chair of Maryland ACORN and head of Maryland's 
> predatory lending work, was optimistic about the board's progress. 
> "We've obviously been through a traumatic time recently, but in a way 
> it's been a blessing in disguise.  This has given us an opportunity to 
> reaffirm the organization's goals, and define more efficient processes, 
> and I feel confident about the direction we're heading."
>  *****************************
> [ed:  as full disclosure, I worked with ACORN in a program partnering 
> with community development corporations trying to do community 
> organizing in Toledo Ohio, and with their grassroots school improvement 
> campaign in Chicago, both about a decade ago, and more recently and 
> briefly with a nascent organizing effort in Madison, so I have some 
> experience with the group.  My experience with the other major 
> organizing networks has been much more fleeting and indirect--mostly 
> with IAF and DART.  Most of my experience has been with about a dozen 
> other "unaffiliated" groups who do various versions of community 
> organizing. 
> Based on this experience and what I have read, ACORN seems distinct in 
> its approach and strategy, working more with the poorest communities and 
> with more of a traditional confrontational strategy.  If I am correct 
> (and I admit that I may not be), what are the implications of such a 
> model?  Is such a model more likely to introduce internal conflict as 
> well as external conflict?  What are the strengths and vulnerabilities 
> of a community organizing group that has a more confrontational 
> strategy?  ACORN also, in contrast to most (if not all) of the other 
> networks, has until recently had the same leader since its founding.  My 
> sense is there have been fairly dramatic shifts in focus and strategy 
> with the other networks as new leaders have stepped in.  I'm not talking 
> here about whether long-term leadership necessarily leads to corruption, 
> but the risks and benefits of such a structure in a changing context.  
> Or does the heat being generated around and within ACORN show the 
> continuing importance of its approach and perhaps the context has not 
> changed as much as we thought? 
> As you can see, my questions are less about ACORN than they are about 
> broader community organizing theory (for me a ground-level theory of 
> practice but theory nonetheless).  It is really easy to "psychologize" 
> what is going on with ACORN--to treat it as a consequence of the 
> personalities of either its supporters or detractors.  I don't discount 
> the role of personalities, but I think our culture is too comfortable 
> with a psychological, individualist analysis to the neglect of a 
> sociological, systems analysis.  What are the broader political economic 
> systems at play here, and how does an ACORN-style strategy fit in with 
> those systems?  More specifically, what are the risks of massive voter 
> registration strategies, employing people who have been historically 
> excluded from education, income, and political access?  What are the 
> risks of not using such a strategy?  What are the risks of jumping into 
> the political fray for an organization trying to manage and keep 
> 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) functions separate?  What are the risks 
> associated with an organizational strategy that operates with as little 
> funding as possible compared to an organizational strategy that requires 
> much higher levels of funding to provide higher income and job security 
> for organizers?
> ACORN is in the news, but these issues reach much further than ACORN, 
> and my hope is that we can have this broader and deeper discussion.  
> There are certainly questions of fact on which some of the answers hinge 
> (and which we may not be able to establish), but I hope to avoid a 
> superficial "is ACORN good or bad" charge-counter-charge go-around.  And 
> certainly feel welcomed to question my questions as I may be unwittingly 
> assuming things that are not accurate.]
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